As the Smoke Clears

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

Or was it? In the same Times article, Denver Post editor Glenn Guzzo responded to complaints spurred by his paper's publication of a disturbing but stunning and evocative photo of a man plummeting to earth, head down, with the line "The terrible truth is the truth that we should not deny folks." (Guzzo made the same point in a September 16 column.) Hear, hear.

Other items in the dailies were tougher to understand. On September 11, the News and the Post found ways to publish extra editions, which the Denver Newspaper Agency hyped with a highly questionable press release on PR Newswire (only two of the over 100 other newspapers that printed extras did likewise), but somehow the papers couldn't yank blurbs about long-canceled events from entertainment sections that appeared the following Friday. And shouldn't someone at the Post have suggested holding a September 16 video-game column that included the deadpan line "War makes for some pretty good video gaming"? Like local TV, however, the News and the Post generally acquitted themselves well, with even the papers' fashion editors, Lesley Kennedy and Suzanne Brown (in New York for a big show at the time of the assaults), making valuable contributions.

Most of the local tie-ins found in the dailies revolved around the shutdown and startup of Denver International Airport and local victims, with sports, business and other non-news sections appearing in truncated form. The same was true of TV newscasts. On September 11, local sports and weather was virtually nonexistent, but by the next night, these staples were slowly beginning to reassert themselves. For example, the September 13 broadcast by Channel 4 devoted less than half the usual time to weather, with weatherman Larry Green squeezing in forecasts both for Colorado and New York City -- a smart decision that provided information people thirsted for even as it tied Green into a story to which he'd previously had little opportunity to contribute. Channel 4 news director Angie Kucharski thinks this particular choice illustrates the station's approach as a whole. "We know there's an overriding interest in the events happening on the East Coast," she says, "so we want to make sure and be responsible enough to provide proper context and coverage even as we look for appropriate and respectful ways to provide local coverage."

Bill Dallman, news director at Channel 31, is trying to walk this tightrope as well: "Being a local news entity, we want to cover the local impact, but not at the expense of the universal story that we all want to tune into. So we're trying to balance both -- and I think we've been able to do it."

Trying to achieve this goal hasn't been easy -- but the rough edges have sometimes been more revealing than perfection might have. Channel 31's newscasts usually conclude as follows: The sportscaster completes his segment and hands off to the two news anchors, who then give the weatherman a chance to synopsize the forecast one more time before all four say a cheerful goodbye. But on September 12, cheerfulness was out of the question, leaving primary sports anchor David Treadwell at sea. He glumly wrapped up his approximately sixty-second report about sporting events that might be called off (all of them were) before throwing to anchor Ron Zappolo, who did likewise to seemingly speechless weatherman Bob Goosmann. An instant later, this threesome plus fill-in anchor Kim Posey turned to face the main camera, apparently unable to find something to say. Finally, Zappolo saved the day, admitting, in one of the more honest moments in Denver's coverage of this story, "This has been another incredibly difficult day."

Unfortunately, there are more to come. Even now, there's fallout in unanticipated areas. For example, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that The Onion, America's preeminent satirical newspaper (and a Denver favorite), is publishing "light and diversionary articles" from previous issues this week because of the impossibility of finding fun amid the carnage.

In such an environment, pros like Channel 9's Dennis are relying on the most basic tenets of news judgment. "Every day we make decisions based on what we think is most important for viewers to know," she says. "And I don't know that the criteria has changed."

In a world where everything else has, that's good to know.

Erratum: The roster of journalists who made mistakes following last week's events includes yours truly. In my previous column, I wrote that Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce can be heard on Alice, when in fact they're now on KISS-FM.

Clearing out: During the September 14 Clear Channel fundraiser alluded to above, Don Howe, vice president and general manager of the Denver radio outlets owned by the Texas-based behemoth, spent the day in front of the operation's headquarters collecting money alongside his family (he's married and has three sons, ages fifteen, thirteen and ten). The occasion was emotional, Howe says, and not simply for the obvious reasons. Why? Howe already knew he would be leaving Denver, where he's spent the last fourteen years.

Howe's new title with Clear Channel is West Coast Senior Vice President, and his duties entail overseeing 125 stations, most of them in California (the Denver market is part of the Plains/Northwest region, under the supervision of Jay Meyers). As such, he'll be relocating to San Diego at year's end. Until then, he'll handle his chores from Denver, with Lee Larsen, previously in charge of Clear Channel's local AM properties, sliding into Howe's old post. "I was hesitant to leave, because we have deep roots in Colorado," Howe says. "But I'm looking forward to working at this new level."

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