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Most broadcast execs shy away from criticizing the local TV newscasts that help butter their bread. But Cindy Velasquez, Channel 7's general manager, isn't most broadcast execs.
"Look what local TV stations have become," she says. "They've become very nice, very cautious -- and I think that's why so many viewers feel disconnected from them. God forbid you stick your head out and take a swing for something."
Those are bold words, particularly given that they sometimes apply to Channel 7's own newscasts. Although Velasquez, who moved from vice president of broadcasting for Channel 9 to her current post in late 1997, speaks disparagingly of the increasingly puffy reports that are heavily promoted during ratings -- or sweeps -- periods like the one taking place throughout February, her station has spent much of its time this month energetically hyping packages on marshmallowy topics such as home remodeling. That should stir up some controversy, eh?
Still, Velasquez, who rose to upper management from the sales rather than the news side of the journalism biz, deserves credit for pushing her organization to add substance to its style. She champions interactive, issues-based features such as 7 Speakout, a call-in segment hosted by KHOW's Peter Boyles seen on the 11 a.m. weekday news. And, more interestingly, she fronts a regular series of editorials that, since their debut last May, have grown steadily tougher and more provocative.
Televised editorials aren't a new thing; as Velasquez notes, such items can actually be termed "old-time broadcasting." Eric Sevareid was probably the best-known TV pundit, dishing out stern, stone-faced judgments for years on CBS Nightly News with Walter Cronkite (after Sevareid's 1977 retirement, Bill Moyers filled his slot for a time), but there were numerous local equivalents, including the late Carl Akers, a longtimer at Channel 9. In the past fifteen years or so, however, newscasts have moved away from taking stands on the issues of the day.
The reasons behind this shift aren't difficult to surmise. Stations with an eye on the bottom line strive to be as inoffensive as possible so as not to alienate any potential viewers, and since editorials, by their very nature, tend to make enemies -- including, on occasion, advertisers -- as well as friends, they've been largely abandoned. (An exception is sports, a fan-oriented arena where the stakes are lower and offering opinions is part of the fun.) There's also the question of access. If stations go after public figures, these people may not be wild about chatting with their representatives in the future; witness the frigid shoulder ex-Denver Police Department chief Tom Sanchez recently gave to Channel 4 in the wake of Brian Maass's report on Sanchez's poorly timed trip to Hawaii ( "A Failure to Communicate," February 17).
None of these factors dissuaded Velasquez. Last spring she helped form an eight-person editorial board made up of Channel 7 staffers from a variety of backgrounds and began meeting weekly to determine what subject should be addressed. "Each person comes in with three or four ideas," she says, "and we hash through those until we come up with two or three things that we have a consensus on. The person who's most passionate about the issue we decide on is told to do the research and the writing of the editorial, and then I front them."
While Velasquez has never vehemently disagreed with the views she's subsequently espoused on camera, she admits that there have been some editorials that wouldn't have been her first choice -- "but majority rules."
Early on, some of the questions discussed were as safe as they were banal. For instance, we didn't need Velasquez to tell us that a high-tech Coke machine that charged more on hot days was a pretty creepy innovation. And Velasquez says she was zinged by a few folks for the cuddly piece she did about spaying and neutering pets. "In some ways, that was the most difficult one we've done. We were in a shelter by the kennels, with dogs barking and cats chewing at my hair -- and it was really pathetic to look at all the animal carcasses just lying in grocery carts. But later I had some people tell me, 'Hey, that was really hard-hitting.'"
Fortunately, other editorials have been. After a Channel 7 helicopter got striking footage of a police chase involving a trio of suspects that ended with the cops beating the bejeezus out of their prey ( "The Eyes in the Sky," September 2, 1999), Mayor Wellington Webb promised that the city would take quick action. But when nothing was done for weeks, Velasquez went on the air and demanded action -- and after Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters, who'd been asked to look into the incident, finally ruled that the officers involved had behaved appropriately, she chided him for not making a stronger disciplinary statement.
The 7 editorial squad also asked for the resignation of Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone, argued in favor of abolishing the lieutenant governor post, and pointedly suggested that embattled safety manager Butch Montoya (a co-worker of Velasquez's when she was at Channel 9) revamp hiring standards for the police and fire departments in the wake of Montoya's championing of Ellis Johnson, a police academy recruit with a Dennis Hopper-like drug history. And last week, in a piece about the search for a new police chief, Velasquez urged Mayor Webb to look seriously at candidates outside the DPD who couldn't be accused of being one of the department's "good ol' boys."