Scarlet Letters - Public Relations Sleazeballs Go Too Far in Defense of the Latest Mount Graham Telescope Project


THE TUCSON WEEKLY, MAY 22, 1997 - Scarlet Letters - Public Relations Sleazeballs Go Too Far in Defense of the Latest Mount Graham Telescope Project
By Tim Vanderpool


AGAINST ALL ODDS, the sleazy little war waged by the UA to plant telescopes on Mt. Graham became even dirtier last month, when a diatribe allegedly penned by student and later published in the Arizona Daily Wildcat turned out to be a high-priced lie.

It was expensive because the vehement bit of correspondence--peppered with descriptions of telescope foes as "self-serving extremists" and "guilty of crude deception"--was actually authored by a slick public relations firm that, until recently, was pulling in $5,000 a month to slap a happy face onto the UA's almost fanatical crusade.

That fee has since been wrenched down to $2,500, but is still paid, on time, by the Large Binocular Telescope Project. Otherwise known as LBT, the enterprise is primarily directed by the Steward Observatory on the UA campus.

Art history senior Jennifer Marshall admits she didn't know the LBT from a BLT when she was contacted in April by a friend interning with the public relations firm Strategic Issues Management Group (SIMG).Nor was she savvy to the decade of power politics and bureaucratic subterfuge characterizing the battle, when she agreed to add her name to a list of scope supporters.

"I actually ran into (the friend) on campus, and he wanted to know if he could use my name on something," she says. "He had identified it as pro-telescope. And then later when I talked to him on the phone, I got the bigger scoop, that it was, you know, part of his project of working at the PR firm. My understanding was that it was a petition form letter."

He told her she'd get a copy in the mail. He later called to say time was short, and that whatever it was had to be mailed post haste. "Then he faxed the letter to me after five (p.m.), after they had already sent it off," she says, "and "I knew right away it wasn't something I'd necessarily agree with."

Still, she says, she hadn't signed a thing.

In addition to the Wildcat, the same letter bearing Marshall's name was mailed to the Tucson Citizen, and that's when the phone starting ringing, she says. "I was contacted by them wanting verification that I had written the letter, but I didn't give it to them. I didn't give them permission to print it, but they ran it in the Wildcat."

And run it did, beginning like this: "The time has come for a group of self-serving extremists and obstructionists to stop trying to make the UA's Large Binocular Telescope on Mt. Graham as expensive as possible."

The missive referred to a recent lawsuit brought by a group called the Apache Survival Coalition, or ASC, to halt the project on turf many Native Americans consider sacred. It also attacked Robin Silver, a Phoenix physician and scope opponent, and a Tucson group called the Student Environmental Action Coalition, more commonly known as SEAC.

After much spewing and gnashing, the letter ended by saying that, "as an environmentalist, I ask the ASC's Robin Silver, SEAC and other LBT opponents to focus their considerable energies into more productive crusades. Enough is enough. Or too much."

Pretty meaty stuff for an art history major who formerly knew squat about the squabble.

A week later the Wildcat published another letter bearing Marshall's name. But this time there were two glaring differences: The second correspondence denounced the first. And she'd written it herself.

She wrote of being "outraged that a PR firm is of the habit [sic] of contacting (and subsequently misleading) students at the university for the purpose of enlisting them for propaganda."

The Strategic Issues Management Group spins its wares from offices both in Tucson, and in Washington, D.C. They've been the LBT's mouthpiece for about 18 months, and in a May 1996 letter to Steward Observatory Director Peter Strittmatter, listed their goals as "the implementation of a rapid response program, creation of positive media stories relating to astronomy, and continued efforts to minimize the significance of the opposition."

Or as Matt Smith, a partner in the firm, says in reference to the UA's Mt. Graham fight, "When you get knocked over the head enough times, until it's built, you're worried about getting knocked over the head."

Though construction of the enormous, $60-million scope is well underway, and two other smaller scopes already share the mountain, endless lawsuits claiming violations of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act have hobbled the project since its 1984 inception.

Not that the UA has been without resources to fight back. Through sheer clout--and with plenty of backroom deal-making by U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe and other congressmen--they've successfully dodged most federal environmental regulations.

Now, for $2,500 a month, the LBT is doing its best to hog-tie opponents on the public front, even if that strategy apparently involves bending the truth.

Still, Smith says the letter incident isn't accepted practice, but instead "simply a breakdown in the process. To say that's our policy or that's how we do things, it's not. Our policy is to advocate the interests of our clients."

But he defends the expressed editorial stance, saying "Everything in that letter was correct. And Miss Marshall had the letter more than a week in advance. Before it went out, we had her okay. It was made very clear to her."

"However, I respect her right to change her mind," he says. "That's exactly what she did."

Ironically, Smith was directly contradicted by another SIMG partner, David Steele. Talking to an Arizona Daily Star reporter about the Marshall letter a week earlier, Steele said, "We do that. And we'll continue to do that. We're a communications firm. We write things to be published."

Smith says the quote was taken out of context, and "only meant that we'll continue to serve our client's interests."

Meanwhile, Michael Cusanovich, UA vice president of research, stops just short of calling Marshall a liar. "There are two issues here," he says. "Issue one: Does the second letter accurately represent what really happened? According to our information, there actually was (an original) letter and the individual had the letter, and knew what they had agreed to sign.

When told that Marshall denies seeing the letter before it was handed to the Wildcat, Cusanovich said "Well, that's not the case."

Asked whether she was lying, he simply said, "Right."

And like Smith, he contends Marshall must have been contacted by the student newspaper to verify the letter. But Wildcat Editor Kelly Sampson admits her paper screwed up. "It is our policy to call," she says. "But (Marshall) wasn't called. It was our mistake."

Regardless, Cusanovich said, deceptive tactics exemplified by the Marshall letter "are common practice. SEAC does it, according to their own handbook." He adds that he's now a tad nervous about putting his own name to letters generated by his staff.

But the pivotal question lingers: Did Jennifer Marshall simply get cold feet after a cold splash of brainwashing by SEAC members, who contacted her when the first Wildcat letter appeared?

In his interview with the Star, Steele suggests as much, a charge SEAC spokeswoman Anne Carl calls a crock. "I think this woman has a lot of integrity," she says. "I just called her up to talk to her. Periodically, these letters come right out of the woodwork. All the phrases in them are very familiar, and we try to reach everyone who supposedly signs them."

Carl says some fake letters even bear the names of Apache tribal members. As for SEAC employing similar arts of deception, she says the group generates plenty of written protests. "But the difference is that our folks write, sign and mail them themselves. They know the subject, and they know what to say."

SEAC did use a soft touch, Marshall says. "I wasn't browbeaten by them like David Steele said. I was contacted by Anne Carl, but she didn't have to work to hard to convince me."

The upshot, according to Marshall, is that she plans to keep a short leash on her name from now on. "The whole letter thing felt kind of weird personally," she says, "to have it represented as my own words. I don't think that hiring PR firms to create this illusion of public support is okay. I don't think it's okay to get exempted from federal laws, and I think the UA's politics in handling this has been really amoral. The letter was just exemplary of that."

Reprinted with permission from the author