Daniel Scarpinato used to be a journalist
And you know what they say about former journalists: They never stop talking about how they'd do it differently.
We’ve turned this newsletter over a few times to other voices with different perspectives who can offer something we can’t. As we noted in our quarterly business update, you seem to enjoy reading other people here, too. That’s cool!
Today, we invited Daniel Scarpinato, the former chief of staff to Gov. Doug Ducey and a former journalist, to introduce himself and share some thoughts on the media. He left government last year and is now a partner at Ascent Media, an advertising, campaign and public affairs firm. Daniel will be writing for us on occasion here, and we wanted you to know who he is and where he’s coming from first.
We asked him to write for a few reasons: He’s a trusted conservative voice in Arizona, and there’s a lack of thoughtful conservative writing here (emphasis on thoughtful). Even when we disagree with him, we find him considerate and respectful. And we are cognizant that our writing can skew left at times, so we want there to be other voices who can fill in our gaps.
All that said, we expect Daniel will write about his thoughts on Arizona media, government and politics, with some inside perspective that he has from years in the trenches. We’re thrilled to have him here, and we hope you are, too.
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“Who says the Arizona Daily Star doesn’t have a Capitol reporter?”
That was how I was greeted on a beautiful December morning, 15 years ago, on my first day at the Arizona State Capitol.
I had just parked my Honda Civic on 17th Avenue, and lugged my 40-pound turquoise iMac into the old Senate Press Room.
The voice was from Howie Fischer, the infamous and flamboyant dean of the press corps, and I was nervous as hell.
To say I had imposter’s syndrome would be putting it mildly. The other reporters could be my parents. Some had worked in that room since before I was born. I was just 25, still had mild acne, had never spent a week of my life anywhere but Tucson, and barely knew how a bill became a law. COW? Say again?
But there I was in the middle of this journalism time capsule — “All The President’s Men” meets “The Daily Planet.” Clearly a shell of its former self, but still really cool. Dingy, dirty, dank and decorated with political bumper stickers from the past five decades.
Just a few years out of college, I had cut my teeth covering school board meetings in Tucson, and Gabby Giffords’ first run for Congress. This felt like the big leagues, but I also knew I was in way over my head.
How would I compete with Howie, Mary Jo Pitzl, Matt Benson and Paul Davenport?
The answer was: I wouldn’t.
After gently teasing me on that first day, Howie took me to Capitol eatery La Canasta for lunch. He told me stories about being a reporter in the 1970s in Cochise County, driving around between Bisbee and Tombstone with bungee cords strapping a typewriter to the back of his motorcycle.
“How have you lasted for 30 years?” I asked. His advice: “You’ve got to have fun down here.”
It was clear he had a lot of fun. And I was determined to do the same.
Instead of fighting over turf, Howie and I became fast friends. For four years, we had lunch almost every day. Howie advised me to lean in on being the Tucson guy. No one else had my vantage point: new, fresh, the outsider. Make my coverage hyperlocal, he said. I was my hometown’s eyes and ears. He gave me tips and story ideas. Some were serious, others were kooky, but I did them anyway.
Like a piece on the ridiculous and obnoxious Bluetooth headsets that lawmakers wore in their ears during committee hearings in the 2000s. While my predecessors had complained that their stories never made it on the front page, that one made it above the fold — with a picture of State Sen. John Nelson next to Uhura from Star Trek.
Much has changed in the intervening years, in my life and in the media. The press room was shut down in 2009. I took the plunge into politics in 2010. Enjoyed the campaign trail. Spent a few years in DC. Came back and somehow eventually and improbably became chief of staff to the governor. I’ve been on both sides of the notebook and seen the power of pen and the power of government, and also the dangers and flaws of both.
From my balcony in the Executive Tower as chief of staff, I had a great view of the Capitol complex. At least a couple times a week, I’d stand out there and look at that spot where I first parked my Honda Civic and think: “How did I make it from there to here?”
Through teacher walkouts to COVID-19 to budget fights and veto threats, I’d always try to remember that sage advice: “You’ve got to have fun down here.” Yes, often that was hard — and in the most challenging of times, impossible.
Save Howie, the old guard at the Capitol have mostly moved on to other beats and other gigs. When I left the Daily Star, they eliminated the position. I’d like to think I was irreplaceable, but it probably had more to do with dollars and cents. There’s no dedicated Tucson voice at the Capitol. Not even an East Valley voice. No radio room. As it turns out, I arrived at the beginning of the end of an era in journalism.
I hate to say “the good old days.” But they were. The media was aggressive, but not belligerent and not hated — at least not completely.
We asked tough questions all day, and wrote pretty straight-forward, boring stories in the afternoon about what had transpired.
You debated issues and coverage with your sources over a beer, not on Twitter.
Yes, as the media likes to point out today, former Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano had weekly “press briefings.” I know, I was there. They were gentle and innocent. Usually 12 minutes — tops. When she was done talking about a subject, she’d declare: “Let’s move on.” And guess what? We did.
It was a far cry from the COVID-19 press conferences of 2020, where performance art and media outrage replaced sober Q&A — often for over 90 minutes. Go back and watch. They didn’t age well. Based on the questioning, you’d think Doug Ducey created the virus himself in a Wuhan lab.
As a young reporter, I was a Republican and voted that way, but I kept that part of myself private. I was obsessed with protecting my credibility and being viewed impartially by the people I covered. I didn’t weigh in on issues, or attack politicians and their staff on social media for how they handled issues. If I had, I would have either been reprimanded or fired.
I could also be a royal pain in the ass. Kirk Adams, the former Republican Speaker of the House, later hired me as his spokesman because he said he had the most anxiety about the questions I would ask in my dry, monotone voice.
A simpler time, to be certain.
Today, there’s not much positive on the media front. No one reads the newspaper. Newsrooms are gutted. School boards and town councils go uncovered. Politicians disregard much of what does make it into print because no one reads it, let alone trusts it. Members of Congress have an approval rating reporters could only hope for (and that’s not saying much).
As a result, the press is defensive and has a “all for one, one for all” mentality on nearly everything. Everyone always accepted that the press was left-of-center — now they seem downright partisan. There’s the red team and the blue team. Reporters regularly share their feelings on social media. If you’re a reporter with a right-of-center viewpoint, expect to be mocked and trolled by your colleagues.
It’s depressing. Democracy depends on a strong and independent press. But for it all to work, the media also has to be respected. Not beloved; just seen with some level of credibility.
And to find the stories and communicate what’s really happening, relationships are needed. Trust needs to be built. I’d be curious how many reporters still walk the halls of the Capitol and just pop into lawmakers’ offices to chit-chat. To find out what people are all about. Maybe it’s not necessary: After all, you can just watch it all from home, with your mask on.
Despite all this, I still can’t help but like reporters. I value their work. I want them to matter. I’ll never “out” them by name as I’d ruin their reputations, but some of them would even call during the depths of COVID-19 to check in on my mental health. And I haven’t been shy with them about my views on their profession, industry and personal objectivity. I guess my nagging led the Arizona Agenda folks to convince me to write this column, and more on occasion. Now I’ll be forced to formulate my rants into something coherent. My hope is to add something to the debate, provide a perspective not always reflected in the media, avoid run-of-the-mill partisan dribble, not be boring and call things as I see them.
In that spirit, while I haven’t been around nearly as long as Howie was when he gave me his advice on my first day, I’ll now dispense some my own:
It is possible to be tough but also fair. Don’t mistake sharing your own personal outrage for being a hard-hitting journalist.
The media may not actually be the enemy of the people, but neither are Republicans.
Yeah, “have fun.” It’s not all gloom and doom. We are not witnessing the end of times. Even if we were, you’re not going to prevent the apocalypse as an Arizona political reporter, I’m sorry.
And get to know the people you cover. Lift yourself out of the day-to-day. Hold the powerful accountable, yes, but every now and then, it’s also worth listening to what they have to say — and maybe, I don’t know, just reporting it.
You can find Daniel on Twitter at @Scarpinato.