Page 7 of 13

"Dowd's letters had no effect on our reporting," said the Washington Post's Richard Weintraub, assistant financial editor. "I can't recall whether we've ever written back. If we had, it would have been a one-liner, 'Thanks for writing.'"
Which is, of course, the response you expect from an editor at the Washington Post.

But the journalist at the Post whose reporting was the subject of repeated letters from Dowd wasn't nearly so cocky. In fact, she declined to characterize the effect of Dowd upon coverage of Symington.

"I would hate to be quoted," said Susan Schmidt. "It's a sensitive thing around here with people because of all these letters."
Dowd, too, disagrees with Weintraub's high-minded assertion that the lawyer's letters "had no effect on our reporting."

"The Post was gracious to meet with us and subsequently ran a long story presenting both sides of the controversy," said Dowd. Schmidt's longest article on Southwest and Symington appeared shortly after the sit-down with Dowd and quoted the governor extensively.

Dowd said there is nothing heavy-handed about his methods. "I am not aware of any member of the media complaining about being intimidated. I have not observed any intimidation. On the contrary, the letters have led to very constructive meetings, a willingness to listen and a better understanding of the facts with the Washington Post, the Mesa Tribune and the Arizona Republic, for which we are grateful. Since the governor is a public person and has been the subject of defamatory stories, we are obliged to make an effort to set the record straight."

The media that have faced the threat of litigation from Dowd invariably turn the demands over to their libel attorneys. From that quarter, however, a less-flattering perspective on Dowd's tactics has emerged.

"It seemed to me that he has an ignorance of certain First Amendment protections to which the media is entitled," said David Sternlicht, staff attorney for Capital Cities ABC Inc., the giant media conglomerate that owns Institutional Investor.

Dowd will not tolerate such criticism.
"I lost my brother and risked the life of my son and was prepared to risk my life--all for my country to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and its amendments, including the free press. I was for 13 years sworn to uphold and defend the freedom of the press. I never violated that oath. I resent anyone questioning my commitment to the Constitution or preaching to me about the First Amendment . . . the press is not free to destroy the reputation of a man with false information." Assertions of patriotism did not enter into Sternlicht's assessment of Dowd. "Dowd has an excellent reputation in his field," says Sternlicht. "He's very aggressive, but what his letter said to me was that this guy is not a libel attorney."
Mesa Tribune libel attorney Dan Barr concurred. "When you first read one of his letters, you are taken aback by his tone," said Barr. "But once you get over the initial shock value, there is not much there."

@body:Expert legal counsel may think that Dowd is not the libel bar's Pavarotti, but that has not kept Dowd off the stage. Worse, those ensnared in one of Dowd's grand operas find themselves exchanging arias with someone who appears tone deaf.

Consider for a moment a Dowd outburst that is irrelevant to Symington's ultimate guilt or innocence.

Arizona was astounded on September 13 last year when the Washington Post revealed the contents of an internal RTC document. In the article, Susan Schmidt cited point after embarrassing point that federal lawyers were alleging in an effort to persuade superiors to sue Symington.

Three months later, the top echelon at the RTC was persuaded, and in December, Symington was named in a lawsuit for his actions on the board of Southwest Savings and Loan.

At a televised press conference that same month, the governor went on the offensive, attacking federal regulators who brought the suit because neither the governor nor his attorney had been given the opportunity to tell his side of the Esplanade investment prior to being sued.

Now, in fact, this is a smoke screen. The government has no obligation to consult with Symington on a case that is so clearly built on the record.

Still, if you listened to Symington in December, when he was sued, you would think he was the victim--instead of the taxpayers who will have to foot the bill for the outrageous losses.

"All they had to do was pick up the phone," said Symington, referring to the RTC and sounding hurt. "And they never, they have not asked me, they have not asked my attorney to clarify this transaction."
Yes, federal regulators could have met with the targets of the lawsuits to gather more information; yes, they could have sat down to negotiate a settlement. They were obligated to do neither.

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.
Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey