INK-STAINED KVETCHES

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

Earle has also long been convinced that expansive soils at DIA will settle and heave so badly over time that they will wreak havoc on the airport's buildings and runways. This summer both he and Buck shopped that story idea to papers around town, including Westword and the Denver Post, but didn't have any luck getting it into print.

Eventually, though, Earle and Buck say they convinced Paulson to investigate the effect expansive soils were having on pavement at DIA. With their help, Paulson got Fu Hua Chen, a local soils expert affiliated with the University of Colorado's Expansive Soil Research Center, to tour DIA and view numerous hairline cracks that had surfaced atop sections of pavement there.

In an August 17 story, Paulson quoted Chen as saying the cracks were the likely result of expanding soil beneath the pavement. "What we see here is a good indication that in the future we'll have serious problems with these runways," Paulson quoted Chen as saying. Chen predicted that the city faced a substantial increase in maintenance costs over the forty-year life of the runways. And Paulson reported that workers were already patching cracks with glue.

As with the Dean Hill article, the runway-cracks story went out on the AP's national wire and received prominent play. Connie Chung mentioned it on the CBS Evening News. Over the course of the next few days, the value of DIA bonds dropped steeply as investors tried to unload them in response to the news.

The daily papers, however, watered down the article. The Post ran a shortened, non-byline version of the story on page B5 of its August 18 edition. On August 19 News reporter Bill Scanlon reported that N.Y. Chang, head of the expansive soil center, was urging the city to pay the University of Colorado $100,000 to investigate the runway cracks further. Scanlon also pointed out that Chen had merely undertaken a "visual inspection" of the airport, rather than a full-fledged "study," as initially reported by the AP.

City and federal officials sharply criticized Paulson's article, saying that the cracks were caused by "shrinkage" common in new concrete, not by the soil beneath the pavement. Jack Scott, a Federal Aviation Administration pavements engineer, says today that Paulson's story was "really distorted" and "blown out of proportion."

Chen, meanwhile, continues to deny the cracks are due to concrete shrinkage and says further study is needed to determine the exact source of the problem. But the runway cracks sound much less cataclysmic when he describes them today. "It's very simple," Chen says. "I just said that the cracks at present are an indication there will be future [maintenance] problems. But right now there is no hazard. It's not dangerous or anything."

One of press secretary Briggs Gamblin's biggest beefs is that national media organizations like the New York Times are picking up the AP's initial stories about the airport but aren't running follow-up reports that call the articles into question.

"It is absolutely the most frustrating thing in the world," Gamblin says. "It really sets up a very difficult situation in terms of getting a fair shake from our point of view."

Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post, says Gamblin shouldn't be surprised. Major newspapers and television networks, he says, will usually only cover stories about DIA that make a big splash--and ignore "all the back and forth" that comes out afterward. "That may or may not be fair," Kurtz says, "but that's the way the news business works."

The University of Virginia's Sabato agrees and says the practice can leave a highly skewed impression. In the average person's conception of the American "news pyramid," Sabato says, information reported on the networks and in national newspapers is generally regarded as more credible--even if it came directly off the wires. "People assume the ones at the top are the best, and that the quality of information is the best," Sabato says. "And that just isn't always true, especially about state and local subjects."

Like the Washington Post's Kurtz, however, Sabato says Denver city officials shouldn't hold their breath waiting for things to change.

"The `story line' on the Denver airport is that it's a horrible, terrible mess," Sabato says. "The stories likely to make a national broadcast have to fit that line. The good news just isn't going to be included."

At the dailies, meanwhile, reporters say they expect the conflict with the Associated Press to continue. With Paulson, they say, the AP has begun to compete directly with them for hard-hitting stories about the airport. Paulson's stories, they say, will continue to go out on the national wires, while those from their papers receive considerably less play.

"They [the AP] have invested in Paulson," says one daily reporter, who asks not to be identified. "Essentially, Paulson is a competitor with the dailies now. You're going to play your own stuff up."

And both the News and the Post are bristling at the increasingly popular suggestion that they're flacking for the Webb administration. Kevin Flynn says he knows Jim Buck, Paul Earle and other DIA critics think he's the "spin doctor for the city" on the airport. But he says they routinely ignore the long list of "devastatingly negative" stories he's written--on Webb's misleading statements about Tyrone Holt, on scandals involving DIA parking and concession contracts, on a grand jury investigation into the airport's largest paving contractor.

"Not only is the charge not true, we're [covering DIA] far better than anyone else," Flynn says. "It just doesn't hold water. They [the critics] need to renew their subscriptions.

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