Thursday, March 7, 2013

What Was the Fire Department PIO Doing in a Car With a KVOA Anchor?

Posted By and on Thu, Mar 7, 2013 at 5:00 PM

Members of the media like their gossip, and many of them have relished in the details of a Valentine’s Day encounter involving KVOA news anchor Allison Alexander and Tucson Fire Department Public Information Officer Barrett Baker.

On the afternoon of Feb. 14, TPD was called to the scene of an apparent solicitation situation near the 600 block of North 14th Avenue. [You can read a PDF version of the ten page police report here.] It is there TPD encountered Alexander and Baker, at a location mere minutes away from the KVOA studios. Unfortunately, the KVOA studios are situated in a neighborhood that has a high level of prostitution, and TPD is said to have told residents they will respond in short order if a call is made. The call was, and Alexander and Baker were the occupants inside the vehicle that was the source of the complaint.

No citations were made, and names were redacted from the official TPD police report, but numerous sources have confirmed it was Alexander and Baker who were questioned. In fact, when we made a request for the police report, we did so using their names. The only result was the report of the Feb. 14 incident.

Which might explain why none of this has made the news yet. One could effectively argue this isn’t really a news story. It’s just another incident involving two people who work in the same circles in a somewhat suspicious, but possibly innocuous situation. It isn’t exactly new territory for TPD (although the police report's extensive redaction is somewhat unusual).

“No charges were filed, so it really falls under the realm of gossip news at that point,” said KGUN news director Forrest Carr (For what it's worth, Baker does a segment for KGUN called "No Bad Days With Barrett"). “We don’t really see ourselves as a gossip style publication.”

Fair enough. That said, however, KGUN, and every other significant traditional media outlet in the market, did make the decision to report a demotion within the ranks of the Tucson Police Department. The investigation into Diana Lopez garnered significant coverage in December and early February by local news outlets. Lopez was penalized for sending explicit photos to a TPD colleague, with whom she was having a relationship.

While we can take the high road here and suggest that TPD’s decision to announce the results of its investigation into Lopez was really the impetus for running the story, we’d be kidding ourselves if the hook wasn’t sexually suggestive photos. In fact, most news outlets went into descriptive detail as to what the photos featured.

Just because a demotion occurred within the ranks of a taxpayer funded entity, it doesn’t mean the media has to report it. Indeed, it’s likely other demotions in rank have not been reported.

But that precedent creates a bit of a quandary in this case. Not because it involves Alexander, but because it involves a TFD Captain, who was questioned about the activity on company time, while in uniform, driving to the meet-up in a department vehicle. (We attempted to contact Capt. Baker by telephone, left a voicemail and followed up with an email to no response. If he does respond, we will update the story accordingly.)

Conceivably, he could argue he was sharing story information, but at best that seems curious given the location and the amount of time spent in the car. In fact, the witness who called TPD in the first place reported that the car had been seen in that location "every day for the past week."

Even if you take Alexander and Baker at their word — that they were two friends who knew each other for less than a year, who did nothing more than hug and chat in the dead end of an alley — it seems like a spectacularly poor bit of judgment by the two, both married to other people. What could they possibly be discussing that wouldn't be better off talked out over a coffee in a public place? What would any semi-rational person told this story expect was happening?

Furthermore, if there’s suspicion of misconduct, on the taxpayer dime, the media doesn’t need to wait for a departmental investigation to report potential concerns.

KVOA’s handling of this situation to date is interesting as well. Either the company believes whatever story Alexander shared, or is hoping this goes away. Alexander anchored the noon newscast on Feb. 14, but Tom McNamara stepped in to handle duties at 4, an especially unusual occurrence during sweeps period, where stations deem it the most critical to have anchors and reporters in their assigned slots.

Alexander is currently off the air (news director Cathie Batbie-Loucks says Alexander is "on vacation") but to this point KVOA’s approach has seemed different than how they handled a situation with 26-year station news veteran Martha Vazquez. Vazquez, the noon and 4pm anchor prior to Alexander, was cited for a misdemeanor shoplifting incident in mid February 2012. Instead of keeping her on, KVOA forced Vazquez to resign.

The Tucson Weekly was the first to report the Vazquez story, and then the Arizona Daily Star—and Weekly—ran numerous stories and follow-ups. TV news outlets KGUN and KOLD made no mention of the Vazquez incident.

"Reporting on alleged misdeeds by a direct competitor presents an ethical challenge,” said Carr in a facebook post in reference to the station’s decision not to cover the Vazquez story. “It gives the impression that the report might be motivated, in whole or in part, by a desire to make a competitor look bad. Ethical news reporting does not allow hidden agendas, real or perceived. So, misdeeds by a direct competitor must rise to a pretty high level in order to overcome that perception. Had it been our own anchor, we would have felt compelled to report it, but in this case, not otherwise. Newspaper reporters don't face this problem, given that they compete only indirectly with TV, which leaves them free to pursue the story."

To date, newspapers and other non-TV news outlets have stayed away from the Alexander/Baker situation, despite the fact that seemingly every media outlet in town has the police report in hand, even though further developments—such as a reprimand by TFD—could change that dynamic.

As for KVOA, consistency may not be its forte. The station allowed former reporter/anchor Brandon Gunnoe to remain on the job despite a DUI conviction, forced Vazquez to resign over a misdemeanor shoplifting incident, but has Alexander on board , even though Alexander could be in violation of the station’s loosely interpreted morality based contract language, a common inclusion in any signed deal between the station and talent.

“You, whether on or off the job, shall conduct yourself with sobriety and decency, with due regard for social conventions and public morals so as to not cause injury or damage to KVOA or any of its sponsors, which may shock, insult or offend the community or reflect unfavorably upon you, KVOA or its sponsors… In event of the breach of the standard of conduct prescribed by this provision, whether or not information in regard to such activity becomes public, KVOA may terminate this contract upon 24 hours notice to you.”

No word if the Fire Department has a similar clause in their employment contracts.

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