One month on the job as Governor Mecham’s press secretary, I was getting more than one hundred press calls a day — sometimes more than two hundred. So, in a triage of who to call back, I would return calls of those journalists I regarded as competent and honest, especially from large out-of-state newspapers.
Paul Rubin, who concocted the story below, was at the bottom of calls to be returned. I had no respect for his writing and reporting and even less for him personally. I just didn’t like the guy. Despite his complaint about not having my home phone number, many journalists did have it. I had been receiving crank calls late at night. I had no idea who was responsible, but I thought it wise to reduce the possibilities.
Rubin quotes Republic-Gazette publisher Pat Murphy about a phone conversation I had with Murphy. That was some sloppy note-taking by either Rubin or Murphy, or probably both of them. I never used the phrase “high class journalists”, however I did refer to incompetent journalists.
During this heated encounter, several reporters were screaming “First Amendment” and asking incredibly stupid questions about the signature machine in the governor’s office — all of which had been answered earlier in the day. I laughed at their silliness and said, “The First Amendment does not require that l return your phone calls.” I never understood why, but this joking comment incensed the gaggle of stenographers.
– Ken Smith
October 28, 1987
By Paul Rubin
New Times (Phoenix)
A reporter who covers Evan Mecham says there is no doubt what the gravestone of the governors new press aide should say: “Here lies Ken Smith. He didn’t know.”
When Mecham appointed Kenneth V. Smith in early September to replace Ron Bellus as his chief liaison with the media, reporters were happy. The capitol press corps was tired of nine months of war with Bellus. Reporters saw Smith, a 42-year-old former newspaperman who was the spokesman for the County Supervisors Association of California, as a savvy press secretary who might actually be professional at media relations.
The party is over. Smith has soured the capitol reporters so much in such a short time that they pine for the days of Bellus.
The problem with Smith is both style and substance, the reporters contend. For the sake of fairness, reporters on daily newspapers often have to get comment from press secretaries at odd hours on late-breaking or controversial stories. It’s a press secretary’s job to make his boss’s life easier by handling such late-night work. But Smith, the reporters say, is practically inaccessible, and when he does call back (he didn’t return repeated phone calls from New Times for this story), he often says little more than “l don’t know.”
What perhaps irks reporters the most is that Smith routinely goes over their heads to their bosses with what reporters see as bogus complaints. “He called me the other night and said, ‘What right does one of your reporters have to call me at ten at night with a dumb question?” says R&G publisher Pat Murphy. “He kept repeating himself with, ‘You people are incompetent. l’m used to dealing with high-class journalists from the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. I just let him ramble.”
A few checks reveal that when Smith was in California, he hardly was a high-profile spokesman to the “big boys” of the press.
Relations between the capitol press corps and Smith now are openly hostile. Witness this recent bickering between Smith and reporters from the Arizona Republic, Phoenix Gazette, and Associated Press as a host of other reporters and photographers looked on.
At issue was Smiths home phone number — a ridiculous issue because press secretaries routinely give their numbers to reporters.
At the same time, reporters also were wondering how the governor’s name wound up on the fund-raising letter that urged conservatives to move to Arizona to help Mecham fight homosexuals and liberals. Smith had told them at least two versions of the signatures origin, and Mecham angrily brushed aside questions, saying the signature issue was a “one-day event.
What follows between Smith and the reporters is slightly edited for clarity:
“We’d all like to get ahold of you. What is your home phone number?”
“l‘m having one installed right now.”
“What is it right now?”
“l don’t know.“
“The First Amendment does not require that I return your phone calls.”
“l‘m at the office twelve hours a day right now.”
“But you do not return our calls. You do not give us answers to our questions when you’re at that office.”
“How does that coincide with your conversation in California saying that you had no problem with home phone numbers? So because you don’t have an answering machine, we’re going to have to disturb the governor in the evening by calling him at home. Ken, l can’t believe you’re serious. It’s your job, for chrissakes. You make $62,500 a year.”
“l’m working twelve hours a day right now.”
“I’m callable 24 hours a day.”
“So am l.”
“But not by us.”
“You will be in time.”
“In time’? What about tonight? What is your home phone number, Ken? That is the question.”
“l’m reachable. If there’s an emergency, call DPS.”
“You still haven’t answered the question. Why does the governor not want to answer to us about the signature on that letter?”
“l think he’s already answered that.”
“Did he sign the letter?”
“I think he said it was a signature machine.”
“ls there an effort to find out or is it gonna kind of just disappear or hopefully disappear?”
“It’s really not high on my priorities right now. There’s a lot more important things going on. l’d love to see someone taping this. This is more than a one-story town.”
The reporters never have found out who signed Mecham’s name to the fund-raising letter. They did, however, get Smith’s home phone number — through sources.