The Message

Ticket Not to Ride

Many of the changes that have taken place in this country since 9/11, including color-coded terror-alert warnings, Toby Keith's record-sales spike and the growing popularity of Saddam Hussein lice-inspection footage, are obvious and up front. But other alterations linger in the shadows, known only to those they directly affect.

Such is the case with one aspect of media coverage at Denver International Airport. Unbeknownst to most news consumers, a substantial percentage of the interviews conducted, photos taken and videotape shot at DIA gates since the fall of the World Trade Center involved journalists who had to purchase refundable tickets to get past security.

The reasons seem simple, but the practical applications can be complicated.

While current federal polices don't allow most individuals without tickets beyond airport security stations, DIA spokesman Chuck Cannon says, "There are some exceptions. For people who are escorting elderly parents or young children, the airlines will issue a designated-needs pass. But the airport doesn't give out those passes." Cannon notes, however, that DIA's media-relations staff does extend a service for journalists whose reporting would be enhanced by admittance to the gate areas: "If the media calls and wants to get out to one of the concourses, and they want an escort out there, we'll try to accommodate them if we have time and we think it's a legitimate story."

Cannon doesn't come right out and say that the public-relations department's view of a report's legitimacy determines which journalists receive assistance and which ones are left to dangle, but anyone who wants to connect the dots can feel free to do so. Bryon Grandy, Channel 7's news director, sees a correlation. "On stories where they might not see as much of a story as I do, or when it's not directly connected to them -- when it's just somebody coming through their airport -- they may not react as quickly," he says.

Speed may also be dictated by the staff's workload that day. Cannon emphasizes that no one in his office is assigned to wait on standby for reporters or photogs in need of squiring: "We have our normal jobs to do, so we can only escort someone if we have a spare person."

As for the process of readying the press to penetrate the forbidden zone, Cannon makes it sound time-consuming and full of limitations. "Members of the media have to give certain information so they can get an escort badge, and we escort them back for a specific purpose," he says. "We can't just turn them loose and let them roam around the concourse for a couple of hours." Given such restrictions, it's hardly shocking that Cannon's DIA charges receive few inquiries of this sort. As he puts it, "They're not common."

Of course, the comparative dearth of requests may be a function of the very regulations that stand as an obstacle to ticketless journalists. Pre-9/11, television stations and newspaper shutterbugs loved to capture images of newsworthy personages, or just plain folks, stepping off planes directly into the arms of family or friends. Today these iconic moments, used to sentimental effect in films such as Love Actually, don't take place at the gates, because friends and relatives can't get past security without tickets, either. The encounters occur in the common sections of airport terminals, which pretty much anyone not packing a bazooka can enter. At DIA, crowds generally gather just beyond the escalators that transport arriving passengers from trains that run on a lower level -- a setting whose visual appeal doesn't quite match the rendezvous locales of days gone by.

Nonetheless, Patti Dennis, Channel 9's news director, rejects the thesis that photographers no longer have anything interesting to shoot at airport gates. "I don't think there's less of a need for us to get back there," she says. "There are times when passengers are coming off a plane who are newsworthy, and trying to capture that and communicate that is a little more challenging if you're not at the gate." Granted, she continues, "It's not impossible. Sometimes reunions can take place elsewhere. But if someone is coming back from Iraq, it might be a wonderful way to show it if we were with the soldier as he came up the escalator."

Dennis says that, to her knowledge, Channel 9 camera operators or reporters haven't had to purchase tickets for such a purpose. Bill Dallman, Channel 31's news director, isn't quite as categorical. "We know that buying a ticket is an option, and we've utilized a number of different options," he admits. "But all of them have been within the airport's regulations."

Channel 4 news director Angie Kucharski is more straightforward. She confirms that in those instances when time constraints prevent her people from waiting for a PR department guide, "We'll buy a ticket to get out there." Channel 7's Grandy says the same is true of his operation, as does Larry Price, assistant managing editor/photography for the Denver Post.

"Yeah, we've done that," Price says. "Chuck is usually pretty good about getting back to us, and we prefer to work the proper channels, if at all possible. We try to give them a reasonable amount of time. But if something's happening out there and push comes to shove, we'll buy a ticket as long as it's legal and ethical." The first time Price recalls the Post taking this approach was when "the United-Frontier gate controversy was going on. There was a time element involved, and we had to move quickly. It occurred to us that we could do that; we gave it a try, and it worked."

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