McGuire on Media

Arizona Republic gets an A+ for reporting, B for its editorial and an F for publisher’s conflict

I have just read every mesmerizing word of The Arizona Republic’s coverage of the Fiesta Bowl scandal in the printed newspaper. About five pages of space were dedicated to covering a Fiesta Bowl internal report of the scandal which was triggered by a Republic investigation written by Craig Harris.

Harris recently won the first Toner Prize for his reporting on Arizona pensions, but his revelations in late 2009 about illegal political contributions by The Fiesta Bowl started a snowball that yesterday brought down the Fiesta Bowl CEO, John Junker and threatens a Phoenix-area institution.

The Republic’s Tuesday coverage, written largely by Harris and Dennis Wagner  did a great job of summarizing one of the most damaging internal investigations I have ever seen with all its reports of excess, personal entitlement and corruption of big-time football. The Republic also painfully recorded the Fiesta Bowl’s attempted cover-up, the bowl’s repeated denials of the first Republic story and the bowl’s ham-handed attempts at a whitewash investigation. 

From now on, when I teach my ethics students that people in power lie to reporters and do it repeatedly, this Fiesta Bowl case will be my case study. You will read this part of the Republic package and come away stunned at the duplicity of bowl executives and others. These people did not corrupt the Fiesta Bowl and college sports only to walk away politely. They engineered a damaging cover-up, a scandalous bogus investigation which will likely take down one of the most respected Republican politicians in the state, Grant Woods, all while telling reporters this was a bogus story.

Harris, his fellow reporters and the Republic should be deeply proud of the initial investigation, their ability to stand strong when most people in power labeled it lies and for their outstanding reporting Wednesday morning of this sordid affair.

The editorial board took a respectable stab at setting the community agenda in the wake of this jarring scandal, but for me their editorial  came off as more of a prayer that despite all the Fiesta Bowl’s sins it should remain a BCS bowl.

The lead of the editorial nailed the situation when it said, “It was a game the belonged to the Valley of the Sun. Not to them.” That certainly captured the offensiveness of the bowl executive’s excesses but for me the editorial did not capture or condemn the long-term culture that has obviously cultivated these abuses.

The editorial did ask the question: How far did the rot spread? But for me this day-after editorial needed to call for criminal investigations and punishment of everybody involved in the abuse and its cover-up. I would have found an editorial which admitted the bowl may lose its BCS designation but vowed this kind of corruption cannot define the Valley, far more credible.

I think the editorial treated people like State Senate President Russell Pearce gently. It pointed out that Pearce received $12,000 in free tickets from the Bowl CEO but never suggested what should result from that.

This is the fellow who earlier this year said,"We’ve become this entitlement mentality, a welfare state." The Republic editorial page needs to highlight the hypocrisy of a guy railing against entitlements acting like he’s entitled to $12,000 worth of free tickets.

As the headline above says, the Republic reporters deserve an A+, the editorial board gets a solid B, but the publisher of the Republic, John Zidich gets a F for an outrageous conflict of interest. Zidich is on the executive committee board of the Fiesta Bowl.

One prominent Arizona blogger blasted Zidich and even alleges the Junker took a fall because of Zidich’s involvemblent on the executive committee. I disagree with that. Junker took a fall because he thought he was “entitled” but Zidich’s involvement is a profound embarrassment.

His attempt at transparency in Wednesday’s paper is incredibly weak. He said:

"When I decided to go on the executive committee in 2010, I did it for one reason. That was to make sure that what we were hearing about in the community, and on the pages of our newspaper, about possible problems, was dealt with with completeness and transparency.

"I realize in my position that there could be an appearance of conflict between coverage and my involvement, but quite frankly this bowl means too much to the community. (I wanted to) make sure that whatever its future is, is a bright one. The only way to do that is to be involved."

It must be noted I just lifted that quote from The Espresso Pundit because at 12:38 p.m Tuesday I have scoured the online version of the Republic story and I cannot find the Zidich statement that appears in the morning newspaper. It appears (emphasis on appears) it has been removed from the story. So much for completeness and transparency. That may well be a sign someone is reconsidering Zidich’s comments. 

Zidich has committed a gigantic sin even if he claims in the report that he distanced himself from the story which he did on page 71 of the report I found online.

I can find no direct evidence that Zidich’s involvement affected the Republic story. On its face the coverage seems very aggressive, but Zidich’s involvement has to make the public wonder if they are getting a sanitized version. And that doesn’t even mention the way the staff has to be looking over its shoulder.

In my ethics class I constantly rail against the “my heart is pure as driven snow” argument. I may think I can’t be unduly influenced but I don’t get to decide what is a conflict. If it appears to others there is a conflict, there is. Zidich’s heart may well be a pure as the driven snow, but that is never the test.

John Zidich should quit the Executive Committee of the Fiesta Bowl today or quit The Republic. When the Fiesta Bowl board  was an important Valley booster of a great event, his involvement should have been questioned. Now that the Fiesta Bowl is mired in a corruption scandal that is going to play out publicly and painfully, he cannot hold both jobs.

I would like to think Zidich’s bosses at Gannett are taking a strong stand today on his blatant conflict of interest, but after reading of the appointment of a notorious political boss to the editorial board of Gannett’s New Jersey Courier Post that is probably wishful thinking.