Governor squares off with publisher

Arizona’s controversial top official delivers scathing attack against Phoenix Newspapers’ top exec; publisher stands by his paper’s coverage

Editor & Publisher
October 24, 1987

By M. L. Stein

Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham used an Associated Press forum on the ethics of covering political candidates for a surprising personal attack on Pat Murphy, publisher of the Phoenix Newspapers, who was in the audience.

The Oct. 16 panel in Phoenix was slated to focus on how far the media should go in probing the private lives of candidates in the wake of the Gary Hart incident.

In a prepared statement that was handed to the media, Mecham went after Murphy and his two papers, the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette.

pat200The governor had sniped at Murphy in previous off-the-cuff remarks, but never in a prepared speech and with such ferocity, according to observers.

Murphy was invited to the podium later to refute the governor’s remarks, which were delivered the day after he had met with state Republican leaders, who reportedly persuaded him to tone down his combative style.

Charging that he often has been portrayed unfairly in the state and national press, the controversial governor, in a tirade that stunned the audience, declared: “The root of this feeding frenzy can be placed on the desk of one person: Pat Murphy … Until now this has been a mostly one-sided feud. Mr. Murphy never liked me and l doubt that he ever will.”

Mecham accused Murphy of directing a campaign against him that has led to a spate of stories, which “have been picked up by the wire services and spread across the country.”

Mecham asserted that Murphy’s alleged vendetta has resulted in the publisher’s career being “on the line.”

“Pat Murphy now has his tail in a crack,” said the state‘s chief executive. “After l survive this assault, my hopes are the Pulliam family, which owns the Republic and Gazette, will put Mr. Murphy back on the copy desk.”

Mecham appeared at the annual meeting of the AP Association of California, Arizona, Hawaii and Nevada (APACAHN), an organization of AP member publishers and managers.

His statements came as a recall movement against him was gaining such momentum that even some state Republican leaders reportedly admitted that he probably will face a recall election.

The previous day, leaders of the drive announced they had collected 302,287 recall signatures. Legally, 216,756 are required to force an election.

Also, the day before the AP panel, the Republic and Gazette carried front-page stories reporting that Mecham’s special assistant, Sam Steiger, was being investigated for alleged extortion. He was formally charged with the offense the same day the governor spoke to the AP group.

“As some of you may be aware, I have been in the news lately,” the governor commented wryly.

Mecham has stirred an emotional debate in Arizona over his rescinding the state holiday to honor the late Rev. Martin Luther King, referring to black children as “pickaninnies,” disparaging working mothers, the quality of his appointments, asking if the pope spoke English, his statements about homosexuals and his abrasive manner.

Before attacking Murphy, Mecham protested the press has distorted his record.

“The worst lie about me is that I am a bigot, a racist and insensitive about the problems of racial minorities,” he declared. “This cancerous lie has spread across the country and has not only hurt me, but is severely damaging  Arizona.”

Mecham claimed he is the first Arizona governor to appoint a black and an Indian to cabinet-level positions.

But it was to Murphy and the Republic and Gazette that Mecham directed most of his ire.

Pointing to what he said was “one example of Mr. Murphy’s hate for me,” the feisty governor charged the publisher once remarked before a half-dozen people: “We’re going to get Mecham, the snide little bastard.“

Murphy, in an impromptu press conference following the AP program, denied flatly that he had ever made such a remark. Mecham said he has started “fighting back against Pat Murphy” by giving preference in interviews to out-of-state media. The governor also has assailed other Arizona newspapers, notably the Mesa Tribune.

The governor, however, lauded the Arizona Star in Tucson for general fairness in reporting on his administration and the Los Angeles Times for doing an “accurate profile” about him.

Noting that he had been interviewed for a CBS 60 Minutes segment, Mecham predicted that he would not get fair treatment.

“By the tone of his questions, Morley Safer came to Arizona with his script already written and he needed to get me on camera to give the appearance of fairness,” the governor declared.

Mecham explained that his goal in giving priority to “major newspapers“ in other states is “to get accurate articles about me published in respectable newspapers. My hope is that these articles will have some impact on the professional standards of those editors and reporters who work for Mr. Murphy.”

Mecham did concede in his speech that his remark about the pope was “just plain dumb.” He recalled that he posed the question after a reporter had asked him what he planned to say to the pontiff when he arrived in Phoenix during his recent U.S. tour.

“I have seen the pope on television reading English … I didn’t know whether or not the pope carried on conversations in English,” Mecham explained.

After Mecham’s tirade, the panel moderator, William L. Winter, director of the American Press Institute, invited Murphy to reply.

The publisher retorted that any statement by Mecham that he was “out to get the governor is totally untrue.”

Murphy added that no reporter or editor on the Republic or Gazette has ever been instructed to slant stories against Mecham.

He suggested the governor’s assault on the Phoenix newspapers is a “smokescreen … to shift the focus of attention from his administration. We persist in our usual professional standards in our reporting.

“The governor, as he well knows, has been given opportunities on at least two occasions to use an entire full page to present his views, unedited.”

Moreover, Murphy continued, Mecham has been told that Republic and Gazette editors are available 24 hours a day to take complaints about coverage of him and his administration, and that Murphy himself has written “repeatedly” to Mecham, asking him for particulars about his public statements accusing the local newspapers of inaccuracy and unfairness. Mecham has not responded, Murphy stated.

The publisher said he appreciated Mecham’s close scrutiny of the two papers “because it has made us much more aware of our responsibility, but we think we have fulfilled that responsibility. The public is the bestjudge of our performance and the governor’s performance and whether or not we have been derelict in our duty.”

According to Murphy, Mecham also has charged other groups, namely Democrats and homosexuals, with “plots to get him.”

“There is no plot at the Phoenix Newspapers,” Murphy went on. “We don’t have time for such things.”

Murphy said the Republic and Gazette have a strict rule that calls for dismissal of any editorial employee using the newspapers for “political, personal purposes or vendettas.”

A few minutes later, Mecham and Murphy held a brief conversation in an adjoining room, away from the crowd of broadcast and newspaper reporters who trailed them from the panel room.

Asked what they talked about, Murphy said Mecham made “conciliatory remarks about making this thing work and that he’d like to get together with me.”

Mecham said he hoped to work more closely with Murphy. Questioned how his berating of Murphy squared with his reported new image, the governor responded: “Oh, I guess it’s the last time to take a whack at Pat and hope Pat and I can get together and work on a positive basis.”

In an interview later with E&P, Murphy opined that Mecham is “obsessed with certain demons. Among his demons are the media, homosexuals, Democrats, liberals and disloyal Republicans.”

The publisher also said he did not feel his job was in jeopardy despite Mecham’s expressed hope that the Phoenix Newspapers’ parent company would remove him as publisher.

Asked if he believed Mecham personally has tried to get him fired, Murphy said he had no such information, but that he had been told the governor’s “associates have made overtures” to the Pulliam family to discharge him.

Mecham’s press chief, Ken Smith, denied that either Mecham or anyone associated with him had made any moves to get Murphy’s job.

“The governor would not do such a thing or permit anyone else to,” Smith stated.