The Eyes in the Sky

Local TV news stations have a 'copter clash.

Mulligan, Dennis's counterpart at Channel 7, is equally aware of appearances. Instead of crowing about a scoop, she emphasizes how carefully she considered the situation before going live. "Initially, when we heard the scanner call, the helicopter was up anyway; they had just finished a live shot for a report on road rage," she says. "And we were also in the middle of a newscast, not some other type of programming. So I ran to the control room and went ahead with it. But even as things developed, we were ready to cut back to the set at any moment. If someone's life was being put in danger -- if someone had been walking across the sidewalk and been hit -- we would have gotten out of it right away, because we are fairly conservative about how we cover the news. When Patrick Ireland was falling out of that window at Columbine, we had that shot, but we cut back to the set."

By not doing so this time around, Channel 7 wound up with a valuable commodity -- one that it's not willing to share. The station has refused to release its footage to other local news outlets, as KWGN-TV/Channel 2 did in 1997 when one of its cameras videotaped paramedics and police allegedly mistreating Gil Webb II after he caused a crash that killed a young Denver cop. (A police-brutality suit filed on Webb's behalf by controversial attorney Anne Sulton is expected to be heard next year.) Channel 2 news director Steve Grund, who had to settle for covering last week's chase story by using tape from Channel 9, won't rip Channel 7 for its strategy, but he comes close.

"With Gil Webb, we thought it was important for the public to see not just the tape, but the unedited tape," Grund says. "And so the very next day, we made it available to everybody in the world that wanted it, because we thought that was the way to go. And I think that's true here, too. It's a community issue, so they should have made it available." He adds, "Before they turned us down, I wish they would have remembered their arguments when they asked us for the Webb tape."

With Channel 7 keeping its prize close to home, its competitors are going out of their way not to give credit where credit is due. To wit: Channels 2, 4 and 9 have widely covered the statements made by Mayor Webb and other officials about the videotape without once acknowledging that it came from Channel 7. At a minimum, referring to the footage generically is misleading, inaccurately implying that the comparatively weak images with which everyone else is stuck are the ones being scrutinized by the powers that be. (In fact, Webb's official statement about video of the bust mentions only Channel 7.) Moreover, it suggests that the stations care less about telling the tale truthfully than about trying to prevent Channel 7 from getting any more publicity. Not that the other news directors will admit it, however. Channel 4's Kucharski says, "I don't think that there were elements missing from our coverage." Channel 2's Grund concedes, "If I would have had Channel 7's tape, I would have courtesied them and mentioned Channel 7. But since I don't, there's no reason to mention them. That's more of a journalism debate, not a competition debate."

Meanwhile, Channel 7 is trying to publicize its exclusive without exploiting it. Sequences from the tape have appeared in almost all of its newscasts for over a week now, and KHOW-AM/630 talk-show host Peter Boyles, who helms a call-in bit dubbed 7 Speak Out on the station's late-morning weekday report, has done several segments on the issue, necessitating numerous re-airings of the footage. (On KHOW, Boyles has repeatedly likened the Channel 7 videotape to the notorious one starring Rodney King, and his afternoon counterpart, Reggie Rivers, has also been taking the police to task, in marked contrast to his predecessor, Jay Marvin, who saluted the boys and girls in blue on a daily basis.) But both Mulligan and general manager Cindy Velasquez emphasize that they have avoided glutting the airwaves with promos dominated by slow-motion closeups of the mayhem, and neither have they asked pundit after pundit to comment on it as an excuse to roll it again. "Because this story has blown up as big as it has, we're going to cover it -- and cover it hard," Mulligan says. "But we aren't going to sensationalize it. We're just going to keep asking the tough questions."

On at least a couple of occasions, the Denver police have displayed little appreciation for Channel 7's hard-nosed approach. According to several sources, an officer arrived at Channel 7 on August 24 to view the chase footage, but when he learned that Mulligan's staff planned to videotape him doing so, he stormed off rather than cooperating with this perfectly reasonable tradeoff; a few hours later he returned with a search warrant and was given a tape of material that aired the day before.

An even more extreme altercation took place this past May, following the arrest of jeweler and mohel Jay Feder, a onetime Westword profile subject ("A Cut Above," February 24, 1993), for allegedly purchasing stolen goods. Shortly after Feder was arrested, officers physically prevented a Channel 7 cameraman from shooting the scene. They damaged a camera in the process; they also handcuffed the cameraman briefly before setting him free without charges. Channel 7's claim against the city for the cost of the camera is still pending, and beyond confirming the basic facts of the case, Velasquez, speaking for the station, declines further comment.

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