By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
For several years spanning the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, Colorado was arguably the country's leading producer of long-running, attention-grabbing news stories. Between the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the Oklahoma City bombing trial and the assault on Columbine High School, national newscasts could often be mistaken for local ones. Hell, Geraldo Rivera was practically a full-time resident -- and do we ever miss him.
After 9/11, this situation changed dramatically. Colorado's wildfires flickered for a time in the network spotlight during 2002, and Aron Ralston, an Aspen outdoorsman who lopped off half his arm earlier this year, was briefly fingered by the media; he was David Letterman's guest on July 21. But for the most part, the country's focus has been on matters that didn't arise in the Rocky Mountain region: the battle against international terrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Britney Spears's virginity -- or lack thereof.
Suddenly, however, Colorado is making a comeback. A recent rash of cat mutilations in the Denver area stirred the curiosity of newspaper readers and cable viewers well beyond the state line, and the killing of Paul Childs, a disabled fifteen-year-old, by Denver police officer James Turney, took on the patina of celebrity thanks to the participation of onetime O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran. Moreover, the July 18 move to charge Los Angeles Lakers basketballer Kobe Bryant with alleged sexual assault on an employee at an Edwards resort guarantees many months of full-scale media insanity. If you think you're sick of this topic now, after just a few days spent soaking in saturation coverage, imagine how nauseated you'll be when the Katie Courics of the world are nattering about it next year.
Genuine developments in the Kobe case will be slow in coming, but that won't stop the national press from keeping the pot boiling even on those days when there isn't anything to cook. Many representatives of major outlets firmly believe that no news is still news if the subject is stimulating enough for talking heads to speculate upon -- and speculate they will. Wasn't Kobe in the state when all those cats were dying? Could there be a connection? Hmmm...
As witnessed by the predictably voluminous coverage presented since the charges came down, area news organizations aren't immune from these temptations -- and while some may take a comparatively high road in their future Kobe reporting, others could head straight for the gutter. In an attempt to assess who's likely to head where, I conducted a pair of informal pre-indictment surveys. First I studied copies of the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News published from July 1 to July 16, with an eye toward gauging how histrionically the aforementioned topics and others like them were handled. Then I analyzed eight news programs broadcast by Denver's five largest stations -- channels 2, 4, 7, 9 and 31 -- on July 15, a date chosen because the Bryant matter remained in limbo. It turned out to be the calm before the storm.
For the most part, the results were cheering. The dailies generally kept events in perspective, and most of the TV-news operations did, as well. There were some notable exceptions, though, and the way the various operations dealt with the splashiest items that came their way revealed plenty about how they're likely to report about Kobe and other potential blockbusters that crop up. Here's a breakdown:
Rocky Mountain News: The Rocky may be a tabloid, but it's no New York Post. Instead of unapologetically aiming for the lowest common denominator, the Rocky goes about appealing to the masses in a quirkier, more old-fashioned way. For one thing, its editors seem to believe that everyone is fascinated by stories about animals -- especially animals gone bad -- and do their best to get as many of them into print as possible. Consider the July 2 edition, which included the headlines "OSHA to Inspect Refuge Where Tigers Mauled Man," "Big Daddy Bulls Way Free, With Buffalo Herd at Heels," "Thousands of Lions Converge on Denver," which was about a parade of folks in the Lions Club but sounded more ominous, and "Dead Cats Draw World Attention," an article by Brian Crecente that said more about Denver's insecurities than many of us would care to admit. The piece noted that an Aurora spokeswoman had received cat-mutilation-related inquiries from MSNBC, CNN and so on, as if being noticed by important outsiders was a measure of compensation for having to pick up all of those dissected felines.
Even so, the Rocky only went hog wild about cats in its July 3 issue, via a huge spread led by two stories placed near the top of the news section beneath the portentous banner "'Somebody Knows.'" One of the reports stated that police had linked 37 of 45 mutilations to humans; the other featured an expert who argued that wildlife was "the likely culprit." Naturally, a blurb on the cover mentioned only the former possibility.
As for the Bryant and Childs stories, the Rocky produced blowouts about both on July 8 after more modest presentations the previous day. The cover sported a Bryant plug over a photo of bereft Childs relatives and another, more melodramatic headline about the gunning down of the teen: "'He Trusted Them.'" Inside, "Bryant Is Accused by Spa Employee" was accompanied by two photos, a map, a "sequence of events" sidebar and a reference to a column by Mike Littwin. On the opposite page, "Slain Teen 'Loved' Cops" came complete with multiple snapshots and excerpts from a 911 call that could be heard by logging on to www.rockymountainnews.com.