McGuire on Media

When the sheriff comes for me: When do we cover political abuse?

Since the time of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the relationship between the press and politicians has been strained, contentious and controversial.  Despite what some politicians think, the press tries to be civil, but that has to be balanced with aggressive attention to the interests of the public.

The most remarkable press/politician relationship I have ever encountered exists here in Maricopa County, Ariz.  Sheriff Joe Arpaio is probably the most controversial elected figure I have encountered in any community where I have lived for the last 59 years.  And, I’ve met some doozies. Arpaio is a lightning rod. I hesitate to characterize him because nobody agrees on whether he’s tough or mean, effective or manipulative,  or on any other words to describe him.  I suppose the only word anybody could agree on is he’s popular, and that mystifies his critics. Arguably, much of that popularity depends on his tough guy image.

At a local sporting event several months ago he was introduced as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” That moniker was bestowed on him by the media and that’s where this journalistic post picks up the story. Arpaio was elected in 1993 and when I started following Arizona politics in 2002 the Sheriff had already amassed a reputation for being “tough” to prisoners.  According to, the truth telling site, Maricopa County prisoners are fed only two meals a day (sometimes green bologna is on the menu), live in tents in sweltering heat,  sleep on cots without pillows, work on chain gangs and wear pink underwear. On his own web site Arpaio brags about his average meal costs of about 15 cents.

All of this has played swimmingly with the public. Arpaio is so popular he is thumbing his nose at the electorate by refusing to debate his current challenger Dan Saban. He recently outdid himself when he tossed the local newspapers in the trash in a TV commercial. No lover of the First Amendment, Arpaio was clearly saying “believe me not that nasty ol’ press.”

The irony in all this is that to my lights Arpaio has gotten a free ride from the local press for most of his tenure. This past summer the East Valley Tribune did a hard hitting series on Arpaio’s abuses of power. The last piece in that series answers the obvious question with this headline: “Why no one is willing to hold Sheriff Joe accountable.”  For almost a year a local television reporter on Channel 12, KPNX  named Joe Dana has shown incredible courage dealing with stories on Arpaio. Dana should make TV reports proud.

It is just one man’s opinion, but I think for years the Republic has been very gentle with Arpaio. To be fair, I am told by longtime observers that before I arrived here, in the mid- 90’s, the Republic and a reporter named Dennis Wagner, took a big swing at the  Sheriff and did all the things a newspaper should do.  I am told that the backlash from the public was incredible. The public said pretty clearly they supported their Sheriff and the local press backed off. They backed off to the point that not long ago the Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon asked the national media to serve as a watchdog.  The clear implication was that the local press had not been doing its job.

In late September the Republic hopped back on board.  I don’t know who gets the credit, but as a result of Arpaio’s tremendous assaults on civil liberties with local Hispanics, everything has changed.  The Republic did a tough news series in September, but the big move came on October 5 when the Republic endorsed Arpaio’s opponent Dan Saban. The editorial was incredibly tough and left me and others here at the Cronkite School shaking our heads.  It was so tough it seemed as if the Republic had been transformed and suddenly realized who this Arpaio guy really was.

That was nothin’.

Yesterday, the Republic came back with another phenomenally critical editorial entitled Isn’t Cute anymore. That editorial was in response to Arpaio’s decision to launch a raid on Mesa City Hall to search for illegal immigrants.  The Republic wisely said Sunday, “Arpaio, simply, has lost whatever perspective he once had regarding the limits of his power.”

The Republic deserves applause for its sudden interest in Arpaio and it’s desire to stop his abuses. It is probably way too little, too late. It is unlikely Arpaio can be defeated because he has tapped into such visceral tissue in the electorate for so long.  Yet, the applause for the Republic and other media in the Valley of the Sun must remain muted. Certainly, Arpaio the bully has become more brazen. Arpaio the bully has made it clear nobody is safe from his wrath. (I am  fully prepared for a broken taillight after writing this post.) 

Here’s what bothers me. We should have known all we needed to know about Joe Arpaio when he was picking on prisoners. Those bully tendencies should never have been tolerated then. The media and the public have created the Joe Arpaio that now runs roughshod by celebrating what he did to prisoners.  We should have known that wasn’t right and called him on it.  The fact is that was never CUTE! 

You’ve read this countless times before, but my favorite quote is one I try to live by. It is credited to Rev. Martin Niemoller  in 1945.

First they came for the Communists,
  and I didn’t speak up,
    because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
  and I didn’t speak up,
    because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
  and I didn’t speak up,
    because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
  and by that time there was no one
    left to speak up for me.

Len Downie is visiting the Cronkite School today. Last week at the Poynter Institute he spoke about accountability journalism. His words are so powerful and so crucial to a struggling press. Our business model is eroding and our credibility is under attack. It may be that all we can cling to is making sure people like Joe Arpaio don’t pick on anybody, including prisoners. Once our public officials abuse power, count on them doing it again. The press needs to stop them the first time.