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Scout's Honor

The August 31 announcement that Colorado Governor Bill Owens and his wife, Frances, had separated after 28 years of marriage was news, plain and simple. After all, the Owenses are probably the state's most prominent couple, particularly given the split last year of John and Janet Elway. Besides, Owens's frequently stated reverence for the sanctity of the family unit has long informed his persona, and he's often used Frances and the offspring they share for symbolic purposes in vote-soliciting spots and public appearances. In a sense, then, it was Owens himself who made his marital status worthy of coverage.

Nonetheless, reporting about personal issues outside the realm of the celebrity press (where circumspection died an ugly death ages ago) is like going on a blind date with one of Saddam Hussein's daughters: a no-win situation. News organizations that aggressively pursue details of the story open themselves up to charges of wallowing in someone's personal misery, while ones that present the bare minimum of info may be accused of doing political favors. And even staking out the middle ground isn't easy, as Denver Post editor Greg Moore and Post columnist Diane Carman discovered in the wake of the Owens disclosure.

The Post and the Rocky Mountain News ran pieces about the separation on September 1, laying out the basic facts, getting reactions from elected officials such as state senator John Andrews and gingerly touching upon attendant issues. Take Julia C. Martinez, writing in the Post, who asked folks like Democratic political consultant Eric Sondermann if a divorce might undermine the guv's ability to run for higher office. (Some observers see Owens as presidential material, although he's never publicly expressed a desire to move from Colorado to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.) Sondermann said he felt it was ³premature and slightly inappropriate² to speculate on the subject.

Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple doesn't encourage uneducated guesses about the Owens fissure, either. But because, in Temple's view, even the governor sees it as a legitimate news item -- "Otherwise, why would he have issued a statement?" Temple asks -- he doesn't feel that different standards should be applied to the story. His paper's approach is the "same as everything: We ask questions and then determine what we think is newsworthy and publishable." Along those lines, he thinks his columnists should feel free to write about it if the spirit moves them, and says he has "not given any guidance" to those who've decided to do so.

Thus far, the main Rocky columnist to take advantage of this opportunity is Mike Littwin. His September 2 submission, "A 'Family-Values' Governor's Marriage Falls Apart," began with an expression of compassion for the gubernatorial couple. Yet he filled the majority of his space with negative critiques of "Owens and [Congresswoman] Marilyn Musgrave and [state representative] Dave Schultheis and other so-called champions of marriage and family" for their desire to legislate certain wedlock-oriented notions.

In 2001, Schultheis sponsored legislation that critics dubbed the "Dr. Laura Bill"; it would have required any parents seeking a divorce to undergo mandatory marital counseling. Littwin wrote that the measure "apparently came directly out of the governor's office" and suggested that Owens decided to keep it at arm's length only after "the bill was held up to national ridicule." He added, "Now that Owens is going through the pain of this himself, I wonder if he might have second thoughts about the prospect of bringing the government, or Dr. Laura, into his private world." Likewise, Littwin argued that the Musgrave-sponsored "Defense of Marriage Act," a decree essentially banning gay marriage in Colorado that Owens signed into law, turned relationships that should be every bit as private as the governor's current circumstances into matters of public policy. "It's one thing to promote values," Littwin maintained. "It's another to say your values must be accepted by everyone."

Defensible points all, but Littwin's eagerness to make ideological hay out of a potential Owens breakup felt a bit unseemly. The timing, not to mention the finger-wagging tone (which was only partially mitigated by Littwin's assertion that it was "no one's business" what went on behind closed doors), provided ammo for any conservative eager to decry the excesses of the "liberal media."

Even the Post's Moore, whom plenty of local observers see as tilting markedly to the left, wasn't thrilled by Littwin's effort. He says "'dislike' is too strong a word" to describe his reaction, but notes that during a visit to the Post newsroom on the day the column was published, he told projects editor Dan Meyers, "I don't want us to do that."

"Half the people in this country get divorced, and it's something intensely personal," Moore elaborates. "We've got to be careful in how we deal with it," particularly in an opinion-laden context. He emphasizes that he had no intention of banning his columnists -- Carman, Jim Spencer and Cindy Rodriguez -- from taking on the theme. He just wanted to make sure that it would be done in a responsible way. "If we get a nugget of news, an interview with his wife, something about how this trial separation affects how he does his job, that's fair game," he says. "I just didn't want anyone going off half-cocked."

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