By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Fortunately for Coloradans, the biggest local story on September 11 and the days immediately thereafter wasn't collapsing buildings or appalling casualty totals. Rather, it was the closure and subsequent reopening of Denver International Airport -- a logistical nightmare that required immediate action here, as well as coordination with facilities across the country and beyond.
In the end, the operation was as successful as could have been hoped, with the airport closing promptly -- DIA representatives think it may have been the first major flight center in the nation to do so -- and stranded passengers eventually getting to where they wanted to go. But now, with the airport functioning on something resembling its regular schedule again and with new security measures in place, many area reporters are complaining about the performance of DIA's media-relations staff amid the crisis. Furthermore, they suggest that tensions exist between the airport office and the press in general that predate the terrorist assaults earlier this month.
Those opinions aren't universally shared. The Denver Post's Jeff Leib, who's written about the airport since the mid-'90s, says he's always found DIA media-relations folks, including deputy manager of aviation, public relations and marketing Amy Bourgeron and director of media relations Chuck Cannon to be accessible and helpful, adding that he had no difficulties with them while reporting about the repercussions of the September 11 events. Likewise, the Rocky Mountain News's Kevin Flynn, who's covered happenings at DIA since before it was built, points out that while getting through to the right person can sometimes be a challenge, the airport's staff handled the crisis "better than I expected."
And Bourgeron and Cannon insist they have no knowledge of either pre-existing troubles or new strains in their dealings with the media.
But other print and electronic journalists (some commenting on the record, a number speaking anonymously) tell a different tale. Several say the DIA press office is now the worst in the city, displacing the media unit at the Denver Police Department, which was under considerable fire last year ("A Failure to Communicate," February 17, 2000) but has since made a noticeable attempt to correct its flaws. "There's been an adversarial relationship from the very beginning," says John Ferrugia, an investigative reporter for Channel 7 who's exposed security lapses at DIA in special segments dating back to 1999. "And there's a huge contrast to the way the apparatus for the press works at the airport compared to everywhere else in the city."
Patrick O'Driscoll, a onetime Post scribe who's spent the past four-plus years as the region's correspondent for USA Today, voiced similar concerns in an e-mail he sent to Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Mayor Wellington Webb, on September 12; Hudson forwarded a copy of it, sans its author's name, to Bourgeron, but O'Driscoll gave Westword permission to quote from the correspondence. In it, O'Driscoll charged that updates to DIA's media telephone line, "to which we're all being referred because no one will answer direct calls (always in 'meetings') are s-l-o-w or non-existent"; in addition, "Simple requests for cooperation to allow working-journalist access to DIA to cover the evacuation Tuesday were met with, 'You're on your own, we can't help you.' Those lucky enough to get to DIA before the roadblocks went up had access. Those who weren't, didn't."
As a result, O'Driscoll was left to cobble together a report based on conversations with displaced passengers at car-rental businesses, "but I'd have had more detail, more color, more action by Denver -- and, by extension, a greater presence in my paper for how DENVER handled yesterday's crisis -- had the PR folks out there had their you-know-what together enough to deal with journalists needing to WITNESS the operation, not just stand out on Peña Boulevard watching cars go by."
In response, Cannon, who remembers talking with O'Driscoll on September 11 about these issues, says his hands were tied by orders from the Federal Aviation Administration to evacuate and, in governmental jargon, "sterilize" the airport. As Cannon puts it, "I have no authority to supersede a federal requirement to close an airport. We were part of a national effort to shut down the national air-traffic system, and we had to follow FAA procedure." Cannon acknowledges that, because the sterilization process began at the most distant concourse, C, and ended with the terminal, reporters who'd gotten inside before barricades were in place wound up with many hours more access to the building and those inside it than most of their peers, but there was no way around it: "Pat wasn't the only one I said 'no' to. Some were lucky enough to get in, and others weren't."
Occasional inequities like this were probably inevitable given the situation, which every reporter interviewed for this column acknowledges was a challenging and chaotic one. But O'Driscoll was still taken aback by the inflexibility of the airport's media strategy, which, he says, may have wound up harming DIA more than it hurt him. "I got my story, but I work for the largest newspaper in the country, and if I'd been able to witness what happened inside the terminal, it certainly would have put Denver in a better light as far as being on top of its game. As it was, Denver didn't get mentioned, pro or con. Maybe that doesn't matter to them, but given the vigorous and proactive approach of the city of Denver's PR operation, I was still surprised how unhelpful things were at the airport on Tuesday."