When the City of Denver hired the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton last year to deal with the national reporters who were filing stories about its new airport, it agreed to pay top dollar for the company's expertise.

But it took the chief researcher at the prominent Washington, D.C.-based company a half hour just to figure out what time the sun would rise in Denver on March 9, the airport's erstwhile opening date. The charge for that service, performed for a network morning show: $75.

Bills from Hill & Knowlton recently filed with the city offer an inside picture of how the firm went about reaching out to national news organizations and trying to influence coverage of the airport--its job under a controversial $60,000 contract.

The city administration says it is satisfied with Hill & Knowlton's performance, even though the indefinite delay of Denver International Airport's opening ended up severely tarnishing Denver's image. But most reporters and other experts interviewed last week questioned whether the company made much difference--if any at all--in the way the DIA story played out in the national press.

"It's hard for me to believe that Denver's publicity could have been any worse," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia and an authority on politics and the media. "I would say Denver has two black eyes and a couple of bruised shins. And they paid $60,000 for it."

Hill & Knowlton courted the city's business last summer after articles critical of DIA appeared in Forbes and Newsweek. The Forbes article was especially harsh, calling the airport a "financial crash in the making" and speculating that the city might eventually default on bonds issued to pay for the project.

Mayor Wellington Webb decided to hire the firm "to promote fair, accurate and comprehensive coverage" of the airport, according to contract papers on file with the city. Hill & Knowlton was supposed to "identify top-tier media contacts" at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other major news organizations, set up interviews with reporters, and then "frame the most appropriate agenda for discussion."

City ordinances prohibit publicly funded PR firms from working for the re-election of Webb or any other politician. And both city and company officials insist they weren't trying to squelch negative stories about the airport--just make certain they were truthful and fair.

"Spin-doctoring we were not doing," says Steven Silvers, the Denver-based Hill & Knowlton vice president who did most of the work on the DIA account. "What we wanted to do was help ensure that whatever arguments were being presented for or against the airport were being put in context. We don't presume to tell the media how to run a story. What we're looking for are inaccuracies and misinformation that is being repeated without being challenged."

But one of the Hill & Knowlton invoices, submitted to the city for work in January, hints at an almost Nixonian paranoia about critical coverage of the airport. Cristie Drumm, an $80-an-hour account executive at the firm, took part of a day that month "to investigate [a] reporter who had written a negative article on DIA," the invoice says.

Briggs Gamblin, Webb's press secretary, says he's pretty sure that reporter was Mike Fumento, author of a DIA article titled "Federico's Folly" that ran in the December 1993 issue of the conservative monthly American Spectator. The article pilloried the airport and former Denver mayor Federico Pena, now U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and contended that DIA will be "worse in almost every practical way than the perfectly serviceable airport it is replacing."

Gamblin says Hill & Knowlton's "investigation" of Fumento wasn't nearly as sinister as it seems on paper: The only thing the firm did was check to find out whether or not Fumento was considered a reputable journalist.

"A half-hour phone call got us the information," Gamblin says. "He's definitely got a conservative slant, but he's a credible writer. Finding that out helped us: It told us we had to deal with his story."

But Fumento says he finds it offensive that he was investigated at all. If "there's something wrong with this airport, fix it," says Fumento, who works for a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., called the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "Don't go after the reporters."

Airport officials, Fumento adds, actually got their hands on a draft of the story before it came out. Formerly a resident of Denver, Fumento had finished the article in mid-1993 and had sent a copy to Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole for feedback. Somehow, Fumento says, it got from the News to people at the airport, who called Fumento to complain. "They were fairly hostile," he says. (Amole, a frequent critic of DIA, says he has no idea how the draft found its way to the airport.)

Despite Hill & Knowlton's presence, the city appears to have squandered at least one opportunity to respond to Fumento's piece. After the story appeared, Dan Griswold of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph decided to run it in its entirety on the paper's editorial page. He says he called city officials to see if they wanted to publish some kind of companion article in rebuttal and at one point spoke with Hill & Knowlton's Silvers.

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