When on Rome...

A syndicated sports talker and a local station run afoul of the Colorado Rockies PR department.

Jim Rome, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and star of his own nightly TV program on Fox Sports, takes pride in talking smack. That's his shtick -- to rant about all things sports in the most arrogant, contentious manner possible and to inspire his foamy-mouthed listenership to do likewise. So it's not exactly a shocker that he's targeted the Colorado Rockies a time or two over the years, regularly referring to Coors Field as "Coors Canaveral" and "Williamsport" (the Pennsylvania facility where the Little League World Series takes place) for its tendency to turn what probably would be medium-range fly balls at most stadiums into home runs.

What is unexpected, though, is how the Rockies are reacting to this kind of grade-school-level provocation. Rome and his representatives accuse the club of attempting a de facto boycott of his program -- a charge that's led to open combat between the two organizations. And when Sandy Clough and Mike Evans of AM-950/The Fan, the Denver station that airs Rome, criticized Rockies third baseman Jeff Cirillo for discussing an issue with Rome that he'd dodged with them, Jay Alves, the team's senior director of communications and public relations, went after them as well.

Suddenly, it's a whole new ballgame.

The bad feelings between the Rockies and Rome burst into the open in late May, when all-star first baseman Todd Helton guested on the radio show. At the time, Rome, who was unavailable for comment (guess he's too busy to talk smack with just anyone), told Helton that he'd been making requests to talk with him for two years -- and when Helton said he'd never received any of them, Rome knocked the Rox for their conduct. Alves responded by leaving a testy voice-mail message for Rome in which he said the Rockies would never facilitate an interview for Rome, prompting Jimbo to unleash another anti-Rockies screed. In the midst of this second salvo, he dedicated himself to getting every Rockies player onto his broadcast out of sheer spite. Since then, he's chatted up second baseman/SWAT team ride-along buddy Mike Lansing, outfielder Tom Goodwin, and Cirillo, a frequent Rome guest when he was a member of the Milwaukee Brewers.

According to Travis Rodgers, Rome's producer, his boss wasn't really serious about putting all 25 Rockies on the air. "They don't all deserve to be there," he says. Rather, Rome was just trying to make a point about what he sees as the team's unprofessionalism. "We've put in numerous requests to talk to their players over the years, and they were always denied -- and when we'd talk to guys like Walt Weiss and Don Baylor after they'd gone to different teams, we found out they were never hearing about them. They'd be like, 'I had no idea you were trying to find me.'" He adds that no other team in pro sports has ever dealt with Rome in this manner: "We've had some personality conflicts sometimes, but nothing where everything was just unilaterally denied."

In the beginning, Alves's contempt for Rome -- "No one likes to be called an idiot on national radio," he hisses -- didn't spill over into the Rockies' relationship with the Fan: Even though the station competes with KOA, the Rockies' flagship station, the Fan's sports director, Mitch Hyder, says his access to the team has always been first-rate.

But that was before July 11, when morning hosts Clough and Evans spoke with Cirillo, who was in Atlanta for the All-Star game. The conversation was going along swimmingly until Clough tried to quiz Cirillo about the disparity between his hitting on the road versus home; Cirillo said "No, no, no, no, no" throughout the questioning, then pointedly changed the subject. Shortly thereafter, Cirillo appeared with Rome, and upon being asked the same thing, he replied, "I've got to tell you, I've stopped answering that for the media. But for you, I'll answer it."

Cirillo's bland response was hardly worth the wait, but the debate over whether he'd dissed the locals filled the majority of Fan broadcasts for the next couple of days, with even Rome getting into the act: After noting that he'd received e-mails about the situation, he advised "the local talent" to "get over yourself."

But what most riled Clough was a voice-mail message from Alves that Clough feels "set the Guinness World Book of Records mark for lies and misrepresentations and distortions in a three-minute message." In it, Clough says, Alves claimed that while he would continue to process the morning show's requests for interviews with Rockies players, he would not do so with any particular enthusiasm -- a statement that carries with it an implied threat of an access cutoff -- unless Clough apologized to the Rockies and Cirillo for his behavior.To the legendarily verbose Clough, that's laughable. "What should I apologize for? Asking a question?" he wonders. Then, after accusing Cirillo of being rude to the intern who set up the Fan interview, he describes Alves as "a lightweight" and "a phony" and calls the Rockies "the most arrogant organization in this city. And isn't it interesting how the most arrogant organizations in any time are invariably the least successful organizations? The ones that are the most paranoid and prone to react are the ones that have the most to hide, the most to be embarrassed about. And that sort of fits the Rockies."There's no telling how Alves feels about these characterizations. He returned calls about the Rome matter, referring to Rome's on-air comments as a "tirade," but declined to go into more detail because "I don't listen to his show." However, subsequent messages seeking comment about the Fan incident were ignored. Meanwhile, Rodgers, Rome's producer, promises that he'll get to the Rockies whether Alves helps him or not.

"We're calling their agents now, and we're getting through," he says. "That's the only way to deal with this crap."

Gentlemen's agreement: The public's opportunity to comment on the proposed joint operating agreement between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News officially ended on July 10, but the door isn't entirely closed: According to Justice Department spokeswoman Jennifer Rose, individuals or organizations will still be able to submit filings in support of previously tendered documents until August 8. (Interested parties can fax their feelings to Assistant Attorney General Stephen Colgate at 202-514-4317.) Nonetheless, the July 10 quasi-deadline was preceded by a flurry of responses from various quarters -- some urging the feds to green-light the pact, others arguing that approval shouldn't be granted without public hearings.

The heaviest blow in favor of the JOA was struck by unions representing workers at the Post and the News. As previously noted in this space ("Look for the Union Label," June 8), these associations may lose plenty if the agreement goes through -- namely, jobs for their membership. But from the beginning, they've appeared to have little stomach for warfare. So, to the surprise of absolutely no one, the unions agreed not to object to the Post-News wedding in exchange for a contract promising 3 percent wage increases for each of the first two years after the JOA takes effect, plus a pledge that any workforce shrinkages during that period will be accomplished through attrition. Union reps have been portraying the pact as a victory, but the papers are the real winners; they've nullified what could have been some of their most tenacious, well-funded adversaries, and all they've got to do is keep condemned workers on board for the equivalent of a transition stage before lowering the boom. Keep those resumés updated, my friends.

On the other side of the ledger is American Furniture Warehouse honcho Jake Jabs, who's been among the few business types to raise objections about the JOA thus far. His June 30 letter, which argues that "Colorado's robust economy will be harmed by the inflationary impact of substantially higher ad rates," was described in a News article as "the first major objection to the proposed merger" -- seemingly an attempt to flatter one of the paper's biggest advertisers even as he takes a stand against it.

Jabs's call for hearings was echoed by Gold Messenger Inc., a direct-mail business whose president, Donald Kittelson, accuses the Post and the News of engaging in "gestapo tactics" to undermine his operation; Jeffco Publishing, owner of local papers such as the Lakewood Sentinel and the Wheat Ridge Transcript, which fears the JOA would allow the dailies to tag-team competitors; the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, concerned about the potential negative influence on small businesses; and Westword, which raised several issues, including (my personal favorite) the public's right to know more about what's really going on.

A couple of just plain folks added their voices to this chorus as well, including Susan Williams, a self-described "private citizen and English lit major who enjoys monitoring newspapers for quality and accuracy." In her opinion, "The more homogenous news coverage becomes, the less free the citizenry."

Meanwhile, at least one observer who's currently on the sidelines is just itching to get in the game: Ed Wendover, former owner of Plymouth, Michigan's Community Crier, who led the almost-successful challenge to the joint operating agreement between the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. (He agreed to sell the Crier in March after filing for bankruptcy protection.) Wendover has at least a couple of reasons to be interested in the situation in Denver: He has a history with Post chieftain Dean Singleton, who owned, and eventually shut down, a nearby Michigan paper, the Ypsilanti Press, and he once taught media and ethics at Colorado State University. But overriding these factors is his belief that the JOA concept is one whose time should never have come. "I'm telling you -- the JOA will destroy newspapering as you know it in Denver, just as it has in Detroit," he says.

At the same time, Wendover is thunderstruck by the apparent willingness of Coloradans to let the JOA move forward without putting up a fight. As the co-chair of Michigan Citizens for an Independent Press, he oversaw a coalition that included the head of the local newspaper guild and numerous advertisers, employees and readers. In addition, he had the support of at least one Michigan state senator, who opposed the deal on anti-trust grounds. "Has the Colorado congressional delegation completely fallen asleep?" he asks. "I understand that it's difficult for representatives who are running for re-election to take on the newspapers. But if they're asleep on this, they're not doing their job."

Today Wendover is the chairman of Citizens for an Independent Press; he calls it the "national clearinghouse" for information about JOAs. But he sees the organization's role as helping locals rather than wading into battle on its own. "We have a file cabinet and a half that will leave for your town as soon as a community group steps up and realizes what a sham this is," he says. "And we can also help gather support and progress legally. We will certainly put them in touch with our lawyers -- and actually, the time is good for that, because [Green Party presidential nominee] Ralph Nader's Public Citizen defended us in our case, and I'm sure Ralph would love the publicity now. But we have to be asked first.

"There's no question that people in Colorado will be hurt tremendously by a JOA," he goes on, "and I'm amazed, having known a number of people in newspapering in Colorado from teaching there, that we haven't heard from more heads-up publishers, ethical editors and community organizations. If these guys don't recognize what is about to happen to them, then God doesn't believe in Vaseline."Letters, we get letters: As was reported by the Associated Press earlier this month (and on July 16 in the Denver Post), Larry Burrough, a onetime reporter for the Rocky Mountain News who most recently served as deputy editor of the Orange County Register, has been named managing editor of the news operation at the Post; he'll be at his new desk beginning in mid-August. But while the AP blurb didn't mention that Burrough has a two-year-old son whose middle name is Hawk, Post editor Glenn Guzzo did so not once, but twice -- first in a June 30 memo to his staff, and later, in a July 3 e-mail to a couple of heavy hitters in the Denver Native American community.

Why might this seemingly mundane fact matter so much? For some context, flash back with us now to October 28 of last year, when Post columnist Diane Carman criticized Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell in a column that concluded with the line "A pimp's a pimp, after all, even if he looks good in a headdress." The comment enraged David Cournoyer, director of public education for the American Indian College Fund, who led a call for the newspaper to apologize. On December 12, he got his wish in a manner that dumbfounded many veteran journalists: Instead of a straightforward apology presented in a news context, the Post devoted a full page to an adlike letter to readers signed by Post president and publisher Gerald Grilly. In it, Grilly said the pimp reference "crossed a line of insensitivity that is uncharacteristic of this newspaper's coverage and its many deep roots in Colorado," adding, "We are sorry for offending, for insulting. We are determined to prevent this episode from dividing our community, and to prevent it from damaging excellent relationships that have taken generations to establish" ("Live From Denver -- Almost," December 16, 1999). Around this same period, Post higher-ups met with Cournoyer, who urged them to hire more Native Americans.

Cut to Guzzo's late-June memo, in which the editor noted that Burrough is a member of the Native American Journalist Association, had a grandfather who was Blackfoot Indian, and gave his son Max the "Hawk" moniker. Guzzo went into even more detail in his e-mail to Cournoyer and Dee St. Cyr, who was also part of the Carman protest, revealing that he intended to groom Burrough as his successor "should that ever be needed," and divulging that Max answers to "Little Hawk." (Given that Post staffers have long had a love of nicknames, expect Burrough to become "Big Hawk" before long.) In addition, Guzzo wrote that "other journalists who started work at the Post this month include an Asian assistant city editor (Helen Hu), an Asian photographer (Glenn Asakawa) and an African-American reporter (Karen Rouse), as well as several minority interns who are making strong impressions here."

When asked about the memo and the e-mail, Guzzo emphasized that Burrough's credentials (he helped oversee the winner of the investigative-reporting Pulitzer Prize for 1996 --misidentified as 1997 in the Post piece) were the primary reason for the appointment, not his ancestry. "He was hired for his skills," he says, "and it's an added advantage that he helps us diversify our newsroom." (He rejected any taint of tokenism in regard to the other new staffers as well.) But Guzzo acknowledges that the discussions with Cournoyer have had an influence on the paper's hiring policies.

"We want to diversify in terms of gender as well as race -- and not only in hiring, but also in content," he notes. "But we're not doing it because it's the morally right thing to do. This is about being a better newspaper, because we'll have a newsroom where backgrounds are more complete and more representative of all our readers."

Cournoyer, for his part, sees Burrough's hiring as "a step in the right direction." Which means Grilly may be able to give those full-page apologies a rest for a while.

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