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Reporter Michel Marizco has racked up awards and acclaim covering the U.S.-Mexico border for nearly two decades, at one point running a news site called “Border Reporter” with the tagline “News That Crossed The Line.”
But when Marizco was hired to head up an Arizona-based public radio reporting team, it was his behavior as a supervisor that crossed the line, according to an internal 2019 investigation obtained by Phoenix New Times.
In 2016, Marizco came on as editor of the Fronteras desk, an ambitious reporting project that covers news from Mexico to the United States and is based out of Phoenix NPR-affiliate KJZZ (91.5 FM). Marizco had been a Fronteras correspondent when the Fronteras effort began in 2010 before leaving to work at a Tucson TV station. Since his return, the team’s work has continued to receive awards and national syndication.
Inside the team, things have been less rosy. When a reporter filed a complaint in September of 2019 alleging bullying and harassment by Marizco, other employees interviewed by investigators echoed his concerns. They said Marizco routinely cursed and yelled while berating subordinates, hanging up on them abruptly if he became irritated. Two said that Marizco screaming or yelling at them had affected their health due to increased anxiety.
“It was terrible,” one former Fronteras reporter told New Times. “Imagine ending your workday in tears several times a week. Imagine ending your workday angry and frustrated and having nowhere to turn.”
Despite Marizco’s denials of wrongdoing, the investigation ultimately found that he had engaged in bullying and unprofessional behavior. It dismissed several additional allegations, but sustained a charge of discriminatory conduct based on comments Marizco made, including allegedly telling one employee he counted his days like a “Jewish accountant.” Witnesses told the investigator that Marizco treated men and women employees differently, and women did not have the same opportunities in comparison to male coworkers due to their gender.
The investigation was conducted by the Maricopa Community College District’s Rio Salado College, which runs KJZZ. Its conclusions were based on interviews with five then-current Fronteras employees and an unspecified number of former employees. The resulting six-page report was recently released to New Times as part of a public records request for investigations into community college employees.
Marizco branded himself as “Border Reporter,” but his alleged behavior is better described as borderline.
Marizco’s behavior outlined in the report had an impact. One witness told investigators that an employee left a job after Marizco pressured the person to do more work while visibly upset and crying.
“I know that we lost some of KJZZ’s most talented reporters because they couldn’t deal with him,” another former Fronteras reporter told New Times. Both former employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were worried about backlash for speaking out against someone in a position of power and the impact it might have on their career in the “small world” of public radio.
Veteran reporters who were with the Fronteras project since the beginning had quit, they said, and said Marizco’s behavior was a factor in their decisions. The current staff is less experienced as a result, one said.
“They’re great. They’re doing great work. But they’re green [radio reporters]. So it’s a different quality of work,” the second former employee said.
The investigation came the year after KJZZ faced turmoil when two executives left their positions following sexual harassment allegations. Employees interviewed for that 2018 investigation reported fear of retaliation, with one saying that fear was greater at KJZZ than any other station they’d worked at.
Station management did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Maricopa Community Colleges spokesperson Matthew Hasson said there had been no further complaints about Marizco.
“This employee was directed to complete a very specific training program and has completed that training,” he wrote in an email. “There have been no subsequent complaints filed against this employee, and he had no disciplinary issues prior to that investigation.”
Marizco told New Times that he had grown as a result of the investigation.
“I’ve dedicated myself to working past the events in that report and I’m very proud of the progress that I made to become a better and more supportive editor,” Marizco wrote in an email. “I’m also appreciative of this college which has provided me opportunities to learn from my mistakes and to improve my management style.”
He did not respond to a follow-up email requesting an interview.
“I know that we lost some of KJZZ’s most talented reporters because they couldn’t deal with him.”
Michael Marcotte, a University of New Mexico professor who provides management consulting to public media newsrooms after decades of experience as a news director, called the behavior in the report rare and “really held out as inappropriate,” in his experience.
“It’s counterproductive to treat people this way,” he said. “My teaching is that you’re growing people. It’s not just about the results you’re getting on your air: A good manager is trying to grow people and that takes a deft consideration of feelings and mental health.”
Marcotte said that editors are often promoted into the job due to their success as a reporter, but those skills don’t necessarily translate into managing. Training is important and makes a difference, but it also needs to reinforced by upper management, he said.
“Somebody was managing this manager and, given the outcomes, could have done better,” he said.
The complaints against Marizco originated from an unnamed subordinate who alleged he had faced harassment and bullying for two years from the editor. The conflict appears to have been driven in part by a quota of 20 shorter stories and two feature stories a month that Marizco imposed on his team and that he alleged the complainant was not meeting.
According to the investigative report, Marizco admitted to shouting at employees and swearing in the course of conversation, but denied bullying anyone and said he works with his subordinates to meet expectations. He said he had not been unprofessional besides one incident in 2017 that is not elaborated on in the report. Despite Marizco’s conduct, witnesses told the investigator they did not feel intimidated by him.
They did say Marizco was mercurial and it was would engage in a bullying manner with subordinates, yelling at them and cursing depending on his mood, and it was “exhausting” not to know how he would react. One said he overheard a conversation where Marizco and one of his reporters were yelling at each other and he had to tell Marizco to calm down after the editor told the reporter to “take your head out of your ass.”
During the course of the investigation, witnesses also expressed concern about comments made by Marizco that they believed were discriminatory. The investigation expanded to include those concerns, although the details included in the report are short.
Generally, witnesses said that Marizco treated male and female employees differently and that women did not face the same likelihood of advancement as a result. One said Marizco had made comments they believed were derogatory, such as “you Mexicans are so flexible with those criminals” or referring to people crossing the border as “those poor bastards.” Another said that Marizco had told him “damn you count your days like a Jewish accountant.”
“Somebody was managing this manager and, given the outcomes, could have done better.”
Marizco denied making derogatory comments and the report offers no further information on the context that the comments were allegedly made in.
Despite the complaints against Marizco, the employees interviewed said they had great respect for him as an editor. One said he was a “good editor, knowledgeable about this part of the world and nobody else can do it as well as he does.”
Marizco told investigators he was already undergoing coaching and employees said they had noticed a positive difference after earlier coaching, although they were unsure if he could improve further.
“I think he’s very seasoned but very old-fashioned,” a current KJZZ employee told New Times. They asked to not be named for fear of retaliation, but said Marizco had “dramatically” changed for the better after the investigation and resulting additional training.
Despite that, the person wonders about station’s decision to keep Marizco around, even after finding him responsible for bullying and making discriminatory comments, and the lack of transparency around the decision. The source said many people were unaware of the investigation and the resulting report.
“It sounds like someone who has been given many opportunities,” the employee said.
One of the former employees who said they left because of Marizco is still bitter.
“Even just saying his name pisses me off,” the person said. The source said they were dealing with post-traumatic stress from the stressful material they encountered on the job and the hostile work environment.
When the person started an office job after leaving Fronteras that stress turned physical, resulting in searing back pain. Their new supervisor was supportive and gave the former KJZZ reporter time to adjust — a sharp contrast to Marizco.
“The rest of us quit while he got promoted,” they said. “That sort of workplace environment shouldn’t exist. It’s wrong that that’s the way things turned out.”
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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.