By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Dave Minshall doesn't get recognized on the street all that often these days, even though he spent well over two decades as a featured journalist on Denver television. But once a day or so, he says, someone will approach him and ask, "Didn't you used to be...?" His stock answer: "I'm a reporter in remission. I'm not retired; I'm just tired."
Minshall intends this remark to seem humorous, but on a basic level, he's deadly serious. On March 10, 1997, he was told that his contract would not be renewed by his supervisors at Channel 7, where he'd worked since 1982, for reasons that he contends had nothing to do with "performance issues" and "work habits," as the station's then-news director, Melissa Klinzing, told the Denver Post, and everything to do with the 53 years he'd spent on the planet. So Minshall filed an age-discrimination lawsuit against the station, and ever since, he's been fighting for his day in court in the face of what he sees as delaying tactics on the part of McGraw-Hill, Channel 7's parent company. "They try to starve you out," he charges.
But the waiting game is finally nearing its end. In March, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch shrugged off dismissal requests from McGraw-Hill, thus allowing the case to proceed. A pretrial conference is set for May 16, and David Lane, Minshall's attorney, expects a jury to start hearing testimony before summer is out.
A spokesman for Littler Mendelson, the law firm representing McGraw-Hill in the Minshall matter, offered no comment regarding the suit, and Klinzing, now the news director of KYW-TV, a CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, did not return a call seeking an interview. As for Cindy Velasquez, Channel 7's vice president and general manager, she was not employed by the station at the time of Minshall's sacking and declines to go into specifics, citing the pending litigation. But she does say this: "It is my understanding that this station fulfilled its contractual obligations to Dave Minshall. He was not fired; he was at the end of his contract, which the station fulfilled. And I am told that the decision not to renew his contract was based entirely on his performance."
Predictably, Minshall begs to differ -- and he eagerly supplies details about what he characterizes as a crusade for justice. "These guys broke the law. They fired me illegally, they ruined my career and they hurt my family," he says, "and I'm not going to let them get away with it."
After a stint at the University of Wyoming, Minshall, a Wyoming native, arrived in Denver in the early '70s and landed a job at KBTR, an all-news radio outlet affiliated with KBTV, as Channel 9 was known at the time. He subsequently became part of the KBTV crew, serving as a general-assignment reporter before moving first to Channel 4, where he worked in legislative, consumer and investigative reporter capacities, and later to Channel 7 just prior to the departure of anchor Bob Palmer, whose defection threw the station into a ratings tailspin from which it has yet to recover. While at Channel 7, Minshall regularly helmed major reports, including a lengthy Rocky Flats series and a look at security at Stapleton, Denver's now-closed airport: "I was arrested doing that one," he says. In the process, he won nine local Emmy awards.
Things began to sour for Minshall in 1994, when news director Arlin Stevens, who'd joined the Channel 7 staff three years earlier, gave him the choice of accepting a 30 percent pay cut or leaving the station. Around this same time, the Post's Joanne Ostrow wrote an article headlined "Newsroom Shift to Young Staffers Puts Emphasis on Infotainment," in which Stevens offered his very public opinion about the Minshall negotiations: "I'm not happy to pay somebody like Dave Minshall an anchor salary, which, in my opinion, is what he was getting paid." Minshall interpreted this statement as meaning that Channel 7 wasn't going to budge on his salary demands, and he also felt that it poisoned his chances of leaping to another outlet in Denver, where he was determined to stay because of his kids. (He has four children -- three currently attending high school at Cherry Creek, the other in middle school.) As a result, he took the deal.
Stevens, who was unable to boost Channel 7's anemic viewership numbers, resigned in late 1995; his successor, Melissa Klinzing, immediately embarked on an ambitious campaign to reinvent the station's newscast. The result was "Real Life, Real News," a flashy, fast-paced but short-lived broadcast hosted by Natalie Pujo, an anchor fond of short skirts and daring décolletage, at least by local standards. (Pujo is currently appearing on KCOP, a UPN affiliate in Los Angeles.) Minshall argues that these changes led to a lowering of standards -- "It was Pujo in, journalism out" -- and an all-encompassing focus on attracting a youthful audience. "Melissa Klinzing would ask me my age and ask, 'Do you think you can connect with the younger demographic we're trying to hit?'" he notes. He believes that the decision to remove him from at least two high-profile stories -- the murder of JonBenét Ramsey and the Oklahoma City bombing -- in favor of younger correspondents illustrates the conclusions Klinzing reached.
For part of Klinzing's reign, Minshall says he worked without a contract, and when he was eventually presented with one, it was for a duration of just six months and accompanied by several criticisms of his work, including complaints about his spelling ability -- not normally a key factor in broadcasting jobs. "They also wanted me to be more entrepreneurial and to do what they called 'younger stories,'" he adds. In retrospect, he feels all of this was done as a pretext for declining to sign him again once his contract expired.
As even Minshall concedes, his case is largely circumstantial; his evidence includes a comment allegedly made by an assignment editor -- "Old fuckers like you aren't going to run this newsroom" -- and a response Minshall says he received after being turned down for a vacation request toward his tenure's end: "As you will soon find out, seniority doesn't mean shit." At trial, he'll also confront information that some might view as contradicting his claims, including Channel 7's continued employment of Bill Clarke and Paul Reinertson, two onetime colleagues of Minshall's who haven't been able to get the student discount at movie theaters for a good while. (Minshall thinks his suit has provided Clarke and Reinertson with job security, since any station action against them might undermine Channel 7's position.) In addition, the removal of longtimers Bertha Lynn and Ernie Bjorkman from the marquee 10 p.m. slot given to Pujo, which Minshall considers to be part of a pattern of discrimination against older workers, could just as easily have been prompted by dismal Nielsens.
Both Lynn and Bjorkman offered depositions at the request of Minshall's legal team; Lynn, who's still on the Channel 7 payroll, says she doesn't feel comfortable discussing this topic. For his part, Bjorkman, now the co-anchor of Channel 2's weeknight newscast (and he's awfully happy to be there), says: "I felt Klinzing was there to bring in a lot of younger people, and I saw a lot of older people leave, like Ron Allen, who was the weather person, and Judy Miller, who was a reporter -- and then there was Bertha and I being taken off the ten o'clock news. But I couldn't prove whether any of us were victims of age discrimination or not. I understand the business, and if that means new personalities need to be brought in, people have to do what they have to do." He also puts into context another comment reportedly made by Klinzing -- "Old people should all die" -- that Minshall mentions. "Her dad had come to visit, and when she said that, she was obviously joking," Bjorkman admits, "although some people didn't take it that way."
There's plenty of debate about Minshall's odds of besting Channel 7 in court, with much of the speculation pivoting on another age-discrimination case against the station, this one filed by ex-employee Art Manning. In May 1997, four years after Manning's firing and less than two months after Minshall was shown the door, a federal jury determined that the former account executive should receive over $689,000 in back pay and damages. But this whopper of an award, which observers unsympathetic to Minshall say helped motivate the reporter's campaign (an accusation Minshall denies), didn't stand up to later challenges. Manning, whom David Lane, Minshall's attorney, helped represent, lost when McGraw-Hill appealed and also came up short at the U.S. Circuit Court level -- and the Supreme Court refused to revisit the controversy. No wonder Channel 7's Velasquez feels as she does. After pointing out that the station makes all decisions about personnel based on performance ("If we don't, we're not doing right by our newscast or our audience"), she says, "We intend to vigorously defend our right not to renew Dave Minshall's contract, and we expect to win."
Lane is equally confident that his side will prevail. "The only similarities between the Manning case and Dave's is that McGraw-Hill is involved," he says. "And we have a very strong case -- a nine-time Emmy winner who all of a sudden is supposed to be an idiot."
In the meantime, Minshall is running his own company, Minshall Media Strategies, which specializes in crisis communication and media training. "I bill myself as a media shark turned shark tamer," he allows. But he insists that his family is still feeling the ripple effects of his departure from Channel 7, and he fantasizes about hiring the Cherry Creek High School marching band "and have them lead a big U-Haul truck back to the house I had to give up because I couldn't afford it anymore, so we can move in and return my life to what it was before they screwed me."
Sign of the times: Can you imagine the shock of editorial employees at the Rocky Mountain News (as well as those at the Denver Post, who can see the Rocky headquarters from their offices) when they dicovered last week that the newspaper's logo had been removed from one side of its building at 400 West Colfax Avenue? Then you can probably guess how excited they were to learn that going up in its place (in a location a stone's throw from the U.S. Mint, appropriately enough) would be the words "Denver Newspaper Agency" -- and that a matching marker would be placed atop the venerable granite slab near the Rocky's entrance.
Jim Nolan, spokesman for the DNA, sees nothing terribly symbolic in this move. "The rationale is that this is the company's headquarters, so we want some public signage for the agency," he says. "But at the same time, we want to keep the Rocky Mountain News signage, because this is the home of the Rocky Mountain News. And likewise, we're maintaining the Denver Post signage on the Post building, because it underlines the separate identities of the papers."
Is that why, when you call the main number of either newspaper, a live receptionist answers, "Denver Newspaper Agency"? Oh, never mind.