Give the governor room to breathe

The Tucson Citizen
December 4, 1987

Meet the press

Gov. Mecham’s relationship with the press is definitely love-hate. The press loves to quote Mecham, whose legendary shoot from-the-hip lip almost guarantees Page 1 play. Mecham hates it.

Lately, though, Mecham has been less co-operative. His casual remarks and off-the-cuff replies to impromptu questions have been nearly as rare as a day’s news without Mecham headlines. Some are talking about a “new Mecham” — again — who won’t hand reporters rope to hang him with.

“l’m trying to put a quick halt to that,” said Mecham Press Secretary Ken Smith. “l’ve told him not to walk and talk at the same time. If he has something to say, stop. If not, keep walking.”

But that hasn’t stopped the Phoenix press corps from mobbing Mecham as if he handed out hundred-dollar bills instead of his two-cents worth. It has gotten so frantic even some reporters are worried.

“lt is a zoo, it is a circus. lt is pack journalism at its worst,” said Smith. Gangs of 30 to 40 reporters and photographers, from newspapers, TV, radio and magazines in Arizona and all over the U.S., shove microphones and tape recorders in Mecham’s face, sometimes refusing to let him pass.

“Everyone wants to get very close to him,” Smith sail. “They have to learn they can’t block his path, they can’t block his car door. Both have happened. The govemor did in fact get hit on the lip with a microphone, and a TV reporter fell down some concrete steps. Someone is going to get hurt.”

Mecham’s security team has been told to clear the way, and Smith said reporters must realize that arrest is a last resort. “The press has no special rights.”

But arresting reporters who are trying to do their job would make a bad situation much worse. The press in most cases has no special rights, but it does have special access and a duty to tell the public what is going on. The press also has a duty to behave better. Reporters can cover the governor without smothering him.

ln the two months he has been press secretary to Gov. Mecham, Ken Smith has met the press — and he is dismayed.

“Talk about Johnny One Note wolf pack journalism,” he said. “l get a little testy with the same questioning over and over again myself.”

Asked if an open-ended press conference would cool the crush on Mecham, Smith couldn’t hide his frustration. “Quite frankly, for a variety of reasons, there is a scandal a day up here. And if we did that, it would just open it up again.”

Smith insists Mecham has answered questions on crisis after crisis, but says some reporters aren’t satisfied and keep hammering away. “A great many are trying to get a new quote to make a new story all over again.”

But Smith admitted Mecham is himself to blame. If there is a feeding frenzy on the part of the press, it’s because Mecham has thrown irresistibly choice bait in the water. Or, as Smith puts it, “This governor is most open, and it’s his openness that has hurt him.

“l asked one reporter if they did this to former Gov. Bruce Babbitt, and he said no, because Babbitt was boring.”

If Smith has his way, Mecham will be more “boring” and there won’t be any open-ended press conference soon. “From my flack point of view, the governor is overexposed. He’s the most exposed, quoted and reported upon governor in the history of the world.”

It’s easy to understand Smith’s concern. Still, regular press conferences Mecham promised as a candidate might ease the push and pull between the governor and the press and let the people judge them both.