Last week, the East Valley Tribune ran an exclusive front-page, top-of-the-fold story reporting that one congressional candidate's investigation into the personal finances of another candidate revealed absolutely no wrongdoing.
Amazingly, the story, by veteran political reporter Mark Flatten, has been all over radio, television and the local papers for the past week. Prescott TV talk-show host Sam Steiger has worked himself into a lather over it, day after day. The story prompted the state's largest newspaper to challenge two of the candidates to take lie detector tests -- which they did.
The two combative candidates are Susan Bitter Smith and Tom Liddy. The supposed target of the investigation is Jeff Flake. They are three of five Republicans running in the East Valley's First Congressional District. And here's how the media fueled the story:
On August 30, the Tribune reported that Tom Liddy had blown the whistle on dirty politicking by Susan Bitter Smith. Liddy told Flatten that Bitter Smith had approached him the previous week with investigative materials on Flake.
Flatten listened to Liddy, reviewed the documents and agreed that there was no wrongdoing. He wrote a story headlined, "Hopeful says he snubbed dirt deal," without revealing any of the details of what Flatten called the "extensive background investigation." Liddy says he made Flatten agree not to use Flake's name or the details.
The airwaves were buzzing by day's end. Bitter Smith and Liddy appeared on Grant Woods' talk show on KFYI radio, where Bitter Smith revealed that Jeff Flake was the candidate mentioned in the documents.
The following day, September 1, both the Tribune and the Arizona Republic reported that Liddy and Flake had together shredded Bitter Smith's documents, without Flake ever sullying his eyes with a peek, and that the documents had something to do with Flake's real estate holdings. That same day, Republic cartoonist Steve Benson escalated the media frenzy with a drawing that labeled Bitter Smith as "Gutter Smith."
In media lingo, this story had legs.
Bitter Smith confirms that she gave Liddy the documents. He says she offered them. She says he asked. Liddy says the document she gave him was a 108-page, professionally created investigator's report; she says it was 40-some pages printed off the Internet by a volunteer. Liddy says Bitter Smith told him to leak the report to the press; she says she never said that.
Flatten quoted Liddy as saying Bitter Smith was "untruthful." On Grant Woods' show Thursday night, Bitter Smith called Liddy "a liar."
On Friday, Judy Eisenhower, a longtime aide to the late U.S. senator Barry Goldwater, approached Republic reporter Jon Kamman at a candidates' forum sponsored by the Scottsdale Republican Women's Club and told him she had conducted the Bitter Smith research herself, as a volunteer. At that same luncheon, moderator Laurie Roberts, a Republic columnist, challenged Liddy and Bitter Smith to take lie detector tests -- paid for by the Republic.
Now, the Republic wasn't just reporting the news; it was making it -- and then reporting it.
Bitter Smith agreed immediately. Liddy said he would agree, with some conditions. He wanted to consult with his campaign attorney, who was on vacation. He says Kamman told him that if he didn't quickly agree to take the test, the Republic would write a story saying he refused.
Liddy took the test Monday at 8 a.m. Bitter Smith rescheduled several times during the Labor Day weekend. When, by late Monday afternoon, she still hadn't taken the test, Liddy held a press conference to disclose his results and then went on the Grant Woods show to castigate Bitter Smith. Turns out she took her test early Monday evening. (Both campaigns say they will pay for the tests themselves, despite the Republic's offer.)
The irony is that Liddy and Bitter Smith each passed their lie detector tests. That wouldn't have been hard to predict, since each candidate was allowed to formulate his/her own questions. In fact, it's possible both are telling the truth, given the way the questions were worded.
Questions still remain, and few, outside of Bitter Smith and Liddy themselves, are talking.
Flake did not return a call from New Times. (He spent the weekend on a "No Waffles Express" tour, visiting doughnut shops and shamelessly ripping off Senator John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" shtick.) Neither Flatten, Republic reader advocate Richard De Uriarte nor Republic deputy managing editor Jeff Dozbaba returned phone calls seeking comment.
Both papers continue to push the story. On Sunday, the Trib gave Bitter Smith a "brick" in its Bricks and Bouquets column for dirty campaigning and the Republic opined in an editorial, ". . . this affair has become a pathetic political side issue that demeans Arizona's most energetic and issue-oriented campaign."
But whose fault is that?
George Watson, professor of political science at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism, says he's "not pleased" by the whole episode -- from the first story to the lie detector tests.
"I think it really detracts from the campaign and doesn't speak well to any of the candidates. That's the main thing. I think it was kind of a silly exchange and I'm a bit put off by it, myself," he says.
Aly Colón, a member of the ethics faculty of The Poynter Institute, a media think tank in St. Petersburg, Florida, was surprised to hear that a newspaper is challenging candidates to take polygraph tests.
"Can you repeat that, please?" he asks, then adds, "Why don't we pull out a Ouija board?"
Colón says he doesn't really want to comment on the validity of lie detector tests, but he does criticize the Republic for offering up the test as a challenge and then reporting on the candidates' decision-making processes.
"It's an unusual and very creative way to ferret out the truth. My concern in this regard is that there are questions of the newspaper maybe inserting itself more so than normal into the process of the political campaign," he says, making the Republic's role "more interventionist than participatory."
David Leibowitz, who's gotten some mileage out of the Bitter Smith/Liddy flap himself on his KTAR radio show (he's a part-time Republic employee and a close friend of Flatten's), says he would have pursued the original story.
"I probably would have found a way to do it. I think it's an interesting story because it speaks to the hypocrisy of at least one of the candidates in the race and it gives people a good bird's eye view of what politics is like," he says.
"Would I have preferred it if the original story had revealed what was in the actual packet? Yes, absolutely. Because our job is to give people the most information as possible, and if you don't give people all the information, then you have a story that opens up more questions than it does answers."
As for the lie detector tests?
"I understand that we're in Arizona and bizarre stories have to happen in relation to politics. But I'm not so sure it's up to the media to cause those bizarre stories to happen," Leibowitz says.
But, he adds, "It's a great publicity stunt. I wish I'd thought of it. . . . Do I think it was a good idea? No. Do I think that every television station, newspaper and radio station in town was kicking themselves in the head saying, 'Hey, we should have thought of that!' Yeah, probably."