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Memo to Ducey: Stop making columnist's job this easy

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What the Devil won't tell you

Memo to Ducey: Stop making columnist's job this easy

Firing an economist never created a single job — other than filling hers

  • Ducey speaks at a ground-breaking ceremony in Tucson in March.
    Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.comDucey speaks at a ground-breaking ceremony in Tucson in March.


  • To: Gov. Doug Ducey
  • From: Me
  • Re: Trying to move on to cover Southern Arizona fiascos and you aren't helping

Governor, seriously, there's a lot of chicanery to deal with in the place the New York Times calls a "drowsy," "dusty" "pueblo" among the tumbleweed. But then your administration pulled a move as silly as canceling economic briefings to discuss lackluster jobs reports, and then firing the lady who said "the numbers aren't as good as they seem."

You then reversed the briefing decision but left the lady who said "unemployment looks bad" in the metaphorical unemployment line. It still looks like vengeance so transparent that the "V" is hanging from your nose.

Governor, you can't do this to columnists who want a day off or are eager to move on from what's messed up about the Arizona Capitol complex.

A move like this is to a columnist like lobster and drawn butter next to a plate of hummus. It's like like having Olivia Wilde ask if she can buy me a drink when I really need to get home. It's like that old infomercial for the "Banjo Minnow" — a shiny bass lure that prompted the predatory response so the fish doesn't even know it attacked the bait before finding itself at the taxidermist's workshop.

What's that? Bad numbers? Fired messenger. Shiny! Attack! Oh my goodness, I'm typing a column. How did that happen?

Seriously, dude, your team needs to stop with the unforced errors that read like The Onion's clickbait: "Governor unveils plan to improve economy by firing economist."

Chill pill

I understand the background. Capitol Media Services one-man show Howard Fischer did a great job explaining it. You, sir, are afraid of too much bad news about Arizona echoing through the desert and throughout the country, reverberating back into Arizona and depressing Arizonans. The state then mopes. You are very clear about this problem. Then along comes the state's chief economist, Aruna Murthy, saying "um, our unemployment numbers aren't as good as they look." The call is coming from inside the administration and now she is one of the statistics she just got done explaining.

I think an economist like Murthy would call this "a chilling effect" on more bad news. 

Of course, your concern raises a bigger question than news briefings: Why is there so much bad news about Arizona? If this bugs you, I have a suggestion.

You should create a position and put someone in charge of that. You should make that person a leader who takes on stuff that is going badly and turns it around. Maybe social services and collective programs suffer in a right-of-center state like Arizona but business could at least thrive. You should appoint someone to tackle the tough problems and lead the state. What would we call that job?

I joke but do you get why people are looking at you funny?

It looks like you are fixing the economy by firing the economist who says the economy is broken. My brother used to do this when his beat-up Oldsmobile started making funny noises in the engine. He'd just turn up Weezer. "Oo-ee-oo." Problem solved.

No, no, problem not solved. This is what you get when you project the image of a guy who thinks Arizona's problems are more a result of people talking about them than the actual problems themselves. 

You are not alone in this assessment. Senate President Andy Biggs, you'll remember, said that talking about Arizona's 49th ranking in K-12 spending gives out-of-state companies looking to move into the state the "dangerous and erroneous" perception that Arizona Republicans don't care about education." No one doubts Arizona Republicans care about education. In fact, they care the 49th most of any state in the country.

I hear you countering that the story isn't true. You didn't fire the chief state economist because she explained the numbers a little too well. Let's assume that's true (for like 13.4 seconds).

I'm sorry to burst your bubble on the whole life's-not-fair thing but stories that look bad matter.

It's like when a guy named Fred DuVal was running for governor and got attacked by conservatives for his vote on the Arizona Board of Regents to increase tuition. It looked like he eagerly stuck it to students. Conservatives backing his opponent failed to point out that it was their fellow travelers who kept cut the state's contribution to higher education in half and prompted the votes but life isn't fair. Maybe you don't know Fred DuVal, candidate for governor. He ran way back in 2014. 

No, reality doesn't matter as much you would hope. 

Yet reality in this case looks bad. You want good information about the state and have said you are sick of bad news. We get that. Who doesn't? Your economist told reporters wages are stagnant or falling in Arizona as the rest of the country's rise, job growth is flat even if unemployment numbers fall and that Arizona in 2015 is trailing rallies out of previous recessions. Now she's looking for work.

So you are stuck with the whole smell test and it smells like a bad onion.

Governor, surely you didn't approach business with the idea that you wanted to hear only good news, chastising folks from telling you the bad. Any 100-level leadership class (or History Channel documentary) will tell you that doesn't work. That's a way to assure subordinates will only blow sunshine up the old kazoo right up to the day that creditors seize your assets. Then again, Cold Stone Creamery did go bankrupt. OK, bad example.

Governor, surely you understand the value in "the narrative." It goes thusly: You inherit a mess. You talk about what a mess it is. Then you fix the mess before re-election. Finally, you run commercials describing the aforementioned mess you inherited and then show beaming Arizonans all-industrious-like under the campaign theme "Leadership that's Working." Ronald Reagan used it. Fife Symington used it. You can use it.

You can't use it if people never got the bad news in the first place. Otherwise, you are just a guy saying "well ... (smile, with confusion) Yeah!"

You aren't going to get bad news if you are firing the people who say it. So when the state delivers their part of fire briefing are they supposed to cross out the word "fire" and refer to the S'mores Line advancing on town X?

Bad press ain't easy (or necessary)

Still, your administration stepped in it, when there are all sorts of ways to not step in it with the Arizona capitol press. In Phoenix, to step in it, you gotta want it bad.

Here's what I mean: Harvard University found that Arizona was perceived the most likely state government to trade political favors for personal gain or as a quid-pro-quo for campaign donations. How did the crimson-clad surveyors of corruption arrive at this conclusion? They asked the fucking reporters covering them, which is crazy because the same reporters kept that a secret from their readers.

I can only picture the editor-reporter discussion in the newsroom's state capitol pod.

Editor: "So what's going on at the Capitol?"

Reporter: "Nothing big, just lawmakers trading political favors for personal gain again."

Editor: "Hmmm. Sounds like corruption."

Reporter: "It does sort of,  doesn't it?"

Editor: "Hmm. Anything else going on?"

So they are apparently in no hurry to call you or any of your compadres out. 

The press in Phoenix — by and large — ain't boat rockers.

My family used to live in Florida and told me growing up that yeah, an alligator can kill you but they are so lazy that you basically have to fall off water skis into their open mouth at more or less the moment the gator wants to close his jaws. Then you are in trouble.

Well, Governor, there you go, water skiing behind a boat signaling to the spotter "Take me closer to the alligator! His mouth is open! I think he wants to close it!"

If you want to throw a lazy press corps off the scent, start holding the briefings at 6:30 a.m. You really wanna be nasty, hold them at 9 p.m. on the second Friday of the Arizona Republic's pay period when everyone is out of hours. You'll end up with an intern covering it.

The quickest and easiest way to make a press corps attack (Howie Fischer, the hardest-working journalist in Arizona, notwithstanding) is to decide to make their job harder and fire the person who made it easier. Even the crustiest of whipped hounds start sniffing around when they hear a governor say "the public doesn't need to know."

Now they know Murthy was fired and the briefings were canceled after you said you wanted good news. Hmmm. Two ... add another two ... carry the five, rationalize the radical by using the least common denominator ... Oh, I know! Four!

Those reporters suddenly care a lot more about the unemployment numbers then they did when the week began because you told them the public shouldn't know. It's not what you said, it's what the press heard.

Reality — the mother of all perceptions

You and I both worked in the food service industry. There was a saying at TGI Friday's (other than "I really don't like discussing my flair"). Perception is reality. What they meant was if you look like a brooding busser lost in your thoughts, maybe you are a brooding busser lost in your thoughts as tables go unattended. If people are in a funk in Arizona it may be that Arizona is that funky. I don't mean George Clinton, funk-a-delic Parliament "funky." I mean funky.

Without rehiring Murthy, you haven't fixed the dead messenger problem. You look a bit like Darth Vader in "Empire Strikes Back" after just using The Force to strangle the imperial officer who let the Milennium Falcon get away.

"Apology accepted, Captain Needa."

Needa is, of course, dead but the apology is accepted. You don't think every other state economist just saw Murthy's last gasp for air.

It also leads me to wonder if your plan to tap state land trust money to public schools is a plan to get Arizona back on track or to fight to get people talking about how you are getting Arizona just enough money to swallow up headlines. 

Tom Donnellan, state Administration Department director, told Fischer  that canceled briefings and Murthy's firing had nothing to do with her not following the playbook (and she is an at-will employee, so she can be fired for following the playbook without recourse). It was just some recombobulation.

“It may not be the best use of our internal resources,” he said of the monthly briefings, which normally take an hour, plus any time staffers spend in preparation.

“I wouldn’t say a policy change has been made,” Donnellan said. “But we’re looking at changes.”“I wouldn’t say a policy change has been made,” Donnellan said.

The change in procedure is not a change that's happened but could be the result of changes to come in the future, prompting what happened yesterday. Gotcha. I need to stop covering the state government before I start talking like Dr. Seuss.

Do any of those changes involve robust job growth and full employment? If the answer is no, you should rethink what you are changing. If the answer is yes, why change? You are worrying a lot of us with all this fear and paranoia on your end because it suggests you think these numbers are the best we can expect for the next 42 months of your term.

The Doug Ducey plan for Arizona will work. Won't it? Tax cuts. Ridding ourselves of regulation. For a change, Arizona is going to try that because for the last three decades we were apparently Mau Mau socialists.

Let me just sum up with this: An economy is not the function of the news. The news is a function of the economy.

Not you, not President Obama, not anyone can make the people think they are flush if they are broke. If the Arizona economy is weak, Arizona families are hurting. They are quite aware. They tend to blame people like governors. Understanding the wheres and the whys is pretty important to saving your future 

Let me give you an example that gets to your broad concern about people nay-saying the state's condition. Fischer had another story yesterday showing Arizona slipped to No. 41 in per capita income. Is the problem: A) that people are making less money? or B) that people know they are making less money? Discretionary income drives a consumer economy, so I'm going to go with A. Then again, hey, I'm just a part of the liberal media not-quite-establishment. 

Maybe you should ask your chief economist ... oh. that's right.

Update: The Arizona Republic published a story reporting that Murthy was fired because she didn't get along with a, singular, one, uno co-worker. It had nothing to do with Ducey wanting a less expansive, rosier message.

Then in the 11th ... ugh ... paragraph (bury your frickin' lede why don't you?) the story describes the state's new economic briefer delivering a less expansive, rosier message full of good economic news. It appears none of the press pushed for more information. Yeah, yeah, I stand corrected. Whatever you are paying Scarpinato to manhandle the press, it ain't enough.

On the other hand, The Washington Post then detailed how teachers are fleeing Arizona like friends off Rachel Dolezal's Facebook page. No, Governor, you can't dictate terms to them.

Now Governor, owning the capitol press is a big responsibility. You are going to have to feed it, pick up after it and walk it, even when it's 120 degrees outside.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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