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Westward Hoaxes

Denver officials and the press grope for the best way to deal with bogus anthrax scares.

On a sparkling fall morning, the grand entrance of Denver's City Hall is festooned with giant ribbons commemorating breast cancer awareness month and hung with a banner reading "Denver Celebrates Diversity." But visitors wanting a closer look at this display are out of luck, because the entire area is isolated behind a chain-link fence whose signage directs them to a nondescript side door decorated only with a sheet of paper warning homeless people not to bed down in front of it.

Inside is an inspection station staffed by two guards who take their tasks seriously. They X-ray the satchel of a man in front of me, confiscating a small, forgotten pocket knife (they promise to return the blade when he leaves), ask him to remove a Western-style belt with decorative silver accoutrements for closer examination (happily, his pants stay up), and scan him with a hand-wand magnetometer before letting him go on his way. Shortly thereafter, they make a young mother remove her three-month-old from her stroller, which they thoroughly scrutinize prior to deciding that the extra diapers it holds could prevent more disasters than they cause. Then, upon finally getting to me, they become extremely interested in my ancient key ring, which is connected to a three-inch-long transparent plastic tube containing confetti-like beads and musical notes that float in a light-amber fluid. I try to reassure the head guard by revealing that the tube is a "Where's Elvis?" novelty, but he seems dubious, especially after being unable to find the tiny Elvis Presley floating within. If he hadn't located the King's pink Cadillac, I might be standing there still.

Eventually, though, I'm directed to a conference room in the bowels of the building, where city representatives and local media types are gathering to discuss a similar security matter that's cropped up in the wake of the September 11 terrorist strikes -- bio-terrorism, be it real or, in the case of my far-from-lethal key chain, imagined.

The meeting isn't top secret, but it does have rules. First, no cameras; according to Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Mayor Wellington Webb, who organized the get-together, it's for "planning purposes only." Second, only public servants may be quoted by name, apparently because the journalists present might not speak candidly if they know any comments they offer could later appear in print with their monikers attached in bold letters.

Thus reassured, the press turns out in big numbers, with folks from virtually every major newspaper and TV outlet eager to chat with many of the city's mouthpieces and powerhouses -- not just Hudson, but Ed Connors, director of Denver's Office of Emergency Management; David Sullivan, the office's deputy director; C.L. Harmer, spokeswoman for the Manager of Safety's office; Keith Mehrens, assistant chief for community services with the Denver Fire Department; Theresa Donahue, manager of Denver's Department of Environmental Health; Sara Spaulding, director of public relations for Denver Health Medical Center; and plenty more.

Just before the festivities, members of both groups descend on a deli spread notably lacking in suspicious-looking condiments or powdery seasoning -- appropriate considering that the October 12 closure of a post office in Parker was spurred by the discovery of a granular material subsequently discovered to be a pudding mix. The Parker incident, which was covered live by assorted Denver TV outlets and made news reports across the country (particularly after the substance was revealed to be harmless), remains the most prominent anthrax false alarm in Colorado to date, but it's hardly the only one. According to Denver Fire Department statistics, hazardous materials units responded to 22 calls between September 15 and September 30. But that total ballooned to 76 calls between October 1 and October 17, with by far the greatest escalation taking place after anthrax was found in Florida and New York City. Indeed, there were fifteen haz-mat scrambles each on October 16 and October 17 alone. To that end, Hudson says, "we wanted to have a dialogue with the main conduits to the public that will help us to do better -- to get out good information without creating a rush of panic throughout the community."

Hudson next shares an e-mail sent to him by a radio-station producer unable to attend the conference. The message's author writes that he's been frustrated by public-information officers, or PIOs, who are either difficult to find at crucial moments or who refuse to release any information when reporters are being bombarded by hysterical accounts from all sides. Isn't there a way that PIOs could not only increase their visibility but offer code words -- something like, "This doesn't fit the likely scenario of a terrorist attack, but we're investigating it thoroughly" -- that might help news directors decide about an appropriate degree of coverage?

Basically, the answer to this question is "no." Hudson acknowledges that "a lack of information makes people more anxious," but assistant chief Mehrens says that PIOs on the scene can't make definitive statements without corroborating details. Harmer echoes that: "We can't even give you a hierarchy of 'This might be a problem, this might not.'" And environmental-health manager Donahue warns, "If we told you something wasn't a problem and it turned out to be, our credibility with the public would be down the chutes, and so would yours."

This doesn't come as news to the press emissaries, but they still think the city should be able to speak with one voice when it comes to anthrax episodes, rather than making reporters seek out PIOs from an array of departments -- fire, police, health -- who may have just a portion of the facts. As it turns out, the city is prepared to accomplish this goal when there's a full-scale catastrophe: Sullivan points out that the Office of Emergency Management is designed to centralize and streamline data dispersal when the public faces a clear and present danger, in order to seriously reduce what he calls "honest misinformation." But Hudson says it wouldn't be a wise use of resources to keep the office running all the time, and even if it was open day and night, PIOs still couldn't dismiss the severity of a matter without getting all the facts first.

In other words, info vacuums of differing durations are inevitable, and Denver Health's Spaulding worries that some journalists are filling them by speculating about biochemical calamities in ways that promote fear instead of quelling it. "The first thing they ask is, 'Can you tell us it's not anthrax?'" she says. "Well, no, not right away -- but that seems to be the direction many reporters are taking, making that immediate leap."

To a person, the media reps refute this generalization, and highlight their patience and responsibility. They talk about post-Parker alerts that received much more modest coverage, like the closure of a wing at Denver's VA Hospital after the arrival of a mystery package from Pakistan (it contained books), or almost no attention at all, such as an evacuation at Golden's Colorado School of Mines. "We're not going to break into cartoons during the day and alarm people unless we're really sure," says a TV decision-maker. But such certainty is hard to come by, others argue, when city officials seldom seem to communicate with each other.

"If there's another Parker," an executive says, "I need to know, do I send a crew, do I need to send them in protective gear? But it's hard to find people who know, and who'll tell us."

A radio rep agrees. He says his people were aware that the Parker powder was pudding for over half an hour before the city confirmed it -- meaning that for thirty minutes he was left to report that authorities weren't talking. But Mehrens notes, "We don't have a field test for pudding except tasting it." He adds, quite sensibly, "And I'm not going to taste it.

"We have to treat each case as if it's a dangerous situation," he goes on. "We have to put on protective gear. And that makes great TV, but it creates a lot of concern within the public. So what we'd ask is for you to understand that our response has to be extreme. There's no halfway: Either you protect yourself or you don't -- and we have to protect ourselves. That's why this is uncharted territory."

Reporters, editors and producers have been set adrift, too, but they say they've got a better grip on what to do now than they did two weeks ago.

"We've learned a lot since Parker."

"Yeah -- don't jump the gun."

"We're educating ourselves every day about what this is, what we're likely to find, and how to treat it."

"These are like bomb threats."

"Worse...."

Although such exchanges don't lead to a lot of solutions, there are areas of agreement: The media corps laughs as one at a mention of the widely disparaged Denver International Airport press office, and even Harmer rolls her eyes. In the end, however, at least one reporter believes the city should err on the side of more information, not less: "It isn't your job to say what's important to let people know. We want all the information we can give them. That's our job."

Says another, "Tell us what you can tell us, and then come back and tell us more."

Hudson and company promise to consider these requests, and search out ways to implement them that won't cause Denverites to run wild in the streets. Not that Mehrens thinks citizens are silly for being nervous right now. He concedes that even fire-department veterans like himself are a little edgy.

"I went to HQ this morning, and there's what looks like white powder on the door," he says. "It was probably somebody eating a donut -- but I opened the door with my foot."

In the air tonight: In one of the most successful publicity blitzes in recent memory, bigshots from XM Satellite Radio who visited Denver last week generated innumerable electronic and print puff pieces about themselves.

The focus of these reports was on the gee-whiz aspects of the service -- specifically that users will be able to access a hundred channels of CD-quality music and news offerings of virtually every description from the comfort of their cars. But many complex issues that will eventually determine satellite radio's future were largely ignored or quickly brushed aside. For instance, in today's dire fiscal climate, will enough people spend $250-$300 for a satellite-radio player to make this extremely cost-intensive technology economically feasible? Will folks accustomed to receiving dozens of stations for free be keen to shell out $9.99 a month for broadcasts that will sport a smaller number of commercials but won't incorporate local traffic and weather information? Will the concept take off as cable television eventually did, or is a more apt analogy the Web, where one Internet radio station after another has folded in recent years because of their inability to translate fancy features into dollars and cents? And is there any guarantee that its sound will be markedly different from the corporate radio we know and hate already? Especially since the guys choosing the songs for XM were instrumental in creating corporate radio in the first place?

No joke. XM's chief programmer is Lee Abrams, who, as the head of the consulting firm Burkhart, Abrams Inc., developed the "superstars" format; its success led directly to the narrowing of playlists throughout commercial radio. Jim Knipfel, writing in the New York Press, places this move in perspective, describing Abrams as "the man who many in the industry hold solely responsible for killing radio over the past two decades."

Knipfel adds that insiders at XM suggest Abrams has embraced satellite radio because he wants to "redeem himself for all the damage he's caused." But Abrams, who was part of the XM contingent that traveled to Denver, where he once consulted for KBPI and the now-defunct KAZY, won't go there. "I would have loved to do completely freeform radio over the years, because I'm a music junkie," he says. "But stations hired us to get ratings, and that's what we did. We'd come in, and there'd be a lot of freeform stations with small but loyal audiences, and even though we didn't want to do it, we would generally put them out of business, which is why we would get blamed -- why people would go, 'How can you do this?' But a lot of those stations sort of self-destructed, because they were so elite."

Nevertheless, Abrams insists, "The way stations get listeners today is 180 degrees from what we did then. The research and everything has gotten out of control. That's why at XM, we have a no-research policy. All the music decisions are back in the hands of the program directors, where they should be."

Abrams compares the thrill of hearing XM for the first time to the sensations listeners felt when, during the late '60s and early '70s, FM radio arose to test old-school AM. But one of the great things about FM from this period was its eclecticism -- listeners could hear rock, jazz, blues, soul, funk, bluegrass and who knows what else during the span of a single hour. In contrast, most of the XM stations Abrams touts are very niche-oriented.

"A lot of people don't realize this, but classic rock really has three generations," he maintains. "You have the Dylan-Kinks-Stones era, the Led Zeppelin-Jethro Tull era, and you have the Police-U2 era. And rather than having those eras crash against each other on one channel, we'll have the luxury of a dedicated channel for each of them." He adds that there will be places intended for people looking for a stimulating mix of genres, but he describes even his favorite of those, dubbed Fine Tuning, in the context of a very specific demographic: "You'll hear the Chieftains, a Beatles track you haven't heard for years, Vangelis, Van Morrison, B.B. King, Dave Brubeck, and then maybe even something from Norway that's really cool. It's for somebody over forty who grew up with music but stopped listening to radio because nothing's challenged him enough. But this won't challenge him in a low-end alternative way. It's something aimed at his level of sophistication."

With car manufacturers throwing their weight behind the company and media organizations such as CNN contributing programming, XM has got time to prove itself. Moreover, Abrams swears that the number of subscribers who need to sign up to help the operation sustain itself "isn't as high as people think -- in the low millions, I'd say." To his mind, XM "is really reinventing radio," and there's no doubt the medium could benefit from being born again.

What's unresolved is whether Abrams should be the midwife.

You don't always get what you pay for: The Denver Post is spending a lot of dough covering the fallout from September 11, supporting several overseas correspondents in far-flung locales. But despite this investment, Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin, who's been reporting from the East Coast since shortly after the World Trade Center fell, has offered by far the best homegrown coverage to be found in the Denver dailies. It's no surprise, then, that early last month Post executives attempted to convince Littwin to jump ship.

Neither Littwin nor Post editor Glenn Guzzo will comment on this topic, but reliable sources say that despite heavy courting and a generous six-figures-per-annum offer, Littwin decided to stick with the News. That sound you just heard was the Rocky management heaving a sigh of relief.

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