Tucson Weekly . Volume 12, Number 10 . May 18 - May 24, 1995

They Don't Have Jeff Smith To Kick Around Anymore.

B y  J e f f  S m i t h

THIS IS GOING to piss Peggy off, but hey, she knew the job was dangerous when she took it.

And people will talk, no doubt, to the effect that I'm being mean-spirited, self-serving, whining...whatever. To which I can only reply: Why disappoint everyone's expectations of you?

I'd as soon have kept my mouth shut, speaking only when spoken to, answering only when asked, except that it simply got wearisome trotting out the same old tune each time a friend not seen for many moons, or a stranger on the street would ask me:

How come I don't see you on Channel Six anymore?

On account of I'm not on Channel Six anymore. Only that sounded too smart-ass by half, even for one who pays the rent being a smart-ass, so I switched to a more au point, short-hand, but nonetheless accurate explanation:

"Peggy doesn't love me anymore."

Which often as not drew a half-puzzled/half-knowing expression, which in turn drew a second stock response from me, along the lines of, "Not carnally or emotionally, it's more what they like to call creative differences." Meaning I think she's on a tangent and she thinks I'm full of shit.

What one needs to understand about Peggy--that's Peggy Johnson Giddings Long Giddings Johnson-Again of KUAT-TV Channel Six, moderator of Arizona Illustrated's Friday evening Reporters' Roundtable segment--is that she loves politics. Drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll are just so much broccoli and brussels sprouts to Peg alongside politics, particularly as practiced in and around the state Legislature and executive office building in Phoenix. Politics is her beat on AZ-Ill. Of course, budgets being in the shoestring class, she doubles as anchor and producer of special segments like Reporters' Roundtable.

She started the roundtable several years ago--I disremember exactly how many, but I was there when it happened and we started off as a monthly spot, Peg and I and Peter Bronson, who was then editorial page editor of the Tucson Citizen. The Citizen has, since the stewardship of Paul McKalip, pursued an editorial policy that beggars the term conservative. Reactionary would be more apt. Bronson was a young, smart man who claimed to have grown up through the '60s as a hippie-liberal, and then to have seen the light when he got to be a grown-up with money in the bank. Frankly I've always been suspicious of such foxhole converts, but Peter and I got along dandy on a personal level, and were able to really get under each other's hide when the cameras rolled for Reporters' Roundtable and Peggy tossed the jump-ball and let Peter and me scuffle for it.

The chemistry was good, the subjects far-ranging, and the energy level high. Folks in television land--at home and in the Channel Six offices--liked it enough that we went weekly after a year or so. Then a couple years later disaster struck.

Peter took a job in Cincinnati and Peggy and I were left to worry about where we were ever going to find another conservative with brains enough to speak in front of a camera.

Mark Kimble, the editorial page editor at the Citizen, is simply too humane to be truly redneck and reactionary in his editorial viewpoints. The tape would roll and Peggy would chuck a grenade our way and I'd scoop it up and threaten to pull the pin unless J. Fife Symington III took the next stage out of state, and Mark would come up with something stirring like, "I agree with Jeff."

Well, poop--what fun is there in that?

Meanwhile, for the past quite a bunch of months, Peggy had been leaning ever-more-closely on Steve Meissner, the political reporter/columnist at The Arizona Daily Star. And like TV anchor Bud Foster earlier in the Roundtable's history, Steve was constrained by his reporter's oath of office to be far more objective and reportorial than I or Mark or Lankford or Bronson needed or were inclined to be.

I ran out of conservatives to fight with, and I think an essential element of the segment's earlier chemistry was lost. The spot turned increasingly toward inside political intelligence and gossip, much of it the sub rosa, backroom sort, with Meissner conducting the curriculum from his vast store of little-known data from usually reliable sources. He and Peg and Mark were like pigs in shit, happiness-wise, while I kept on asking could we once in a while talk about something like guns or motorcycles or horses and dogs or any damn thing besides the frigging state Legislature.

Peggy will tell you, if you ask or maybe if you don't, that I had a habit of showing up unprepared and talking off the top of my head. She's absolutely right about that, but if I had been told before air-time what we would be batting around, then I could have done my homework. It got to the point where Peg and Steve were setting the agenda and not providing me with an advance copy. Ah, well.

Then Peggy brought Bunny Badertscher into the mix, and as far as I'm concerned the wheels fell off the skateboard. "We need more women and we need a real conservative," was Peg's rationale. Vera Marie "Bunny" covered those bases, and Peggy finessed the "Reporters" part of the Roundtable job profile by introducing Las Buns as "editor of the Baja Arizona Political News."

Excuse me while I gag.

Bunny Badertscher is not a reporter, nor is she an editor, nor is she a journalist of any honest description, because the Baja Arizona Political News is not a newspaper. It is what we in the trade know as a house organ. Bunny is a political consultant by trade. That's how she lists herself in the phone book.

The Baja Arizona Political News is a little advertising and promotion sheet she puts out to hustle her consulting services and the political candidates and office-holders whose conservative viewpoints she shares. Bunny's a hired gun, not a dishonorable calling. She handles conservative Republican candidates, not dishonorable per se either. If you've got the money, honey, she's got the time to help you get elected and, if the money keeps flowing, get you headed in the right direction post-election. That's what she did for Jim Kolbe, for Jon Kyl, even for Fife Symington.

Bunny was Fife's campaign manager and served as his chief of staff after he was elected. So I found it a bit much to swallow when Bunny joined the Roundtable and was introduced as a reporter. I figured essentially she was getting free TV time to shill for the political philosophy and the candidates and elected officials who had been or would be purchasing her services and her influence.

A curious alliance between vested political interests and commercial-free public television, don't you think? And quite a coup for Vera Marie Badertscher, Inc.

But enough is enough. They brought Gov. Fife back on Reporters' Roundtable some time back, and do you suppose that Ms. Badertscher--his former campaign manager and chief of staff and God, Guv and Bunny only know what future service she will provide J. Fife III--had the decency to declare her conflict-of-interest and sit this one out? Or at least declare her true affiliations? Or that Peggy could pass just once on the smarmy description of editor of the Baja Arizona Political News?

Hell no. They're all lobbing puffballs at Fife and he's dinking them back over the net. A regular love-fest. As a friend of mine observed, they might as well have had Fife's mom posing as a reporter and asking the tough questions like, "How'd you get to be so darn cute?"

Of course I can understand the eagerness to please the governor, considering how tight budgets at the state universities are now, and how hard it is to keep a TV station open, or hang onto a job in TV news.

Or print news, for that matter. I've been there. And not there. I know. You could ask Steve Meissner, too. Last couple of Meissner bylines I saw in the Star were over weekend cop stories. Not politics. And he hasn't had his political column for many moons.

Sounds to me as though this vehicle for political discussion is in need of an overhaul. But I don't expect to be invited back aboard any time soon.

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May 18 - May 24, 1995

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