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From AJR,   April 2000  issue

A Story About Rumors That Didn't Pan Out   


By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     


"BIZARRE" SEEMS TO BE the word most frequently used to describe the Arizona Republic's investigation of a local businessman's murder and the resulting front-page story published in the February 6 paper.
The piece's headline read, "Killing weaves bizarre web." Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the story's characters, dubbed the work "bizarre" in interviews with reporters. Even the Republic's executive editor and assistant managing editor agree with that assessment.
The story is unusual: In September 1999, two children stumbled upon a dead man while walking in the woods. Ronald Bianchi, 53, a former newspaper writer and high-profile, if often unsuccessful, entrepreneur had been shot multiple times.
Bianchi was known to higher-ups at the Phoenix paper. In February 1999, he'd sat down with Publisher John Oppedahl and Managing Editor Julia Wallace and had given them a tip: Republican presidential hopeful McCain was having an affair with actress/singer Connie Stevens, he alleged. The pair had met, he claimed, through mobsters. Republic reporters spent three months investigating Bianchi's story after his death. They found nothing to confirm the purported relationship. Both McCain and Stevens insist their relationship is strictly platonic.
A police official told the Republic at least twice that McCain and Stevens had been interviewed regarding the murder, but then he recanted, saying they had not. McCain was eventually interviewed, but police say he had nothing to do with Bianchi's murder.
Then the saga that couldn't get weirder did: The headless, limbless torso of another local businessman was found in a garbage bin, and the victim's widow was charged in his death. The murder suspect had spent time with Bianchi's widow after his death.
The Republic decided to publish an account of its investigation, which revealed no evidence of a McCain/Stevens affair and no tie between McCain and the Bianchi murder. In an editor's note that ran the same day, Executive Editor Pam Johnson wrote that the "compelling local tale" of the search for Bianchi's killer justified publication.
Not everyone agreed, including some Republic readers, reporters and editors, the paper's reader advocate and other professional journalists. "The inclusion of a farfetched and totally unsubstantiated rumor of an affair involving Sen. John McCain and Connie Stevens in last Sunday's front-page article regarding the Bianchi/[Ira] Pomerantz murders could only have been done to cast a cloud on Sen. McCain's presidential campaign," reader Karl Almquist wrote in a letter to the editor. "I question the integrity of The Arizona Republic in its decision to include such an unsubstantiated rumor in an inflammatory news article. An apology to Sen. McCain, Stevens and your readers is clearly in order."
Another reader, Judith Curtis, wrote that she was no McCain fan, but, "I think The Republic could have used more discretion in tying Sen. McCain's name to this sensational article."
Among the paper's internal detractors: Dave Wagner, the paper's political editor. "It's no secret that some people were very upset by the story," says Republic Deputy Managing Editor John D'Anna. Wagner, he says, "was particularly upset." Responding to reports that Wagner had quit his job after the story ran but was convinced to return, D'Anna said, "He's still our political editor." Wagner could not be reached for comment.
Did the paper have an obligation to give the public the information it had, no matter how inconclusive? Why publish rumors about a presidential hopeful and the fact that the insinuations didn't check out?
Because, Johnson says, the story of the investigation wove a web that would fascinate the Republic readership. The paper's goal, Johnson says, was to present all the twists and turns that had come up during its reporting. That includes Bianchi's debts, rumored ties to organized crime, and bizarre last days getting free meals from an El Paso mission. McCain was never meant to be a focus of the story, she says. "The McCain thing is what everyone outside Arizona focuses on," she adds, "but it's a story about the investigation. It's a very localized story."
And when the story ran, Johnson continues, "In coffee shops and gyms, the paper was being devoured that day. It was drawing them."
Republic reader advocate Richard de Uriarte's column that ran February 13 began: "They said we smeared John McCain. They said we lowered ourselves to tabloid journalism. They asked why we printed mere rumors. We dispatched three of our best investigative reporters to work months on the story. They found nothing to substantiate it. So why run it? readers asked. I agreed with them." (De Uriarte declined to be interviewed by AJR, saying his column spoke for itself.)
McCain and the Republic have long had a rocky relationship, despite the fact that the newspaper has endorsed him for every public office for which he's run. After an editorial cartoon blasted McCain's wife for acquiring drugs meant for Third World charities, McCain refused to take phone calls from Republic reporters for almost two years, Johnson says (see "My Life with the Candor Man,").
But even without the McCain angle, the story of the Bianchi murder investigation would have been published, Johnson says. Bianchi was well-connected, friendly with state senators and millionaires, and a fascinating character, she says.
"The Ron Bianchi murder is interesting and compelling enough in its own right to warrant our coverage," D'Anna adds.
McCain's camp has been relatively low-key regarding the story. According to the Republic, a top McCain aide warned that if the story was published, "You'll be the laughingstock of the industry." After publication, McCain said at a news conference that the tale is "so bizarre it speaks for itself." McCain and his aides did not return AJR calls seeking comment.
Jeremy Voas, editor of the city's weekly New Times, calls the story's publication a "misadventure of the first order," criticizing its style as well as its content. Presented as 10 "chapters," with a brief introduction and epilogue, the story details the newspaper's investigation, with the Republic, its editors and its reporters featured prominently in the tale.
"It's never been done that way at a real newspaper that I know of. I think they were contorting themselves," Voas says. "It says at the top of the story that when you finish, you'll have more questions than answers. That's a bad sign."
The police investigator who more than once told the Republic that McCain had been interviewed before changing his story later told McCain that Republic reporters were pressuring him to question the Arizona senator. In a transcript of the interview with McCain, Gila County Chief Deputy Byron Mills tells him he believes the rumors of the Stevens affair and the involvement in the Bianchi murder "are just an attack on you, Senator."
Johnson says it was impossible to extricate the paper and its personnel from the story and successfully tell the tale.
"I don't think any of us wanted to be in it or liked it at all, but you can't change the facts and we just had to deal with it," D'Anna concurs.
New Times criticized the Republic's story in its "Flash" column, calling it "swill-thin and laughable." The weekly also published a piece by Republic columnist E.J. Montini that, New Times said, was pulled by his editors. Montini sarcastically wrote that his own "investigation" had revealed McCain was not involved with the "disappearance of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, the collapse of the Arizona Cardinals and the mysterious success of Who wants to be a Millionaire.' " Montini did not return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment. (Phoenix Newspapers Inc. has asked New Times to remove the column from its Web site, citing copyright infringement.)
The Republic editors declined comment on the Montini column, with D'Anna noting, "We hold stories, we kill stories, and we generally don't discuss that outside the newsroom."
After reviewing the Republic's Bianchi story at AJR's request, N. Christian Anderson III, publisher and CEO of the Orange County Register and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says he would "probably not have published it."
"It's a very interesting story, but I'm not sure what the point is," says Anderson, who stresses he based his decision only upon reading the story and the accompanying editor's note. "Given the same set of facts, I'm not sure we would want to run this."
New Times' Voas speculates that the Republic may have felt forced to publish when editors learned local broadcast news outlets were looking into the same story. D'Anna says television news was not a factor, but editors did consider "who could best tell this story. They had no knowledge of the background that we did. We were the ones reporting on it for many months."
Republic reader advocate de Uriarte may have summed up the detractors' sentiments best: "[S]ometimes, we end up with a set of facts that don't quite make a story. Sometimes, we're tempted to publish something just because somebody said it, or because of the impact it will have and the attention it will command. In such instances, we should stop and think again. This was one."