FIRESTORM SURROUNDS PHOENIX NEW TIMES STORY

By: Randy Dotinga

Reporter’s Notes Subpoenaed By County Attorney


First came the flames that destroyed mansions under construction
on the edges of Phoenix. Then came a lengthy newspaper interview
with a man who claims he’s one of those responsible.

Now there’s a new kind of firestorm, one that’s still raging
around the Phoenix New Times. In the middle is a young
journalist who knew his story was a blockbuster but never thought
the alternative newspaper would become the center of attention.

“I didn’t expect our decisions about whether to publish it would
take center stage,” said reporter James Hibberd, 28, who has been
through a whirlwind week of interrogations from police
investigators and the Arizona media. In the latest wrinkle, the
New Times revealed Wednesday that the local county
prosecutor has ordered Hibberd to give up his notes and appear
before a grand jury.

The drama began after Hibberd, a former features and
entertainment writer at the Austin American-Statesman,
wrote a Jan. 11 cover story headlined “Burn, Baby, Burn.” It
explored the mixed feelings of environmentalists about a series
of arson fires that destroyed nine mansions under construction
near a mountain preserve.

The day after the story was published, the New Times
received a letter from a man who claimed to be one of the
arsonists. Under the decree “Thou Shalt Not Desecrate God’s
Creation,” he offered to make himself available for an interview.
In the Jan. 17 edition, the New Times printed an unusual
message on its front page: “To ‘Thou Shalt Not’: 602-407-1706.”

As Hibberd reported a week later, dozens of curious readers
called in, but only one said the magic words: “‘Thou shall not’
– I got your message.” Hibberd talked to the man for 10
minutes and agreed to meet him at a park – without a
photographer or tape recorder. The decision to interview the man
was a fairly easy one, said Hibberd, who didn’t consider giving
him up to the cops.

“It’s fair to say that this person has not physically harmed
anybody and is committing these crimes for a political purpose,”
he said. “That made the decision easier.”

Hibberd’s 90-inch story about the man appeared in the Jan. 25
issue. It portrayed an intelligent, well-educated and well-spoken
nature lover who came across as passionate and arrogant.

Among other things, the man said he and his accomplices pray for
the safety of firefighters but may set more fires. The arsonist
also took responsibility for a fire that occurred the night
before the interview, saying a mansion was set ablaze to
“establish our credibility.”

Critics lambaste story

The article was greeted with a flurry of criticism from local
columnists and radio talk-show hosts. Arizona Republic
columnist E.J. Montini wrote: “…if you meet with (an)
egocentric fire-starter, as New Times did, you become part
of his gang. You not only spread his message for him, you let him
walk away, Zippo in hand.”

After consulting with New Times attorneys, Hibberd did
agree to talk with Phoenix police detectives. His agreement with
the purported arsonist allowed him to do so without qualms, he
said. “I didn’t have any problem telling them material that was
in the story or providing material that was on the record” but
not printed due to space constraints, he said. Hibberd drew the
line, however, at working with a sketch artist or, in the future,
trying to identify the suspect’s voice.

This week’s issue of the New Times, released Wednesday,
revealed that Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley has
subpoenaed Hibberd. He demanded everything related to the
interview subject, including notes, caller ID records, Web page
records, and computer address books.

The newspaper plans to fight the subpoena, a move supported by
two ethics experts. “It’s the responsibility of journalists to be
journalists, not investigators for the police,” said Jane
Kirtley, a media ethics professor at the University of Minnesota
and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for
Freedom of the Press. “When journalists blur that distinction,
they run the risk of co-opting their own integrity.” The only
exception might be if a source announces plans to do immediate
physical harm to someone, she said.

“The damage we do when we become cops has ramifications far
beyond the story,” said Steven R. Knowlton, associate professor
of journalism at Hofstra University. “I don’t have any particular
sympathy for the arsonists, but I have a great deal for people
who suffer injustice at the hands of the cops. They need to have
somebody they can tell.”

The purported arsonist previously sent letters to The Arizona
Republic and a local television station, but did not ask for
an interview. Both the newspaper and the station turned the
letters over to police.

“We felt like it was information that investigators could use to
identify a potential criminal,” said Republic deputy
managing editor Kathy Tulumello. “There was a great public safety
danger here. A firefighter, a neighbor, or even a homeless person
sleeping in a house under construction could be in great danger
of their life. There was really nothing for us to gain by not
giving it to the police.”

Kirtley was skeptical of both that decision and Hibberd’s
cooperation with detectives. “This may sound unrealistic, because
we have to live and work in our communities, but it seems that
you’re either a journalist or an investigator,” she said. “You
can’t be both and maintain your integrity.”

For his part, Hibberd agrees with the general principles set
forth by Kirtley. “Sometimes, good journalism means letting the
bad guy go,” he said.



Randy Dotinga (rdotinga@aol.com) is a free-lance writer based in San Diego.



The Phoenix New Times story:

The Story Of Us (02/01/01)



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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