A news desert makes it easy for an extremist lawmaker to pressure a governor into firing the first Black director of the state “child welfare” agency – less than two months after appointing him.
MARCH 3: See also the update here.
Shortly after taking office, the new Governor of Arizona, Democrat Katie Hobbs, named a reformer to run the state “child welfare” agency. Matthew Stewart would be the first Black leader of the Department of Child Safety (DCS). Arizona is a state which has one of the worst records f in America for racial bias in child welfare, a state where some caseworkers thought it was funny to wear t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Professional kidnapper.”
Hobbs, a social worker herself, knew exactly what she was getting when she chose Stewart. But she fired Stewart after less than two months. She fired him before he could even get a confirmation hearing – because of a smear campaign led by Republican State Sen. Jake Hoffman, who chairs the committee that would have held the hearing. Hoffman doesn’t even accept the legitimacy of Hobbs’ election. He’s been banned from some social media spaces for running a “troll farm.”
But this is more than a failure of one governor – it’s an example of how a state can become a “news desert” even when, technically, the news organizations haven’t shut down.
None of the facts about what really happened to Stewart was uncovered by an Arizona news organization. On the contrary, they simply cut-and-pasted Hoffman’s claims. They did this even though they knew or should have known all about the troll farming (something the Arizona Republic reported in 2020) and the election denying. The Republic quoted exhaustively from Hoffman’s press release gloating about his triumph. (I can’t link to it due to their paywall.) A breathless “breaking news” story from KPNX-TV could have been scripted by Hoffman.
At a minimum, local news organizations could have reminded readers of Hoffman’s own track record. For example, Hoffman implied that, during his brief tenure, Stewart fired employees because they were gay. It might have helped readers weigh the credibility of the claim had they been told that Hoffman
is leading a group of conservatives who plan to sue Hobbs for issuing an executive order guaranteeing equal employment opportunities for LGBTQ people working at state agencies. He also wrote a bill that would have banned books from schools that depict “acts” of “homosexuality.”
That’s a quote from a news organization, but not one based in Arizona. It’s from ProPublica, which told the full story that Arizona media missed.
Yes, ProPublica had an advantage. Reporter Eli Hager had met Matthew Stewart well before he was appointed, while doing an outstanding series of stories on the failings of family policing across the country. In the only Arizona news account I’ve found that mentions even asking Stewart for comment, the one in the Republic, he declined. But Hager didn’t just talk to Stewart. He found plenty of employees within DCS who vouched for him and debunked the allegations. Nothing published so far indicates that any Arizona news organization even tried.
That is not a function of malice or bias – it’s a function of the evisceration of local news. Between 2008 and 2020, the number of Newspaper newsroom employees plummeted by 57% - and there’s no end to the decline in sight. A few years ago both the Arizona Republic and the Arizona Daily Star received grants to do in-depth reporting on child welfare. Both did some very good work. But the grants have run out, and so has any serious reporting.
But how much would it have taken to at least put Hoffman’s smears into context? A paragraph or two, from earlier news stories, such as the one from the Republic, would have helped. And you still can reprint the ProPublica story at no charge.
If lawmakers are going to run troll factories, the least local media can do is not help them spread the trolling. Because a news desert is a dangerous place to leave children.