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INK-STAINED KVETCHES

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

On October 19 Flynn invited Hill to tour Concourse C and point out the most serious safety hazards. Hill, Flynn reported the next day, ended up retracting one of his most damning allegations--that a pillar in the building's basement was in danger of collapse. "I don't think it could ever fall now," Flynn quoted Hill as saying. (Hill subsequently denied making the statement; Flynn insists he got the quote right.) The Denver Post, meanwhile, ran an editorial urging that everyone maintain "cool heads" while Hill's claims were investigated. Hill's charges, the paper said, "may not be as serious as they initially seem."

It's possible, of course, that professional jealousy played a role in the dailies' treatment of Paulson's story. Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia and an authority on the mass media, says news organizations frequently ignore their competitors' scoops. "There's a kind of proprietary nature to the news," Sabato says. "Any news organization will blow up a story it has gotten beyond its real importance. And it will play down a pretty important story [from] a competitor. I don't think the average news consumer understands that fully."

Editors and writers at the dailies, though, say envy wasn't a factor in the Hill case. And the way the story played out, they say, shows they handled it properly.

On October 28 the city set up a final meeting with Hill at DIA to go over his charges and review the Olson report. Denver officials invited TV and newspaper reporters to be there as well. Hill agreed to come to the meeting, but when he arrived at DIA's west gate and saw the flotilla of press vehicles, he turned tail and fled.

"He asked if all the media were going to the same place he was," says DIA public affairs director Chuck Cannon, who met Hill at the gate. "I said yes, and he said, `I'm going home.'"

Kevin Flynn refuses to criticize Hill, saying he believes him to be a "very sincerely motivated individual." He even says the News "dropped the ball" by failing to pursue the inspector's charges more aggressively in the beginning. Had Flynn been on the story, however, he says he would have tried to corroborate all of Hill's allegations first with a physical inspection of Concourse C and a review of DIA construction records. "They took an incredible risk with their source," Flynn says of the AP.

The Post's Neil Westergaard is more blunt. "I guess we applied a higher level of skepticism [on the AP's story about Hill]," Westergaard says. "As it turned out, I think we were probably right."

Hill could not be reached. Through Jim Buck, however, he declined to comment on the allegations that caused such an uproar. "I'm not going to talk to anybody else," Buck quotes Hill as saying.

Other than the fact that they were written by Steve Paulson, the biggest thing the AP's stories on runway cracks and Dean Hill had in common was the involvement of Paul Earle and Jim Buck, known to city and media insiders as the "Batman and Robin" of DIA critics.

Jim Buck says he first got interested in DIA way back in 1985, when his wife was in the hospital with cancer. To distract himself, he says, he began closely following the development of the airport. "I wanted to keep my mind doing something," Buck says.

Earle, a self-employed, semi-retired engineering consultant from south Denver, describes himself as a "world-renowned expert in the field of asbestos cement." Earle, who spent most of his career working for the Manville Corporation, says he now makes between $150 and $350 per hour studying material failures for clients like Bechtel and the Tennessee Valley Authority. City officials, though, disparagingly refer to Earle as "Dr. Macaroni," because his 1947 doctoral thesis at the University of Minnesota examined factors that affect the drying times of macaroni noodles.

According to Earle's thesis, on file in the university's archives, he became interested in the subject after visiting a number of macaroni factories in the summer of 1937. "`Any man who really earnestly tries to master the art of drying macaroni will go crazy,' [it] has been said," Earle wrote in his introduction. "This is a strong statement, but the problem of drying macaroni lies not in the difficulty of the removal of water but in the inability to predict ahead of time whether or not the macaroni being dried will be sound and free of cracks at the end of the drying period."

Earle says he's surprised that city officials are making his thesis an issue. "Little did I realize back in my graduate days, post-World War II at the University of Minnesota...that this would have such far-reaching applications in today's structural problems--even as far as DIA's cracking up," he says.

Buck says he determined early on that DIA was nothing more than a boondoggle. In his relentless promotion of the airport to Denver residents, Buck says, former Denver mayor Federico Pena proved he was both incompetent and dishonest. "I saw in 1985 and 1986 that Pena was making statements [about the airport] that were totally irrational," he says. "He had no idea what he was talking about." Earle says he's even heard Pena is "a very close friend of" Daniel Ortega, the former president of Nicaragua and leader of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front. Pena could not be reached for comment.

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