Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio loves the media and the media loves him. So does the Republican political establishment. So does the Tea Party. Through his six terms in office, the 82-year-old sheriff has perfected the media stunt and used public relation campaigns to keep journalists on his side -- or at least by his side. (A definite exception to the rule for critical coverage of Sheriff Joe is our partner paper, Phoenix New Times; at phoenixnewtimes.com, you can find dozens of stories on Arpaio -- including accounts of how he arrested the then- owners because they refused to turn over readers' confidential information.)
Documentary filmmaker Randy Murray set out to chronicle the kooky politician -- and after eight years of filming was stunned by the number of lives the sheriff had destroyed. What started as a fluffy film had turned into a major expose of media corruption and political scandal. The Joe Show will screen Sunday as part of the DocuWest International Film Festival; in advance of that event, we spoke with Murray about his film.
Westword: For starters, talk about your film.
Randy Murray: It's a feature documentary that uses the twenty years of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's tenure as a case study on the failures of the media dealing with politicians or being the fourth estate. It's about them shucking their responsibilities watching out for politicians. What's the consequences of that? This story shows what can happen when the media is duped by a politician.
Talk about Arpaio and his role with the media, how he plays the media and what that looks like?
You know, a sheriff or any law enforcement officer, his trade is protection. The flip side of protection is fear. His commerce is fear. He uses that commerce and the media drinks it up. They love it. It makes great ratings, and he found this out when he first ran for office. The more he would talk about the scary parts of his job, the more the media covered it. He's not a fool. He's a savvy politician, and he just saw how effective this was. This was 22 years ago. He kept playing it and kept playing it, and pretty soon he decided to hire a media consultant from television, and he did. And she flipped his office around and turned it into the prototype for the modern politician in the United States. It is an amazing machine for garnishing media. It's just incredible when you see what they've done and how they've done it.
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They've given us unbelievable access, and we're behind the curtain for eight years, watching how they came up with the ideas for these stunts, how they orchestrate it and how they pull it off. The planning is incredible. They're actually having a blast and that's what's really entertaining in the movie. You're watching them have fun manipulating the media and the media is just lapping it up. Unfortunately, the consequences are horrific. And you have to see the film to see how horrific.
Talk about how you secured access. What did that process look like? It was pretty complicated. It involved modern technology. I picked up the phone and called and said, "Can I follow you around and make a documentary?" He said, "Yeah."
It is a classic story of live by the sword, die by the sword. We had film cameras, so we shot this primarily on Red with a big film lens, so we looked impressive, and he loved that. He's often commented to me how good-looking my cameras are, which is hysterical. It's one of those funny things. If you show up and you listen, he will do everything.
We actually start the film by having him sing songs. He actually does a musical number at the top of the film, and the reason we do that is to demonstrate for the viewing audience that everything is on the table. He will do whatever you ask with a camera. There is no line that he will not cross. We want people to know that right out of the gate. Also, it's Hollywood tradition to start your movies with a musical number. It is one of the easiest things you can possibly do getting access with him. So, I can't brag too much. I just did it for eight years. That's the only thing that's different.
Read on for more from Randy Murray.
Talk about what it was like to follow him for eight years going through so many different antics. What did that feel like? What was that process like for you?
Ten years ago, when we started this, we were looking for somebody who was entertaining and interesting. We had this perception of the sheriff as sort of a buffoon, a smart politician, but kind of comical in most ways. So we started following him, and it was really about the media and the fun he was having and the fun the media was having and the harmless hijinks that were keeping him in the voters' eyes and how effective that was as a politician.
But after the years started to go by, we started to see that to keep the media, he had to elevate his game. When your commerce is fear and you start playing this game, you have to scare people more. All of a sudden, we started to notice that people's lives were being damaged and communities were being destroyed and it was really, really scary. Events started to happen and it became one of the worst situations since the '50s and '60s in the South here. And I'm not just talking about the racism against the Hispanic community, but I'm talking about how many of the horrific crimes that were committed here in our community were completely ignored. They were traded for headlines on other issues. It just became one of those stories that you saw develop in front of your eyes where this harmless thing was turning into a monster. It was scary, overwhelming and very exciting.
As a journalist, some of the worst things in the world are very exciting. I don't mean to trivialize people's lives who were ruined and lost during the telling of the story. But what was going to be a light fluff piece turned into what is one of the more important documentaries on the fourth estate and the United States government.
Arpaio's become this national figure over these last couple years and even at the beginning was headed in that direction.
The vast majority of law enforcement officers are not elected. They're appointed. The sheriff is one of a handful of people who are elected in a major metropolitan area. What really sets him apart is that he's decided to use that office to become a national figure. He's been pursued by presidential candidates for many years, and we follow him in our movie to New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney takes him to campaign for him. All the while, while people are dying at his hands, presidents are shaking the other hand and asking the camera to shoot them with him.
His mailing base is a national affair. It reaches every corner of this country. When he needs money to fight President Obama, which obviously he doesn't, when he sends that mailing out, people from everywhere send him money. When he says, "I'm the last defense against the Mexican invasion," people from all over the country send him money. He is the national front man for many of the fear-based issues we face as a nation. He's not speaking from a critical thinking perspective. He's thinking from a fear-based and profit-based perspective.
Has he seen the film?
How did he respond?
He hates it.
He hates it?
Oh, my God. We couldn't do a film, in all fairness, that bashes the media for a lack of journalistic integrity without practicing real journalistic integrity. So, we produced what we feel is extremely balanced. We took great care to cover the good, the bad and the ugly. We felt it was an important thing to do to make this tell the whole story.
So, at the end of the first thirty minutes, you understand how this man became so popular. And many of the people who go into the theater hating him, after thirty minutes, are going, "Well, I like him. I feel bad. I don't know how I hated him so much."
And then we start to see the consequence when we tell the other side. For those thirty minutes, people who loved him are going, "Oh my God. I can't believe I loved him." The bottom line is that at the end of the movie, you walk out and are forced to think about it and think critically about it. You're forced to look at the whole picture. That's what we wanted to do.
He doesn't like that. Back to your question, he hates it. And he was so mad when he saw the film. But when it started hitting film festivals and had great success at film festivals, he saw the publicity we were getting, and he called and said, "You're getting publicity without me." I said, "Yeah...."
He promotes the film. He goes on junkets with us. He tweets to his fan-base. He says, "I don't like the director's vision, but everybody should see the film." His promotion of the film, we believe, proves our premise of the film.
Read on for more from Randy Murray.
Literally, I've got the sheriff and the Tea Party doing mailers telling people to come see the movie at the same time I've got the ACLU sending mailers telling people to go see the movie. Wow. That's remarkable. I have to say, that makes me really happy. How could it not? That's incredible. I presume you're in touch with him still?
I talked to him just the other day, and he's willing to do national stories. We're hoping to get the national press. He's willing to do interviews about the film. He comes right out and says, "I hate it. It's a horrible movie, but everybody should see it." He feels like it's a movie about his enemies, but in actuality, they're his enemies because of him. This is not a movie about those individuals. This is a movie about the good and the bad of his life and his career.
Fascinating. I'm curious about your take on the media and where we are as a society with this ratings-driven coverage?
As a citizen, I can tell you how the experience of making this movie has awoken my sensibilities about the fourth estate. Our founding fathers built the three branches of government knowing the fourth branch was there and knowing that the capitalistic system of the fourth branch was going to be based on responsibility. It wasn't going to be based on ratings or dollars, but those would come if the journalists did their job. If they did their job well, they would prosper and find success.
That all changed as the media changed. And then our laws changed in the '80s. We opened up many of the deregulations on media. The Fairness Doctrine went away. We now have just a handful of owners.
In Phoenix, I personally knew three of the families who owned the TV stations I watched, the network affiliates. Today, I don't even know where the owners live. They don't live in our city, and I don't think they live in Denver, either.
The whole landscape has changed, and all the reporters and decision-makers in the news departments now have to go and have to be responsible for tonight's ratings, because that translates to tomorrow's earnings. They're put into a very, very difficult situation, because the vast majority of these people are journalists, and they have a lot of integrity, but they're being forced to compromise that integrity for ratings.
What that does is it builds a trap for politicians. Politicians can't talk about the issues like they used to. They have to talk in sound-bytes. They have to talk in patterns that fit into thirty-second headlines. They have to do stuff that competes against car crashes and dancing cats. It's a difficult place for politicians to go.
And the sheriff, he embraced it. He recognized the landscape and said, "You know, I'd be a fool not to do what I know will work."
And he has done that. He has grabbed hold of those reins and has changed how a politician who deals with law enforcement deals with the media forever.
You know, people like George Bush saw what he did, and I think it had an impact on his first presidential campaign. We as a people need to recognize this problem first, because this is not the relationship our founding fathers were depending on us having with our media. I'm off my soapbox now.
What's next with the film?
It's being really wonderfully received. We're going to be opening all over the country from coast to coast soon in theaters. And we're going to be playing in Europe and all over Canada. It's just been a wonderful experience to see people respond to something that's kind of a heavy subject matter. I guess it's because we couched it with such an entertaining character.
We're a small production company, and this is our second feature doc, and it's just been really exciting. It's been wonderful. See The Joe Show at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 14, at the SIE FilmCenter. For the rest of the DocuWest lineup, check out the festival website.
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Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris