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UA cozy with D-G columnist 

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An interesting element of the ongoing story of budget problems in the University of Arkansas Advancement Division has been a divide in outlook in the pages of the state's dominant news medium, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The reporting staff has made a titanic effort to cover the budget problem, the firing of UA spokesman John Diamond and Diamond's allegations that Chancellor G. David Gearhart resisted transparency and shredded documents related to the issue.

The editorial page of the newspaper, and its leader, Paul Greenberg, has often been critical. Greenberg has criticized Gearhart on other issues, including curriculum, as well.

Then there's Mike Masterson. A former full-time employee in Northwest Arkansas, he's often written warmly about the university and Gearhart. On Nov. 10, he gave much of his column to the "other side" of the paper shredding in prepared comments of UA spokesman Mark Rushing. This followed a recent extensive news account about new discoveries in the saga.

Did Gearhart destroy relevant documents? Wrote Masterson: "I don't know Diamond. But the David Gearhart I do know fairly well lives his life far distant from being that dumb or deceptive."

Gearhart has long cultivated Masterson. No crime in that. But Gearhart's critics suggested the Times should look at university treatment of Masterson and their correspondence. An FOI request confirms that Masterson in each of the last five years has been on the select list of people Gearhart invites to sit in his skybox at Razorback football games and attend pre-game parties at the University House and other locales. That record shows the columnist attended at least three games and two receptions. (Spokesman Mark Rushing says Gearhart invites "thousands." Thousands? He explained he asks about 1,000 a year to the 100-seat skybox, overbooking to account for no-shows.)

The Times also asked for Gearhart-Masterson communications. This is where things got interesting. Understand, Masterson is an innocent bystander. (He declined to answer emails from the Times on the subject, but devoted a column in the Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday to respond to "anonymous critics" that said that if anyone was seeking to curry favor, it was he, not Gearhart.)

Masterson might not find Gearhart deceptive, but I'd disagree. It was another instance of at least artful dodging by the University of Arkansas and the Gearhart administration. They told me there "are no e-mails." In the course of communications with UA, I would, however, independently receive some of the material I sought from a confidential source. It illustrates the mutual admiration of Gearhart and Masterson and some insights into the world of public relations and Arkansas media. The play-by-play:

I wrote Mark Rushing and, in addition to requesting information about football and party attendance, said, "I'd also like a copy of e-mails sent by Masterson to Chancellor Gearhart since 2011."

To that question, Rushing responded, "Chancellor Gearhart did not locate any emails from or to Mr. Masterson since 2011."

I followed up, "Does 'not locate' mean there were none? Does he recall any? Has he purged his e-mail?"

That prompted this response from Rushing: "As for the email question, I checked with Chancellor Gearhart again and there are no emails."

I then sent him one more question last night: "Would it change David Gearhart's recollection that he'd never exchanged e-mail with Mike Masterson if I told you I had copies of numerous such e-mails?"

In retrospect, I realized that "there are none," might have been a term of the deceptive arts, not a denial of e-mail exchanges. So I clarified, "Has Gearhart begun purging e-mails so as to be able to say, 'there are no emails' when questions like mine arise?"

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