Newspaper: Press Release Masquerading as Marijuana News Story Was "Oversight"

The Verde Independent, a 67-year-old newspaper based in Cottonwood, isn't living up to its motto as the "trusted news leader" for Verde Valley communities.

On Saturday, the paper's online and print editions published what looked like a news article about a group of Valley residents busted in connection with a suspected illegal marijuana-growing operation in Seligman, But it really was a Sheriff's Office news release with an opinionated title that could almost have been written by Sheila Polk, the Yavapai County Attorney and outspoken critic of marijuana legalization.

"Yavapai ends medical marijuana fraud," the headline stated, following up with the subhead: "Think you live outside the 25-mile radius? Think again."

The article that follows contains no byline, and the accompanying photo is attributed as a courtesy handout.

Nothing's there to tip the reader off that the article is a barely altered plagiarization of a news release issued over the weekend by Dwight D'Evelyn, Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office media-relations coordinator. (See below for a PDF version of the actual release.)

It's an interesting news release, for sure:

Six men, including two from Mesa, two from Glendale, and one from Tempe, have been accused of violating the medical-marijuana program by pretending to live in the remote town of Seligman. Under the state's voter-approved Medical Marijuana Act, authorized patients can grow up to 12 cannabis plants if they live more than 25 miles away from an operating dispensary. Fifty-two plants and several firearms were found during a raid of a Seligman property owned by the Tempe suspect, 36-year-old Steven Walker, who reportedly also had 82 more plants at his Tempe home. That investigation led to the bust of another Seligman property running the same type of scheme, according to the news release.

A Yavapai County-based law enforcement group, the Partner’s Against Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, conducted the investigation that led to the arrests. Polk happens to be an influential board member of both PANT and the substance-abuse coalition MATFORCE, which is combating the legalization push in Arizona with its "Marijuana Harmless? Think Again" campaign.

As New Times exposed in a May article, Polk helped direct $50,000 in public funds from PANT to MATFORCE. Polk confirmed at the time that the money was used in part to fund anti-marijuana billboards in the Phoenix area.

Polk and PANT obviously don't need to do much advertising in Yavapai County — not with the likes of the Verde Independent playing their tune. The paper is owned by Yuma-based Western News and Info Inc., which also owns several other small newspapers in Arizona.

YCSO's D'Evelyn took credit for the article when we called him. We then called the newspaper's editor, Dan Engler, for comment. He said he's been away from the office lately and that we needed to talk to managing editor Bill Helm.

"Frankly, that was an oversight," Helm said of the failure to identify the piece as a Sheriff's Office news release.

It doesn't look like a simple "oversight," given the minor, yet noticeable, alterations in the text of D'Evelyn's piece.

We asked Helm if he planned to fix the problem and put proper attribution on the news article.

"I'm gonna take a look at that and deal with that accordingly," he said.

We also asked Helm about the sub-headline, and how it riffed off the MATFORCE campaign. He said he wasn't sure if the headline was part of D'Evelyn's news release.

D'Evelyn said he didn't write the headline, but it wasn't the first time he'd seen the paper put a slant in a headline on top of his news releases.

"I don't really care," he said. "It's their newspaper."

Following New Times' call to Helm this morning, the newspaper changed the headline and subhead. It now says: "Six men arrested in marijuana-growing operation: Additional charges are likely from the County Attorney's Office."

But the "article" still contains no byline or attribution to the YCSO. We've seen other small newspapers run government news releases that resemble articles, of course, but usually they contain some disclaimer as to the source.

Another recent headline in the Verde Independent that seemed to contain anti-legalization bias ran on Friday over an article by Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services about state Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Fischer's article was published by various other Arizona news outlets — see if you can spot the work of the Verde paper's headline writer. Click on the links to see if you guessed correctly:

"STATE: Brnovich reverses course on public campaigns"

"Brnovich changes tune on ballot 'education' campaigns'"

"Attorney General flips, bans public funds for anti-pot campaign"

"Rules of the marijuana legalization game take another new twist"

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.