April 20, 1989
Ms. Ellen Goodman
The Boston Globe
Dear Ms. Goodman:
Well, damn it. If the news media have a difficult time with complexities, they sure ain’t going to welcome the notion of independent invention. Here I am struggling to produce a book and writing infrequent articles about politics and journalism and you rush into print with the same thoughts and words I have written. One string of six words you wrote on the ASNE meeting was identical to a sentence of mine: “The real bias is against complexity.”
l am the public relations (former) genius the Republicans brought to Arizona in 1987 to save the troubled Governor Evan Mecham. I was not able to change the behavior or image of Mecham, but the experience provided me with a marvelous case study on how the news media use and are used by politicians.
I have long been interested in claims by both left wingers and right wingers that the news media are biased toward the opposite ends of their political poles. Logically, both sides could not be right but both could be wrong. The real bias is against complexity. (What a wonderful sentence!)
ln my direct personal involvement in the coverage of Mecham’s impeachment, I was frustrated but fascinated by my inability to get the media to do anything beyond the story line of “Bigoted Bozo Governor Thrown Out Of Office.” The irreversible, shallow news theme had Mecham as the devil incarnate and all who opposed him as unselfish saviors protecting the American way. Black and white, no shades of grey.
Mecham was not blameless. He relished being on stage, but could not see how his off-the-cuff comments to reporters were self-destructive. Without his co-operation, it was not possible to shift the coverage from style to substance. The real reason Mecham was impeached was because he volunteered as bait for a national media feeding frenzy.
Over my strong objections, Mecham once accepted an invitation to be interviewed by Ted Koppel. I knew that nothing good would come out of it, but Mecham had been enticed by “an opportunity to tell the other side of the story.” Once he had committed to appearing on the show, I coached him on how to shift from sensational questions to discussions of what he had accomplished.
As I anticipated, Mecham was asked and dodged repeated questions on his views toward homosexuality. He tried to focus on the positive things he had accomplished in office, including being the first governor in Arizona history to appoint a black and an Indian to cabinet level positions and establishing a foreign trade office in Taiwan and a tough anti-drug program. Mecham was stubborn. Koppel was persistent. The exchange produced nothing.
“Your accomplishments are not what have made you a national figure,” Koppel said. That’s right, Ted. What TV viewers want is a little gay-bashing from an amusing redneck.
In addition to the similar sentence, there is another reason I am writing to a Boston Globe columnist. In trying to understand Mecham and the news media, I found an essay by a former Boston Globe editorial writer which was precisely on point. Martin Linsky, now with the John F. Kennedy School of Government, perfectly described the actions of the news media in covering the short, stormy incumbency of Evan Mecham. He was writing about the news media generally and not Arizona politics, but l now take every opportunity to recommend “The Media and Public Deliberation,” in the book The Power of Public Ideas, edited by Robert Reich, also of the Kennedy School.
When one reporter for Arizona’s largest newspaper broke the three stories that led to the three major charges against Mecham, I asked his competitors why they were not more angry about not being selected as conduits for official leaks. I suggested to competing reporters that they break with tradition and write an article about “official sources” leaking materials damaging to Mecham. These and similar suggestions were not received well by the reporters who clustered to cover Mecham.
When the attorney general and the legislative prosecutors gave copies of subpoenas to the press before the original was delivered to Governor Mecham, it should have been obvious to even the greenest reporter that the media were being used to generate public antipathy toward Mecham. Looking for impartial support for my side of the argument and willing to try anything, l photocopied Linsky’s essay and gave it to several key reporters. I asked the reporters to pause and consider their personal role in the first impeachment of a governor in 60 years. l highlighted a dozen or so passages, including:
Linsky: “Objectivity permits coverage of accusations when they are formal — that is, when they are filed in writing with some public body, whether or not they bear any relationship to the truth. Filing charges takes more effort, but does it signal more truth?”
In Mecham’s case, the charges became the truth. He was convicted in a State Senate Court of Impeachment on two charges. The first was obstructing justice regarding a murder threat, but no one has ever been arrested, let alone prosecuted and convicted, on an alleged death threat. On the second charge of loaning state funds to his auto dealership, Mecham is continuing his claim that the money has never belonged to the state. Today, the same $80,000 which was used as the basis for removing Mecham from office sits in Mecham’s private bank account, despite legal efforts by the state to get the money given to the state. Other highlights given to the reporters:
Linsky: “… objective journalism dictates that whatever important people say is news, whether or not it is well founded or true. The classic and most obvious perversion of objectivity in this regard was the scope given to Senator Joseph McCarthy for his baseless accusations.”
Linsky: “Objectivity is different from truth. It is a way of carrying on the business of reporting, a method that helps insulate the news organization from criticism because everything reported is so easily verifiable. Truth is something else altogether, much more elusive, and much more important to the deliberation over public affairs.”
Linsky: “When journalists cast themselves as outsiders in public affairs to relieve themselves of the worry about consequences, they not only raise ethical questions of responsibility, but also fly in the face of reality.”
Linsky: “…an item that squares with consumers’ existing notions of how the world works is more likely to be news than if it runs counter to those expectations.”
Consequently, when the news media learned that Mecham had been secretly attending services at black churches it was a one-day story in Arizona newspapers and not covered by television news. There was a brief AP rewrite, which did not make the national wire. There were no newspaper analyses nor editorials on Mecham attending black churches.
Linsky: “News organizations function a bit like the chorus in a Greek drama, commenting to the audience on the actors’ performances, interpreting their conduct, sometimes interacting with them. Although not central characters in the plot, they are set apart from the audience and are just as integral to the events of the drama as are the actors.”
Linsky: “Difficult as it is to engage the press on the subject of its role in public deliberation and its obligations to the conduct of public affairs, it is even more challenging to effect changes in practice. The central foundations of the practice of contemporary journalism (to the extent that they can be determined inductively, since they are not written down) run counter to the vision of public deliberation over public ideas.”
These last two profound, beautifully crafted thoughts by Linsky on American journalism are the seeds, the foundation, for a book I am putting together on the participatory role of the news media in the impeachment of Evan Mecham. Of course, Mecham was seen as an insensitive, obnoxious jerk. But, that is not a felony in Arizona nor should it have been an impeachable offense. Combining Linsky and Goodman, objective news is not complex. The real story has many facets, and you and I now know there is a bias against complexity.
My efforts to save Mecham were not terribly popular among my colleagues in either the media or politics. l wore a hair shirt for a year for my sins. In the past month, I have started coming out of the closet with guest columns, articles, radio talk shows, and all that. l am enclosing a recent column from the Phoenix Gazette which touches on the issue of this either/or approach to political news coverage. Also, the National Review in its May 5 issue will have an article of mine on Arizona’s Christian right and Mecham’s campaign to regain the governor’s office.
Please excuse the long letter. But, I believe there is still a good column to be written about Mecham, especially now that he is campaigning again. I guarantee that if you approach current Arizona politics with the assumption there is a media bias against complexity you will be ahead of the pack. Other than the editorials which appeared last year in The Wall Street Journal, no newspaper has captured what really happened with Mecham’s impeachment.
Kenneth V. Smith
Editorial Page Editors