Full-Court Press

Readers weren't given all the facts in the Star's hatchet job on a candidate.

Dumb move, opined Debbie Kornmiller, the Arizona Daily Star's reader advocate, after the paper published an opinion column by a killer on death row. Editor and Publisher Jane Amari was not pleased, especially after longtime readers began to cancel their subscriptions. Jim Kiser, editorial page editor who had approved publication of the column, disavowed it with an apology two days later.

OK, so now we want to hear from Kornmiller on the ethics of the candidate bashing performed by Kiser on school board member, and candidate in next week's election, Rosalie Lopez.

Kiser took on Lopez in three separate bylined pieces, on October 2, October 6 and October 29. The sum of his opinions added up to more than a full editorial page. They were labeled "Editorial Notebook" but could have been called "Candidate Killer."

Kiser certainly has a right to his opinions--in fact, many of his criticisms of Lopez were on target. Although Lopez has assisted The Weekly in documenting mistakes and wrongdoing by her rivals at TUSD, we're not blind to her faults. A case can be made that this persistent critic of TUSD personnel and policy may never be part of any solution to the district's many problems given the antagonisms that are now evident.

But is Kiser the one to make this case, given an apparent conflict of interest in the matter?

Lopez told us that Kiser went after her because she has advocated elimination of a dozen TUSD administrative jobs, including that of Kiser's wife, Shirley. Kiser told us he was unaware that Lopez had targeted his wife's job when he wrote his columns published in early October. He also quoted from a September e-mail in which Lopez says his wife is one of her favorite district employees.

But Kiser knew four years ago that Judy Burns, who is frequently allied with Lopez against Mary Belle McCorkle and Joel Ireland in the viper pit known as the TUSD school board, was critical of the program his wife directs. Kiser and Burns exchanged letters about whether it was appropriate for him to be involved in the newspaper editorial board's consideration of her candidacy.

Kiser excused himself from editorial board deliberations of TUSD candidates in 1996 because of a potential conflict with his wife's job. He sat in on TUSD candidate Burns' interview with the board in 1998, but excused himself from subsequent interviews with TUSD candidates because of comments that Burns made to The Weekly.

In a November 11, 1998, letter to then-Editor Steve Auslander, Burns accused the Star of "lack of objectivity and bias" and "manipulation and cronyism" in its treatment of TUSD candidates. In a written reply to Burns, Kiser rejected the charges of lack of objectivity, bias, manipulation and cronyism, but conceded his conflict of interest.

"You were quoted in the Tucson Weekly as making a comment critical of a TUSD program, the 4th R. That is the program in TUSD that my wife runs. Your comment made me aware that I did have a conflict," Kiser wrote Burns on November 17, 1998.

Has the conflict disappeared? Kiser says yes. He says he brought up his wife's employment to his boss, Amari, and others during deliberations last year on a new ethics policy at the Star. "The feeling is, and I concur, that I do not have a conflict of interest," he said.

His wife coordinates a program and is not a policymaker at TUSD, Kiser says. He points out that despite his wife's employment he has written editorials critical of schools Superintendent Stan Paz or the district.

"The issue is not me--it's whether what I'm reporting on or offering opinions about are accurate, important and in the interest of the community," Kiser says.

Star readers weren't informed in Kiser's first two columns on Lopez that his wife is director of TUSD's 4th R program. Had they been, readers--prospective voters--could decide on their own if he's playing favorites.

Shirley Kiser, whose annual salary from TUSD is $58,000, does play favorites. She contributed $75 to McCorkle and $50 to Ireland when they successfully sought election to the school board in 2000. This year, Shirley Kiser gave $75 to Bruce Burke, one of Lopez's opponents for a board seat.

The Star endorsed Burke and Adelita Grijalva for the TUSD board in an editorial earlier this month.

Kiser finally revealed in print, toward the end of the third installment of his denunciation of Lopez, that his wife is a TUSD employee. That was after The Weekly's Dave Devine called him to comment for an article on the TUSD election ("Dysfunctional," October 24).

In his Tuesday piece, Kiser brushes aside the suggestion that his earlier columns could be construed "to promote my wife's career." It's more to the point to say he might have cause to "preserve" his wife's career from attempts by Lopez and Burns to reduce TUSD administration. But it's not really his wife's career that's of concern. As he says, it would take a majority of the board, not any one or two members, to fire his wife.

More to the point is whether her views influence his, and thus his readers'. Or whether there's a public perception that he might be unfair because of her association with TUSD. That puts a newspaper's credibility at stake.

It's the Star's prerogative to recommend candidates for election. Their writers and editors may choose to attack controversial public figures if they have cause to believe that's in the public's interest. But if we were advocating for readers of the Star--many of whom may base their Tuesday vote on Kiser's columns--we'd say they deserved to be informed of his wife's employment at TUSD near the beginning of each of the columns.

And, frankly, given that the Star has dozens of writers and editors, is it really too much to ask that it assign one to write about Lopez whose wife is not a TUSD administrator who contributes to the political campaigns of her opponents?

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