Republic editorial on new press secretary

The Arizona Republic
September l6, 1987

Lead Editorial

The selection of veteran newsman Kenneth Smith of California as Gov. Evan Mecham’s new press secretary may help to re-establish a modicum of rapport between the governor’s office and the fourth estate.

Whether the strained relations will improve probably will hinge on the degree of access Smith enjoys with the governor and his tight inner-sanctum of advisers, and the degree of access Smith grants to reporters seeking basic information about administration policies and actions.

One has to hope for the best. Certainly Smith, an experienced professional, comes with a good set of credentials, talks positively of turning things around and will have the title of special assistant, as do those closest to Mecham. The proof of the pudding will be in two weeks, when Smith joins the administration.

The needs are clear. Mecham’s 9-month-old administration has been consistently reluctant to provide information to print journalists of the Capitol press corps. An inexperienced, highly defensive and combative Ron Bellus, Smith’s predecessor, was ill-equipped for the job. Errors were the rule, not the exception, and sometimes suggested a fundamental misunderstanding of the media’s watchdog role.

Telephone calls frequently were not returned. When they were, they often came past deadline. Because Bellus lacked inner-circle access, his failure to provide answers to probing questions might have been excusable. What was appalling was his reluctance to seek the information requested and disseminate it to reporters — an essential function of a press aide. In failing to fill this role this role capably, Bellus thereby failed to serve the governor well.

At times, to be sure, the governor has acted as his own press secretary — by either design or accident  when reporters caught him after public appearances or at home in the evening. And, more than anything else, the governor has suffered from the vast and pervasive antipathy toward the press that fans out from his office, poisoning the atmosphere.

Mecham and his staff have grumped that the print media especially neglected the positive and gloated over the negative. The governor has confided that his view of a utopian society includes no newspapers — not exactly on all fours with Thomas Jefferson, whom he professes to admire. Jefferson said that were it left to him to decide whether to have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

To set the record straight, Mecham recently mailed a 36-page tabloid to nearly 1 million registered voters. While much of it detailed what he perceived as achievements disregarded by the media, the governor also seized the occasion to assault the press once more — a dubious contribution to his campaign to emphasize the positive.

Mecham, it must be remembered, sets the tone for his administration and his staff assistants. If the governor wants his administration to stop being portrayed as small-minded, ideological and vacuous, he needs to curb insensitive remarks, adopt a policy of inclusionary politics and put on the table the sort of visionary programs that address Arizona’s pressing needs.

Kenneth Smith, let us hope, will be able to persuade the governor to stcp out in this direction and away from the pettiness that too often has characterized his performance.