As the Smoke Clears

How does the media get back to normal when no one can say what normal is?

On September 13, two major stories took place in Denver: Governor Bill Owens announced the grades earned by public schools across the state as part of the sweeping, much-discussed educational reform package put in place by the Colorado legislature, and Assistant Denver Fire Chief Charles Drennan Jr. was shot to death by a Denver Fire Department captain, Bob Cronin, who then turned a gun on himself.

On any other day, these reports would have led every local newscast -- but September 13, two days after terrorists crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, wasn't any other day. Patti Dennis, news director for Channel 9, still chose to break into regular programming when word of the murder-suicide surfaced, but doing so was more complicated than it would have been ordinarily. "We decided we had to transition from the attack story into local news," she says. "But at least the local story had some ties to the national story, because it involved firemen." By that evening, however, national news had reasserted itself. On Channel 9's top-rated late news, the Drennan-Cronin shootings and the school grading reports had been relegated to the very end of the broadcast, in the slot usually reserved for video essays about new baby animals at the zoo. Immediately thereafter, the station aired a photo of rescue workers raising the Stars and Stripes over the Trade Center wreckage as anchor Adele Arakawa paraphrased Francis Scott Key's declaration, "Our flag was still there."

It's hard to argue with this call. Even now, most Coloradans remain obsessed with each and every development in New York City and Washington, D.C., and the media nationally and in Denver has by and large done an impressive job of getting information to them. But as time goes on, new challenges will arise, with one of the first for Denver stations and publications being to cover events of potentially global significance without giving local news short shrift.

Early on, the ride was bumpy, especially at outlets unaccustomed to covering news, such as hard-rock radio station KBPI. On the morning of September 11, the Willie B.-led a.m. team was clearly out of its depth when bantering about what was happening in New York; comments included "Where's Bruce Willis -- you know what I'm sayin'?" and "Dude, this is right out of Die Hard!" Not long after these strained witticisms were supplemented by reminiscences about Towering Inferno ("O.J. was in that flick!"), management at Clear Channel, KBPI's owner, wisely began broadcasting syndicated news over the station, as well as on its other Denver FM properties; KTCL fanciers hoping to hear some Moby likely were caught off guard when they found Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel there instead, but it was still the right move. Nonetheless, this couldn't go on forever, and when KBPI went back to its regular broadcasting schedule on September 12, callers still wanted to focus on the attacks, forcing DJs used to gabbing about screaming riffs and bodacious ta-tas to touch on far more serious topics. Doing so unexpectedly well that afternoon was afternoon-drive host Uncle Nasty (aka Gregg Stone), who found a way to relate information compassionately and without condescension. Who'da thunk it?

Other yakkers working outside their comfort zones, such as the Fan's Sandy Clough, also acquitted themselves well. But local talk radio very quickly turned into a rhetorical minefield, especially when callers were driving the conversations. On September 12, a caller to KHOW told the temporary pairing of Reggie Rivers and Bob Davidson that we shouldn't be discussing on the radio what we might do to retaliate against terrorists, because the perpetrators could be listening and would then know how to protect themselves. Davidson responded to this bizarre statement logically, noting that it was totally idiotic. But instead of hurriedly making this guy go away, Rivers tried to get through to him using (eeesh) a football analogy concerning the subsequently postponed contest between the Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts. (Not surprisingly, the caller didn't understand.) Two days later, on September 14, Clear Channel stations KHOW, KOA and KTLK combined forces to raise approximately $275,000 for Trade Center-related causes -- an astounding figure by any measure. But in between accepting donations that morning, host Peter Boyles was inundated with calls from people teetering on the brink of irrationality; topics included predictions by Nostradamus (bogus prophecies are flooding the Web) and a photo of the Trade Center in which a devil's head allegedly can be seen in the smoke (the Post ran a wire story about the latter).

Blessedly, the network newscasts largely downplayed such flotsam in favor of substantive matters. Misinformation did pop up now and again, and other matters slipped through the cracks, such as when the St. Petersburg Times reported that Fox News ran a toll-free Scientology number as a source for mental-health assistance. But the gaffes were small in number, understandable given the hysteria following the assaults, and invariably corrected as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, debate arose over the rawness of the footage that was screened in the day or so after the crashes. Some viewers felt U.S. fare was too sanitized and so turned to the tougher stuff provided by the BBC (seen locally for a time on the Learning Channel) and Univision, which, says one viewer, showed "bodies raining down" from the World Trade Center, including "a man trying to hold his coat up like a makeshift parachute before it was ripped from his hands." But many others objected when American channels showed similar snippets. In a September 13 New York Times piece, NBC vice president Bill Wheatley said his network's decision to run one such image was wrong.

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