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INK-STAINED KVETCHES

MEDIA COVERAGE OF DENVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT IS CREATING ITS OWN TURBULENCE.

One thing's certain about reporter Steve Paulson's recent news stories about Denver International Airport for the Associated Press: They could hardly be getting better play.

One of them--charging that expansive soils are causing the widespread cracking of runways at the new airport--went out on the AP's national wire in August and precipitated a substantial drop in the price of DIA bonds. Another, publicizing former airport inspector Dean Hill's claim that walls and ceilings at DIA were in danger of collapse, moved last month and ran on the pages of some of the nation's largest newspapers, giving DIA a shiny new black eye. "Denver aide tells of laxity in airport job," read the October 17 headline in the New York Times. "Says shoddy work imperils the public."

The stories, in fact, have been big news almost everywhere--except in Denver itself. Here both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post have downplayed Paulson's work. Neither paper, for instance, ran the AP's original story on Dean Hill, and both have followed it with articles that have cast the inspector's charges in a dubious light. Paulson's article on the runway cracks received similar dismissive treatment.

The result has been a confusing situation for any careful consumer of news about the airport. It has been possible in recent months for Denver residents to pick up the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, the Boulder Daily Camera or USA Today and find AP-generated stories on DIA--and yet see no mention of them at all in their hometown papers.

A cabal of oft-quoted airport critics is stepping up complaints that the dailies are purposely suppressing negative news about the airport. "Neither the Rocky or the Post is covering these stories," says Paul Earle, a Denver resident who frequently calls local radio talk shows to lambaste the airport project. Agrees Jim Buck, one of Earle's sidekicks and a tireless DIA detractor: "The people in Denver know less about what's going on [at the airport] than the rest of the world."

Behind the scenes, however, editors and reporters at the Denver daily newspapers are voicing doubts about material coming from the Associated Press. The result: a media family feud over one of the biggest news stories in Denver history. More than a year ago News airport reporter Kevin Flynn complained in an eleven-page letter to Joe McGowan, the AP's Denver bureau chief, that Paulson's DIA stories were "nonsensical" and "filled with errors and holes." Recently, sources say, management at the Post circulated a memo in the newsroom requiring that all of Paulson's airport stories be run by the paper's own DIA-beat reporters before appearing in the paper. "We are trying to be very cautious about what we run with, so we don't have to retract it," says Post executive editor Neil Westergaard. "I don't want to go into print with stuff that isn't fully baked."

Meanwhile, Denver city officials are getting in their digs at Paulson as well. They note that the Federal Aviation Administration this summer certified DIA's runways as safe and free of major problems. Two weeks ago the city released an independent engineering report that contradicted Hill's most serious allegations about DIA safety hazards.

"We're concerned about Paulson's stories about DIA because they've turned out to be so baseless," says Amy Lingg, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works. "We are questioning the credibilty of Paulson's stories and the responsibility of the AP putting [them] out."

Paulson declines comment. Joe McGowan says the Associated Press stands by the stories but refuses to discuss them in detail.

There's no doubt that Denver International Airport is a severely troubled project. Now more than a year behind schedule and more than $1 billion over budget, the still-unopened airport has become a national joke, its image tarnished by everything from a luggage-devouring baggage system to allegations that it's turned into a gigantic pork barrel for cronies of Denver mayor Wellington Webb.

There's no doubt, either, that Denver city officials have made things worse for themselves by making misleading statements about the project along the way. Two years ago, for instance, when DIA bond lawyer Tyrone Holt was suspended from practice for drug abuse and failure to pay income taxes, Webb issued a press release saying he was "distressed to learn" of Holt's problems and that he was severing the city's ties to the attorney. A few days later the Rocky Mountain News reported that Webb had known about Holt's drug use for close to a year and had even testifed on his behalf at a secret disciplinary hearing the previous summer. Just last week, Assistant City Attorney Lee Marable appeared to give highly incomplete answers to questions from a DIA bondholder about a controversial 1993 memo urging that a delay of the airport's opening date be kept secret as long as possible.

Media-relations employees at the city say they're used to negative coverage of DIA. But Paulson's DIA stories have struck a nerve, Lingg and others say, in part due to the singular role of the Associated Press in the local and national media hierarchy. "If you have an agenda, you can do a great deal of damage" as an AP writer, says Briggs Gamblin, Webb's press secretary. "It's a hell of a lot of clout to have, and it demands a hell of a lot of responsibility."

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