May 1 2009

Marketing the Media’s ‘Toughest Sheriff’

Joe Arpaio hyped by cable, exposed by locals

Joe arpaio

The East Valley Tribune’s Pulitzer-winning series (7/9-13/08) exposing the soaring crime rates that followed from Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s redeployment of law enforcement resources into a campaign against undocumented immigrants (see Extra! 6/1/09) offers a fine example of journalism holding the powerful to account. It’s a model of journalism that has been all too rare in much of the news coverage of the official who—often with the help of cable news outlets—markets himself as “America’s toughest sheriff.”

Under Arpaio’s leadership, Maricopa County, which includes the Phoenix metropolitan area, has faced record numbers of lawsuits and has had to pay out $43 million in legal settlements for wrongful injuries and deaths of inmates (Phoenix New Times, 10/7/08). Gross human rights abuses have been documented in the county’s jails, including practices of strapping inmates in chairs and using electrical stun guns to shock their testicles and other body parts; at least one inmate died from suffocation while in a restraint chair with a towel over his face, while others have died after being denied medical care (Amnesty International, 8/97; U.S. Department of Justice, 7/96; East Valley Tribune, 5/3/08). Yet Arpaio has won every election since he was first voted in as sheriff in 1992.

Phoenix New Times reporter John Mecklin (12/5/96) has noted Arpaio’s remarkable capacity to turn brutality into public relations successes. In 2007, Arpaio’s office was spending $370,000 on a five-member public relations team “to keep him favorably in the public eye,” according to the New Times’ Ray Stern (12/13/07). “Sheriff Joe” has published two books touting his approach to law enforcement, including the self-aggrandizing America’s Toughest Sheriff (1996). And his office has been preoccupied with publicizing Arpaio’s controversial initiatives, with a website boasting about the “world-famous pink boxer shorts” Arpaio forces his inmates to wear. “No other detention facility in the country, state or county can boast of 2,000 convicts in tents,” it asserts, and “few others can say they have women in tents or on chain gangs.”

At times, Arpaio’s office has chosen to bypass corporate media altogether in publicizing its “innovative” approach. In 2000, Arpaio launched “Jail Cam”—a 24-hour webcast featuring pretrial detainees being arrested, strip-searched and held in cells. Ruled illegal by the courts (Arizona Republic, 9/12/06), the “Jail Cam” initiative was eventually discontinued, although Arpaio’s office continues to feature an online gallery of full-color mugshots of recent arrestees.

Since 2007, Arpaio has operated his own radio station, K-JOE, which broadcasts the sheriff’s choice of music and “educational programming” to Maricopa County prisoners. He described the station (KPHO, 2/5/07) as a “line of communication the way I want it…. They will listen to what I want them to listen to. I want to decide what they hear.”

From his treatment of other news media outlets, it would appear that his determination to control the message is not limited to his own jail broadcasts.

Arpaio has a long record of retaliating against media outlets that have criticized him. He has withheld basic public safety information from Spanish language media outlets that provide a platform to his critics, and refused to release information to the West Valley View community newspaper about a pedophile who was targeting children in the neighborhoods the paper served (Phoenix New Times, 12/13/07). The New Times’ Stern—who has written critically about the sheriff office’s policies around access to information—reports that Arpaio once forced him to review public records inside a jail cell, after confiscating his cell phone and pens, and once charged him with disorderly conduct for insisting on his right to freely look at public records. Stern was once even threatened with arrest for looking at public documents at Phoenix’s public records counter (New Times Blogs, 6/11/08).

In October 2007, Arpaio’s deputies arrested two Village Voice Media (VVM) excutives. Three years prior, the VVM-owned New Times had mentioned Arpaio’s home address in an online article about his real estate dealings, and the sheriff responded by seeking criminal prosecution of the paper under a state law against Internet publication of officials’ addresses. When, as part of an ensuing investigation, VVM executive editor Michael Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin were served a grand-jury subpoena that, among other things, ordered them to turn over the names and addresses of their online readers, as well as details of their readers’ Internet viewing habits (Arizona Republic, 4/30/08), they refused. After criticizing the over-reaching subpoena in an editorial titled “A Breathtaking Violation of the Constitution” (10/17/07), they were promptly arrested on charges of revealing grand jury secrets.

If the self-described “toughest sheriff” has zero tolerance for tough questions from the news media, this seems to have posed little problem for him in many of his appearances on cable news. While there have been some notable exceptions, including an investigative report on suspicious deaths in Arpaio’s jails on ABC News20/20 (10/25/99) and a critical interview with the sheriff by CNN’s Rick Sanchez (12/2/08), the Maricopa county sheriff has often been granted an unchallenged platform on television.

Many journalists have assisted Arpaio’s efforts to market himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” by using the moniker to introduce him to national TV and radio audiences (e.g., CNN Newsroom, 12/27/08;

NPR Morning Edition, 3/10/08). And particularly on cable TV, Arpaio has often been granted an uncritical platform for his claims that he has consistently garnered 80 percent-plus approval ratings (e.g., C-SPAN, 7/19/08; CNN Newsroom, 12/1/08). CNN’s Eric Phillips has even repeated this claim as fact, but none of the numerous Cronkite-Eight Polls from ASU nor the Rocky Mountain Polls conducted by Behavior Research Center support this claim. While Arpaio did enjoy a peak popularity of an 83 percent approval rating in 2001 (KAET/ Arizona State University, 1/18-21/01), his polling numbers have been in consistent decline since then, and have even dipped as low as 35 percent, according to a poll by O’Neil Associates (6/23-7/3/03).

Arpaio has won extensive praise as a “champion in the fight against illegal aliens” from CNN host Lou Dobbs (4/2/09), who has consistently defended Arpaio from his critics (e.g., 3/3/09, 3/7/09, 7/22/08). When, amid mounting evidence that Arpaio was using racial profiling to round up the people he targeted as “illegal aliens,” the Department of Justice heeded Democratic lawmakers’ calls for an investigation, Dobbs (4/2/09) denounced this “persecution,” calling it “almost Stalinist in the way which these liberal Democrats are trying to use the federal government to overwhelm a sheriff.”

Alongside much critical reporting by the Phoenix New Times—including coverage by Stern, staff writer Stephen Lemons and former reporter John Dougherty—the East Valley Tribune series provided an important contrast to the uncritical coverage Arpaio has enjoyed on cable TV. As Stern wrote (4/22/09), the series significantly “impacted the debate.” As well as being cited in news reports around the country and providing fodder for a scathing interview of Arpaio on PBS’s Now (3/27/09), Stern adds, it was also a major source of data for “what turned out to be a significant blow to Arpaio’s credibility”—a major critical report by the conservative Goldwater Institute entitled “Mission Unaccomplished” (12/2/08), which in turn prompted a critical New York Times editorial board blog post (12/31/08).

But since co-writing the Pulitzer-winning articles, reporter Paul Giblen has been laid off by the East Valley Tribune, as has Patti Epler, the editor who worked on the series (New Times Blogs, 4/22/09). Meanwhile, Arpaio has since been granted his own TV show on the Fox TV network—Smile…You’re Under Arrest—illustrating the fundamental priorities of the corporate media system.