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The great debate debate meltdown redux
ASU wants an apology … Crow captures Cronkite … And APS has Parrish on retainer(!)
The new interim head of Arizona PBS, Mi-Ai Parrish, is still very much not over last year’s gubernatorial debate meltdown.
In June, Parrish, the former publisher of the Arizona Republic and a power player in the local media, business and political scenes, took over the reins as interim general manager of Arizona PBS, Channel 8, which was run by and housed in ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
One of her first orders of business was to meet with the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, a government agency with a legal mandate to host candidate debates every election year that has partnered with PBS/ASU to produce and air its statewide debates for the last 20 years.
The objective was to clear the air and drain the bad blood stemming from the fallout of Gov. Katie Hobbs’ refusal to debate her opponent, Kari Lake, and the chaos that ensued. Both sides claimed to want to find a way to move on and reignite the relationship that had brought Arizonans two decades of professional, informative and thought-provoking debates.
But after the meeting, Parrish warned that she and ASU President Michael Crow were still very upset about DebateGate, demanded an apology and threatened that ASU would host its own, competing debates in the future.
“Let's be straight: The breakage with President Crow is severe and the mindset is to host debates without you,” she wrote in an email that we obtained through a public records request.
In case you missed DebateGate 2022, ASU/PBS broke its deal with Clean Elections and offered Hobbs equal airtime to Lake in a separate interview after Hobbs refused to debate — in direct violation of Clean Elections longstanding rules that candidates who refuse to debate do not get separate, equal airtime.
Crow acknowledged to us at the time that he made clear his preference to give Hobbs her solo show, raising serious questions about the station’s independence from the man who has been called "the most powerful person in Arizona.”
Lake was furious. Hobbs was smitten. The whole thing turned into a circus culminating with one of Lake’s patented protest/rally/press conferences outside of ASU/Cronkite/PBS where she held up a sign with Crow’s phone number on it and urged her rabid fan base to call him and complain, among other Hijinks. ASU employees and students reported being harassed by Lake’s army of supporters.
In the end, Hobbs ended up with a 30-minute primetime one-on-one interview with “Arizona Horizons” host Ted Simons on PBS. Lake and Clean Elections boycotted, and Lake ended up on a thrown-together Clean Elections sponsored program with conservative radio host Mike Broomhead on the less-watched Channel 7 a few days later.
PBS blamed Clean Elections, which blamed PBS. The two sides have been in a cold war ever since.
When Parrish fired off her email to Clean Elections more than eight months after the non-debate, she wasn’t ready to move on. If the commission wanted a meeting with Crow to discuss any future debates, “an apology would be appropriate” first, she told them.
“As a reminder, some of the fallout included requiring security guards for our students and dozens of hours of legal work and being on the receiving end of nasty national coverage. Personally, I'm still dealing with attacks on my character and ethics,” Parrish wrote in the email.
Clean Elections Executive Director Tom Collins and Voter Education Director Gina Roberts, who were both in the meeting, were “flabbergasted” by the demand, Collins wrote in an email to the commission’s chairman, Mark Kimble, warning that “given the severe and unwarranted accusations and tone of this email from a major figure in Arizona journalism, I wanted to let you know.”
“As you can see from the email below, Ms. Parrish apparently re-read tweets and is now demanding an apology from us for things that quite frankly we have no responsibility for, nor for which it would be appropriate for us to take responsibility,” Collins wrote. “We had asked for a meeting with Crow or his chief of staff to attempt to explain what our processes were in hopes we could move forward. Although Parrish advised us there were issues we needed to work through, at no time did she intimate, let alone demand, this kind of broad sweeping apology nor make these inappropriate and false insinuations.”
Kimble concurred that the commission had nothing to apologize for. He directed Roberts and Collins to ignore the email.
“After last year, I am all for ditching ASU — and I feel even more that way after that pissy email.” Kimble wrote back. “But I hesitate to give them the finger until and unless we have other viable options.”
Parrish still faults Clean Elections for the “big fat public mess,” telling us in an interview that the commission lied about her and Crow, which forced the university to get legal help to prepare for records requests about it. She repeatedly implied that the commission, not Lake, was to blame for the protesters that came to ASU and the harassment staff received after Lake’s press conference. (She never asked Lake for an apology.)
“When you help target students, I will be concerned. My concern is for my students,” she said. “I didn't ask them for a (personal) apology at the time. I'm not asking them for an apology now. I didn't ask them for an apology in that (email). I was explaining that that's the situation.”
The issue is clearly personal for Parrish. She claims Clean Elections spread a rumor that she had destroyed emails, damaging her reputation. She’s still annoyed that the commission hasn’t answered her email seeking an apology — she brought it up several times in our hourlong interview.
But she has never asked for a personal apology, she stressed. But she still thinks that if the commission wants to talk to Crow about debates with PBS, they should apologize first. But it’s not a demand. It’s just her opinion as the station’s general manager.
“I want to do debates. I’ve said that all along — to educate, inform and enlighten the people that we serve. To have voters have the knowledge that they need to make informed decisions. That's my only intention. That's what I told Tom (Collins), that's what I told Gina (Roberts) and I did not ask them for an apology. But is a true statement of fact that I have people still lying and make insane lies that are related to what Clean Election said and did in that debate,” she said.
Collins was so unnerved by the email that he contacted ASU’s attorney in what he described as an attempt to head off further escalation. Her comments to us only reinforce that that was the right call, he told us yesterday.
“There is a real concern I have about the reputational harm that Ms. Parrish’s statements, as you read them to me, seem designed to inflict without any evidence. The rumors, the things she’s talking about sound … it’s just so extremely odd. Why would she say that?” he told us when we read him some of Parrish’s comments.
Crow never told Parrish to ask for an apology on his behalf, she said, but she personally thinks he deserves one. (Crow didn’t return our call or voicemail about this story.)
CONSOLIDATING CROW’S POWER
Parrish hadn’t yet been promoted to interim general manager of PBS when DebateGate went down, but she was in the middle of decision-making as both a high-profile ASU professor and the station’s managing director, advocating for the one-on-one with Simons that Hobbs wanted.
Crow apparently liked how she handled it. When the station needed an interim general manager in June, Crow turned to Parrish.
But unlike previous station managers, Parrish doesn’t report to the dean of Cronkite. She reports directly to Crow’s executive vice president — in essence, she reports to Crow. Arizona PBS may still be physically housed in Cronkite, but for all intents and purposes, it’s under Crow’s office now.
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The longtime university president’s choice to step in on a huge editorial and political decision with potentially election-altering consequences during DebateGate, along with his later move to consolidate the station under his office rather than the journalism school, calls into question the station’s ability to act independently, as all legitimate news organizations must.
At the time, Collins compared Crow’s admission that he had suggested his preference to Jack Nicholson’s admission in “A Few Good Men” that he had “ordered the code red.” That’s one of the things Parrish still thinks he should apologize for.
“Dr. Crow is the most powerful man in Arizona outside of Gov. Doug Ducey. Dr. Crow should not be allowed to simply pretend like he can just make a suggestion,” Collins told us in October. “Everyone in this state knows that what Dr. Crow says goes.”
Parrish repeatedly told us that Crow was not involved in the decision to give Hobbs a solo interview. When we pointed out that Crow acknowledged he weighed in, she maintained that’s the first and only time he’s inserted himself into editorial decisions.
“He did not say, ‘Go do an interview with Katie Hobbs.’ He said, ‘How might we hear from both of these people?’ Which I don't think is an unreasonable thing,” she said. (It should be noted that PBS did not, in fact, hear from Lake, who actually wanted to do the agreed-upon debate.) “In my entire time at ASU, this is the only time he's ever asked something that approaches an editorial direction … He's never called and said, ‘Hey, go do an interview with one of my friends’ or something.”
PBS is, however, currently working on an agreement to host town halls with The Center for the Future of Arizona, run by Crow’s wife, Sybil Francis, Parrish told us. She said that deal started before she took over the station. Parrish thinks the new structure is actually better for the station’s editorial independence.
“Reporting to me versus reporting to the dean, I don't see that as worse. I see that as better,” she said. “Having the station have its own thing, separate from the school, being able to make determinations for itself in that way, is important.”
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Parrish was, in many ways, an obvious choice to lead PBS. She has extensive experience running a large news organization and is an incredibly influential leader in local media who knows all the political and business power players.
But her connections in the business industry, including the many clients of her consulting firm, MAP Strategies Group, create clear conflicts of interest.
Even Parrish acknowledges that her side gig would have been banned when she was publisher of the Arizona Republic, and it wouldn’t be allowed for any reporter under her leadership.
The website for MAP Strategies Group — which Parrish started with her husband, David Parrish, a Pulitzer-winning reporter, and Mark Nothaft, a fellow former Republic employee — looks like a NASCAR stock car: It’s plastered with logos of Arizona’s most powerful, and political, companies.
Among them are regulated utilities that spend millions lobbying and donating to candidates and political causes each year, like Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project. There are also politicians like former longtime lawmaker and non-profit baron Robert Meza, and failed Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Marco Lopez’s Intermestic Partners, which was tied to the largest international bribery scandal in history.
And there are plenty of other politically adjacent entities that cause clear conflicts of interest for the general manager of a publicly funded news station to have as consulting clients on the side, including but not limited to the City of Glendale, Banner Health, the Arizona Chamber Foundation and the Chamber Business News, as well as The Center for the Future of Arizona, which, as previously noted, is run by Crow’s wife.
In journalism, the mere appearance of a conflict is considered as bad as an actual conflict. Parrish knows this as well as anyone. She teaches an ethics class at Cronkite.
No newspaper or news station in America would allow its general manager to have a consulting firm with high-powered political clients the organization covers — except apparently Arizona PBS. But when we asked Parrish about it, she accused us of committing “gotcha” journalism. (Later, she acknowledged that the issue is legitimate.)
“I think it's reasonable that you're asking this and I understand. And that’s why I fill out a conflict of interest form
Some of those clients listed on her website haven’t been clients in years, she said.
But she still has a $10,000 per year retainer with APS, she acknowledged. She has only billed them about half of that so far this year, she said, and she is turning down new political contracts now that she’s managing the station.
“You know what, I will go on the website and take down everybody who is not currently and hasn't for a while been any part of what we've done,” she told us, adding that her ongoing contract with APS is not a conflict because “We don't cover APS. … I’m not directing coverage of APS.”
Parrish wouldn’t commit to stepping down from her consulting firm, saying only that if she did ever have to make a choice between the two, she would choose ASU.
CLEARING THE AIR
At this point, Clean Elections and PBS are incredibly distrustful of each other. Feelings are still raw, and getting rawer with every private email unearthed by public records requests and every new call from a reporter.
It seems like the future of the 20-year-old Clean Elections/PBS/ASU debates program may hinge on whether Clean Elections is willing to offer Crow an apology, which he did not ask for, for things that Lake did, in order to satisfy Parrish.
It’s incredibly petty.
Both sides claim that they are still open to working together, though neither sees a clear path forward.
Clean Elections re-opened the lines of communication this week, sending an email seeking to continue the conversations. Parrish said she was responding to it when we called her Thursday morning.
For her part, Parrish insists ASU wants to do debates and says its preferred partner would be Clean Elections.
Collins said working with ASU again would be an option for the commission, too. But given the situation, the commission isn’t not holding its breath. It’s actively seeking other partners to put on the 2024 debates in case ASU doesn’t work out.
But if that 20-year relationship is ever going to be repaired, ASU and Parrish are going to have to let go of 2022, he said.
“We’re gonna have to find a way to clear the air here if we’re going to move forward. And I’m not sure how we do that,” he said.
Full disclosure: For years, Hank has worked as a moderator for Clean Elections’ legislative debates, though not the statewide debates on PBS. He gets paid for that work.
We filed a records request with ASU in June seeking these emails along with other records. We still haven’t received a single page. Parrish said ASU never asked her to search her emails for the records. We eventually received the records for this story from Clean Elections.
We filed a public records request for Parrish’s conflict of interest forms as well. But like all our records with ASU, we don’t expect to receive anything soon.