The Message

Public Row

When attorney Dani Newsum tackles current events during appearances on KBDI-TV/Channel 12 programs such as Colorado Inside Out, she does so at full speed, with her shoulders squared. So it's no surprise that she hits just as hard once the topic turns to her removal from Head On, a series of regularly televised mini-debates that paired her with Colorado Senate President John Andrews.

"To have an individual who's calling the shots in the state senate with a good degree of controversy to also be able to call the shots at a PBS station is absolutely unseemly," Newsum says. "It's a really ugly intersection of governmental power and both public and private dollars."

Counters Andrews, "I feel like no good deed goes unpunished. It's been through my initiative that, five days a week for over five years, she's had the opportunity to share her opinions with the viewers of Channel 12 -- but now I get spit on, because I'm supposedly the bad guy."

Dani Newsum is out at Head On and outraged 
to boot.
Brett Amole
Dani Newsum is out at Head On and outraged to boot.

For Newsum, who'll continue to be a CIO panelist, the issue isn't Andrews's qualities as an individual or even his conservative beliefs, many of which turn her stomach: In an angry May e-mail about congressional redistricting that convinced Andrews to sever their professional relationship, she called him "a contemptible fraud and a disgrace." More important to her is whether someone as politically influential as Andrews -- who recently served as acting governor when main man Bill Owens and Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton were out of town -- should be allowed to own a public-TV show that promotes his policies while in office and be able to replace on-camera personnel at his discretion. "If the president of the state senate was my dream progressive, Channel 12 would still have a problem if they were hopping to that person's tune," she says.

Denver Post columnist Diane Carman raised similar concerns. In "Don't Like Foe," a June 18 column that followed a June 14 Rocky Mountain News article by John Sanko that broke the story, she wrote that Head On was Andrews's "baby, his show. Taxpayer-supported KBDI merely enables it." Later, Carman quoted Todd Gray, a Washington, D.C., media lawyer who concluded that while this arrangement may not break FCC directives, it could weaken viewers' trust because of the appearance that the station is running programs for financial reasons or to curry favor with an elected official. "Another reason to tune out," Carman concluded.

Predictably, the picture is more complicated than Carman paints it. Although she wrote that Andrews "selects" his onscreen partner, Newsum and her successor, outgoing Denver City Council member Susan Barnes-Gelt, were suggested by Channel 12; Andrews probably could have asked to consider other candidates but didn't. In addition, Carman indicated that Head On might be subject to "equal time" complaints from candidates running against Andrews. Too bad she didn't note that during Andrews's 2000 campaign, he temporarily stepped out of the hot seat for precisely this reason; the Independence Institute's Jon Caldara faced off against Newsum until the race was won. Finally, the column implies that Head On was little more than an "infomercial" or "partisan propaganda" for Andrews, when it was actually a fair-minded cage match. Andrews and Newsum kept track to make sure the subjects were split equally; the time allotted to each of them was the same, and the opportunity to have the last word was evenly shared among the five ninety-second face-offs taped monthly since 1997. Moreover, Newsum never shied away from blistering Andrews when she felt like it, which she almost always did. After all, she was employed as spokeswoman for the Colorado Democratic Party for a fair part of her Head On tenure.

At the same time, Carman brings up intriguing points about the funding of Channel 12 programming -- a theme also explored by the Rocky Mountain News's Dusty Saunders on June 18. General manager Wick Rowland doesn't want anyone to think Channel 12 is selling its airtime, but he confirms that the outlet's monetary participation differs from program to program. The station covers most or all of the production costs of, for instance, Drawing the Line, hosted by Reggie Rivers, but independent producers like Aaron Harber, the man behind The Aaron Harber Show, handle such chores themselves and otherwise make creative decisions under Channel 12 supervision. Deals with funding producers vary, too, as Caldara knows. He's the emcee of Independent Thinking, and he says, "We offset some of the production costs with help from foundations and underwriters who sponsor our program. But we don't pay for all the costs, and I think some of the shows pay a lot more than others."

This system makes Channel 12 susceptible to finger-wagging that's either direct, like Carman's, or veiled, as it is in radio commercials that Channel 6, Denver's senior public-broadcast outlet, just happened to start running on stations like KHOW this week. Rowland, in contrast, insists that everything is on the up-and-up. The best way to understand the concept, he says, "is to think about a university. The university pays for faculty, staff and so on. But if you want to do an experiment, you need a grant to pay the research assistants and whatever. That's the structure. Our membership donations open the doors and turn on the lights, but the additional costs of running the studio come from underwriting support."

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