The Message

Fact or Fiction?

Saltas's gripes revolve around "Arch Rivals," a January 9 feature about the Sierra Club written by Salt Lake Weekly reporter Shane McCammon. The piece was later picked up by Alternet, which serves as the equivalent of a wire service for alternative weeklies. Days later, the Boulder Weekly purchased McCammon's article from Alternet, but instead of printing it in its original form, the paper took substantial license. "The Compromised Sierra Club," which appeared on the Boulder Weekly's January 23 cover, was credited to Ron Bain, one of the paper's writers, with a tag line venturing that "Shane McCammon contributed to this story." In truth, McCammon says, "I essentially wrote it," and his contention is more than supported by comparing the articles. The Boulder Weekly's effort is shorter and has a new first section that McCammon hates, but its final two-thirds is an edited-down version of what appeared in the Salt Lake Weekly -- and the last several paragraphs are reprinted word for word.

Salt Lake Weekly reps complained to the Boulder Weekly about this treatment and got a verbal apology from Pamela White, who became editor of the paper after "The Compromised Sierra Club" was printed. McCammon, for his part, was paid a $75 fee by Alternet that didn't come close to compensating him for his frustrations. "It's not the end of the world, but when they tack on a horrendous lead and then try to pass the story off as if I wrote only a few words of it, that's irritating," he says.

So, too, was a bogus item that Westword came close to foisting upon its entire readership in March. For our annual Best of Denver edition, a since-dismissed contributor nominated a late-December Gloria Gaynor concert at the Church as the "Best Disco Revival in a Mainstream Club." The blurb was subsequently approved, written, edited, copy-edited and placed into the final version of the paper, which was on the press when an alert advertising staffer checking ads flagged it. Why? The show hadn't taken place because of a last-minute cancellation. Shortly thereafter, the salute to Gaynor's non-appearance was excised before it got into most papers bound for the street -- although it's theoretically possible that some flawed copies slipped past quality control. Be sure to check yours to see if you've got a collector's item.

A more extreme instance of unlabeled creative writing that made it into Westword took place in 1979, shortly after screen cowboy John Wayne converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. The late Alan Dumas, a freelancer at the time, submitted a story about Father James Sullivan, a priest with Our Lady of Lourdes parish who'd been so moved by the actor's actions that he was spearheading a quizzical campaign on his behalf. "We are not asking for Mr. Wayne's veneration because we want him canonized," Dumas quoted Sullivan as saying, "although we would eventually like to see this happen if he meets the requirements for sainthood. We just think the Church should bestow some special honor on a Catholic of such importance and stature."

After the scoop's publication, equally late News columnist Gene Amole based a piece on Sullivan that caught the attention of a representative from Time magazine. The Time reporter asked Westword editor Patricia Calhoun for the priest's contact info, but when she urged Dumas to share the digits, he was reluctant, and for a very good reason: Sullivan didn't exist outside of his own head.

Dumas's career survived this incident very well. A few years after Wayne went to his final reward, Dumas joined Westword's staff, where he grew accustomed to being carefully fact-checked; after a stint on the radio, he was hired by the News. In a column memorializing Dumas ("A Master Storyteller's Final Chapter," April 22, 1999), Calhoun shared the anecdote about the make-believe Father, putting it in the context of the writer's quirky, garrulous persona. But he adored theatricality, and while he presumably learned a lesson from the Duke and embraced honesty during the remainder of his journalistic life, a Times-style examination might unearth plenty that Calhoun and Temple would be happier not knowing about.

As for the Times, it seems determined to discover each and every one of ex-reporter Blair's transgressions, many of which are recorded in greatly embarrassing detail in the May 11 exposé. However, the possibility that Blair's status as an African-American may have inoculated him against an earlier dismissal is dealt with only superficially in the massive report, even though the pressure to diversify newsrooms is building in cities across the country, including Denver ("Diverse Opinions," May 8). Writers like the New Yorker's Ken Auletta have chided the Times for tiptoeing around this potentially explosive theme, but others have done likewise. Even Temple left any mention of minorities out of his jeremiad against the way the Times handled Blair, leaving the field clear for News columnist Tina Griego. In a May 19 column, she shared her fear that some people will assume that Blair got away with reportorial homicide thanks to the color of his skin.

Supporters of this hypothesis accused the Denver Post of trying to downplay the African-American angle by deleting allusions to possible favoritism from the version of the Times article it published, but the allegation is patently ridiculous. The Post printed less than 20 percent of a Times opus that brushed off the potential influence of a diversity quest with a bare handful of lines such as "Mr. Blair's Times supervisors and Maryland professors emphasize that he earned an internship at the Times because of glowing recommendations and a remarkable work history, not because he is black."

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