Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Enough Already, Please

It's time to call out the media on their trained-seal imitation when it comes to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, America's most costly sheriff.

I don't blame Joe, much; it's like the scene in William Steig's Dr. De Soto, where the fox starts to feel remorse that he's going to eat the mouse dentist who cured his toothache, but then he thinks, I can't be blamed; I'm a fox, it's what I do. Joe's like that, it's what he does. It's the media that dotes on his every absurd utterance that I blame.

For example, he holds a press conference that if the L.A. County Sheriff doesn't want to incarcerate Paris Hilton, then he'll do it, and treat her like every other prisoner. The chances of the L.A. County Sheriff transferring somebody with a drunk driving conviction to Arizona are about the same as my chances of starting the 2008 All-Star Game for the American League. But all the TV stations dutifully trooped to the interview and gave him airtime for a stupid fantasy. Enough is enough, it's not embarrassing to him, it's embarrassing about us.

And could somebody do a cost-benefit analysis of the MCSO as a government program? It's long past time we looked at actual Maricopa County crime statistics, and the long and expensive list of court verdicts and settlements that the taxpayers have had to foot under Arpaio's management. The sheriff's job is actually an administrative one, and confusing press releases with results wouldn't pass muster with other programs; why does this one get a pass, just because, as the saying goes, that's entertainment?

Enough outrage for a moment. This week did prove that both of my editor and me are too dependent on spell-check. I left out the "L" in "public" one place in the column, and we both missed it. Back in college ("the thrill of victory, the agony of turkey tetrazini"), getting that misspelling into a newspaper would mean that I wouldn't have to buy myself a beer for weeks. Especially when the editor pulled that sentence out for a bold block quote. Now it's just embarrassing.

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 26, 2007

Isn't past time we stopped finding Sheriff Joe Arpaio amusing?

You bet he's fun. Nobody in politics has a keener sense of what cheap shot will capture vast public attention. He's larger than life, a Macy's parade cartoon balloon, who can say absolutely anything because nobody takes him seriously anymore. And he's a wonderful foil, too. Everybody knows the most dangerous place in Maricopa County: Between Joe Arpaio and a microphone.

But maybe we should realize that by now, it's not really about Joe Arpaio anymore; it's about us. Two items -- small matters in the vast universe of Arpaio outrages, mere motes in the eye -- have put me round the bend, and I hope you as well.

The first was the Sheriff's decision that naturalized citizens had to provide papers to visit the county jail, but natural-born citizens didn't. Did you know that all U.S. citizens are equal, except that some are more equal than others? Nobody did, at least not until Arpaio decided otherwise. After some adverse publicity, Arpaio suddenly reversed course and dropped the policy. So, see -- he is capable of shame; we just have to make a big enough fuss.

Then earlier this month, the Arizona Court of Appeals issued an opinion in a long-running dispute between the Sheriff's Office and the West Valley View newspaper. You won't be shocked to learn that Arpaio's office issues buckets of press releases, which are emailed to a vast Arizona media list, which treats them the way Shamu treats small fish -- swallowing them eagerly, because it's all part of the act.

In 2005, the Sheriff's Office removed the West Valley View from the email list for press releases produced and distributed at public expense. The newspaper asked why, and Arpaio's public information officer told them that the Sheriff wasn't happy with his coverage. "We've sent multiple story ideas, multiple releases and quite frankly don't see them covered," said Arpaio's flack, so it wasn't "fruitful" to inform the newspaper, and its readers, anymore.

The newspaper then filed a public records request for press releases, and when Arpaio refused to respond, filed suit and two years later, both the trial court and Court of Appeals have held that the Sheriff's Office must provide the West Valley View with copies of all press releases when issued. The Court of Appeals called the Sheriff's actions "arbitrary and capricious," lacking "any principled reason," and, more tellingly, "petty."

Arpaio's dispute with the West Valley View truly was petty (although perhaps not petty enough; just watch him appeal to the state Supreme Court). But Phoenix-area media long have been one big co-dependent enabler of Joe Arpaio. He says "Jump!" and the media collectively reply, while airborne, "How high?" They give him air and space, and never manage to mention that he's a glory-grabbing, inefficient, and often brutal failure -- even when his pettiness is targeted at one of them, a newspaper that Arpaio wants to punish because it doesn't give him sufficiently positive coverage.

People used to talk about the "Imperial Congress," but those guys were pikers compared with Arpaio, a public official who has completely obliterated the line between the public interest and his political interests and fame. He's honest and isn't financially corrupt -- but the MCSO isn't a public agency anymore, it's self-aggrandizing empire, a cult devoted to the greater glory of Arpaio. But as long as talk radio and TV get "hot" stories, or he's useful to certain other politicians in their campaigns, we all shrug our shoulders and say, "Oh, that's just Joe."

Well, no, it's not just Joe. It's us. We may not be an out-of-favor newspaper, or someone arrested -- but not convicted -- denied medical care or brutally injured, or a naturalized U.S. citizen, but who knows where Maricopa County's finest purveyor of press release baloney will strike next?

Somebody needs to start telling people that the emperor has no clothes. Even if you do get taken off the press release distribution list.

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