By Michael Roberts
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Plenty of people long to be in front of cameras, behind microphones or opposite journalists jotting down their every word -- but that doesn't mean the experience of serving as press fodder always leaves one feeling fine the morning after. Witness onetime Denver Deputy Manager of Aviation Amy Bourgeron, who says a series of reports by Channel 9's Paula Woodward turned her into a victim of "drive-by journalism. You don't have to stop and get distracted by any of the facts. You just point and shoot."
Woodward's description of her Channel 9 work -- which may have been a contributing factor in a job-ranking shift that lowered Bourgeron's salary by over $30,000 per annum -- could hardly be more different. She set out to simply "state the facts as we knew them," she says, and she stands behind her coverage that began on April 24.
Down the line, Woodward may be compelled to do so before a judge. On July 1, Bourgeron filed a complaint against the city and assorted members of the Career Service Authority Board over her demotion to the position of public and employee relations coordinator; the case is currently in federal district court, with a first hearing slated for mid-September. Bourgeron's attorney, Marc Mishkin, subsequently issued a statement about a July 18 Woodward followup, in which he employed legalistic language such as "Paula Woodward is trafficking in rumor and innuendo in wanton and reckless disregard of the facts." When asked if these remarks should be interpreted as a prelude to another lawsuit, Mishkin says, "Ms. Bourgeron has an option of including any actions against the media in the present suit if they're directly related to it, or filing against any media outlet whose actions have given her what she feels is an actionable claim."
The prospect of a judicial faceoff is especially intriguing, given that Bourgeron has spent most of her nineteen-plus years as a city of Denver employee serving as a conduit between reporters and the government. In 1982, she was hired by the city as a contract worker, and she became a Career Services employee two years later; the Career Service designation gives individuals job security that isn't affected by elections or changes in administration. Bourgeron served as communications director for the Department of Public Works from 1987 to 1998, after which she was appointed Deputy Manager of Aviation for Public Relations and Marketing at Denver International Airport by former Mayor Wellington Webb. (Bourgeron accepted the position on the condition that her previous Career Service job be held for her so that she could return to it after her stint as an appointee ended.) In addition, she worked for a time as Webb's press secretary and coordinated information dispersal for two of the highest-profile events to take place in the area during the past decade: the Oklahoma City bombing trials and the G-8 Summit, a gathering of world leaders such as Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.
These experiences have made Bourgeron something of a go-to person when it comes to handling news-organization onslaughts. After the Kobe Bryant case broke, she says, she was contacted by "someone involved in assisting Eagle County with some of their preliminary media concerns. They wanted to know, 'What was the first thing you did, Amy? How did you put your arms around this issue?' I walked them through the steps."
Her DIA tenure has hit occasional turbulence. Following 9/11, a number of reporters went public with complaints about problems in the public-info department Bourgeron headed, with one calling the airport "the most insulated government office in the city, and probably in the state" ("Talking Points," September 27, 2001). Still, she and her team can be credited with helping to turn around DIA's reputation as a baggage-eating white elephant beloved mainly by late-night comics to what Time magazine dubbed America's best-run airport in July 2002, and for luring seven new airlines to the facility over a two-year span.
Bourgeron racked up this track record without benefit of a college degree. She received four semester credits in commercial photography from the Colorado Institute of Art, but no sheepskin -- a deficiency that, while seemingly trivial at this stage of her career, served as the spur for Woodward's reporting. In one offering, Woodward quizzed Jim Yearby, ex-director of the Career Service, Authority, who said then-DIA manager of aviation Bruce Baumgartner asked in 1998 if Bourgeron could be transferred directly from her public works position to the gig as deputy manager of aviation. Yearby told him that wouldn't be possible, because a college degree was a prerequisite for the job, according to Career Service guidelines. Later, Mayor Webb made Bourgeron a political appointee, which skirted the degree requirement but meant that, under ordinary circumstances, her time in the job had to end when he left office in 2003 and the position would come back under the Career Service umbrella.
The city allowed individuals to apply for the impending deputy manager opening beginning in October 2002 -- and, in a break with the past, the listing stated, "Additional appropriate experience or education can be substituted for experience or education." Because Bourgeron was the most prominent person to benefit from this new policy, and because Baumgartner was ultimately in charge of choosing her over other applicants, Woodward's late-April piece, broadcast at the start of a sweeps ratings period, lumped her hiring in with two others that it dubbed "questionable." Also on the roster was Allen Webb, Wellington Webb's son (and a man with a sizable rap sheet), who was fired from one Career Service job in 2001 but hired for another the next year. He was eventually fired from that position, too.
This juxtaposition frosts Bourgeron, as does just about everything else in Woodward's report and those that succeeded it. She says the real reason she was appointed by Webb as deputy manager was because the job had been vacant since her predecessor, Diane Koller, left the year before, and the airport was "in crisis. There'd been the train breakdown, the blizzard, and after they moved Bruce to manager of aviation, he discovered big problems with communications and marketing. Since they needed help right away, they appointed me so I could immediately fill the gap" instead of going through the drawn-out Career Service hiring process.
As for the sentence about substituting experience for education in the deputy manager advertisement, Bourgeron argues that it came about after considerable debate among members of the Career Service Board. Moreover, the wording switch merely "allowed me to get into the competition," she says. "Everything else was based on my ability to pass a written test and to submit and be graded on a review process and testing process conducted by Career Service over a five-month period . . .. Your mother couldn't help you through the process."
Some of the exams were entirely objective, with others being fairly subjective -- but when the totals were combined, Bourgeron earned the top score of any applicant. Nonetheless, the Career Service Board determined in June that Yearby shouldn't have waived the education requirement in Bourgeron's case and asked Baumgartner to remove her as deputy manager. After he did so, Woodward's July 18 report charged him with allowing Bourgeron to hang onto perks that came along with the higher position, including a car and a security badge. Shortly thereafter, Baumgartner's resignation was accepted by incoming Mayor John Hickenlooper; Yearby resigned June 10.
Neither of these moves appears to have been caused by the Bourgeron matter, but the controversy certainly hasn't done those involved any good. "Imagine having your reputation questioned, and not only in the local media. It was in USA Today, too," Bourgeron says. "That has a tremendous impact on my future." Regarding her achievements, she asks, "Did you see any of them covered? Of course not. It was all how 'Amy Bourgeron was deemed unqualified' and that I 'manipulated the system.'"
Woodward rejects this criticism of her coverage, which she sees as entirely slant-free. "We never give our opinion. That's not appropriate. We give the viewers the best information we can and then let them decide." She says this mission was made more difficult because Bourgeron declined all interview requests made after the broadcast of the April piece, in which she appeared. So did Baumgartner, who Woodward finally pinned down on July 11 after staking out his house.
"Amy Bourgeron could certainly have straightened out a lot of this just by talking to us," she allows. "We asked her at least ten times, and the same with Bruce Baumgartner. She was the director of marketing, which is the mouthpiece, and he was the manager of aviation. It's their duty, their job, to help us with information when we're doing a story, and they knew about the story that ran on July 18 for at least three weeks."
Bourgeron justifies her decision not to speak with Woodward again by sharing a transcript of their April interview, in which the reporter seems to think there are two deputy manager jobs rather than one. ("I was just trying to clarify things," Woodward says.) Bourgeron sometimes wonders if Woodward has any personal enmity toward her, yet the only evidence she can dredge up is an anecdote about receiving an autographed photo of the reporter as a gag gift while at Public Works in the early '90s, only to learn from the friend who gave it to her that Woodward wanted it back. Woodward recalls the incident, and says she requested the photo's return because the person in question had told her it would be given to someone other than Bourgeron -- "although if she'd said it was for Amy, I would have signed it, too.... She and I have a professional relationship, just like I have with Andrew Hudson and C.L. Harmer and any of these people involved with government. You can't make things personal. That's not your job."
Whether any of these tales will ever be spun in court is unclear, particularly given that the alleged errors cited in attorney Mishkin's press release may strike some as debatable. For example, Mishkin contends that on July 18, Woodward said Bourgeron had "exactly" the same job duties after being officially demoted as she had previously, but the version of the story on www.9news.com draws parallels without making this specific claim. That leaves disputes over tone and omission that a jury might have difficulty grasping.
Still, Bourgeron's time in the spotlight isn't over. Her suit against the city is sure to be covered by members of the press, and she thinks the lion's share will do so responsibly: "The majority of reporters I've worked with in the past nineteen years come in looking for balance."
As proof, she mentions "an interesting call I got from a very well-respected investigative reporter. News of Paula's report began circulating even before it aired, and he said, 'Someone's been shopping this story for over a year.' I said, 'Why didn't you do it?' And he said, 'Because there's nothing there.'"
The front pages: On many days, the covers of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post are notably different, and that's as it should be. But there have been few times when the distinctions were more obvious than they were on July 29. The Rocky featured oversized photos of Wayne and Kathy Harris, parents of Columbine High School executioner Eric Harris, and Sue Klebold, mother of murderous accomplice Dylan Klebold, as they exited federal court the previous day; the killers' parents were there to give depositions in a lawsuit filed against them by the parents of several slain Columbine students. The Post countered with an enormous, suitable-for-framing, sixty-year-old portrait of funnyman Bob Hope, who died on July 28 at age one hundred.
Some observers might see the prominence given by the Rocky to the Harris-Klebold shots as either overkill or an invasion of privacy -- but in truth, the media can hardly be accused of going to extremes in this case. Whereas photos or video images of the parents of victims have been widely circulated since shortly after the April 1999 day when the attack took place, hardly any images of the Harris or Klebold parents have gotten out; an old Air Force mug of Wayne Harris is the most notable exception. News agencies did take photos of the Harris and Klebold homes, but the local dailies appear not to have assigned photographers to wait outside their doors, ambush style. (Neither Larry Price, the Post's assistant managing editor/photography, nor Janet Reeves, the Rocky's director of photography, seem eager to talk about the subject. He didn't return one call; she failed to reply to three.) Moreover, the Rocky photographed the parents in a public place in conjunction with a newsworthy event; the trip to court marked the first time some of those behind the complaint had seen the people they were suing.
So why didn't the Post cover this topic in its July 29 edition? The upcoming court appearances were mentioned in an Associated Press item that ran in the Rocky, the Washington Post and other newspapers on July 28, but Denver Post types either missed it or didn't understand its newsworthiness. Whatever the case, Greg Moore, the Post's editor, says, "We fumbled the ball." He allows that the Post might not have played the photos in quite the same way as the Rocky did, but he believes "there's legitimate news value in seeing these parents, just by virtue of the extent to which they've gone to shield themselves."
The final words he offers on the subject demonstrate why Moore's got a reputation for forthrightness and honesty of the brutal variety. "Sometimes we fuck up," he says.
A few days before Hope made page one of the Post, the paper produced a more amusing cover for a very select audience; it was a good-humored going-away gift for longtime city editor Evan Dreyer, who left the paper on July 25 for personal reasons. (His replacement is Post staffer and Denver native Lee Ann Colacioppo.) Included was the "Top Ten Things Evan Will Miss About the Post," which included "Reporters who start oratories with 'I don't recall if you were here during Columbine'" (he was), "The bring-your-own-turkey Christmas parties" and, best of all, "Columnists whose names rhyme with Fuck."
Somewhere, former Post column king Chuck Green isn't smiling.
Biting the hand that feeds him: Radio listeners have been accused in some quarters of not caring about the deterioration of the medium, which many folks ascribe in large part to corporate consolidation. However, the July 29 Red Rocks concert starring Neil Young and Crazy Horse suggested otherwise. At the show, the legendarily mercurial Young debuted Greendale, an off-kilter song cycle/theatrical excursion that was dramatically suspect and often silly, yet tremendously enjoyable anyway. Even so, the crowd's most positive reaction during the Greendale portion of the festivities came in response to an illustration of a satirical billboard reading "Support Our War." The placard was labeled "Clear Channel," referring to the nationwide radio behemoth that, here and elsewhere, put on military-themed "pro-America" bashes during the early stages of the conflict in Iraq ("Rally Time," April 3).
Who promoted Young's concert? Clear Channel -- which probably won't be sponsoring any pro-Neil celebrations anytime soon.