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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."

The system that's developed brings with it a number of inconveniences. If reporters or photographers don't have company accounts, they could be put in the position of carrying a ticket charge on their personal credit card until they're reimbursed. The obligation to process these extra expenses also creates more accounting work for media firms. And then there are the ticket sellers, whose burden is acknowledged by Price. "The downside of all this is that I'm sure it's a paperwork pain for the airline people," he says.

If so, no one reached by Westword is pitching a fit. Cannon insists that he hasn't received any complaints from airline representatives, and United Airlines spokesman Jason Schechter doesn't pass along any on behalf of his employer. According to Schechter, "It's not a problem that we're aware of." Chuck Howell, chief executive officer of Great Lakes Aviation, a commuter-oriented business that flies to numerous cities in Colorado and other Western states, says the same, even though a source names Great Lakes as a convenient provider of refundable tickets.

Frontier, in contrast, recognizes the dilemma and has instituted a procedure to tackle it. "If you're a TV reporter, or a reporter in general, and you want to get down into the concourse, all you have to do is call our media-relations people, and we'll give you a boarding pass with your name on it," says Frontier spokesman Andrew Hudson, who regularly worked with journalists during the years he spent as former Denver mayor Wellington Webb's press secretary. "We don't make them buy anything, because it's not a refundable ticket, and it's not to anywhere. It's just a boarding pass, but that will allow reporters to get down onto the concourse. To us, it's a matter of being cooperative to all parties involved, including the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and the airport."

Unfortunately, this plan isn't a complete fix, because it, too, consumes time that journalists might not have when news is breaking. As Hudson notes, participants "do have to go through a couple of steps in terms of calling us and telling us what it's about and where they're going."

Perhaps that's why everyone seems so eager to maintain the delicate balance that's been in existence for the past couple of years. Immediately after the September 11 attacks, a handful of reporters griped about Cannon and his minions, with Channel 7 investigator John Ferrugia going so far as to suggest that the DIA media office had an "adversarial relationship" with the press ("Talking Points, September 27, 2001). Yet there's no criticism of the PR department this time around, despite the fact that some news organizations are having to whip out their Visas when there's action on the concourses. The Post's Price, for example, waxes rhapsodic about "Chuck and his great crew."

For his part, Cannon says he occasionally sees video from the concourses run on stations whose people didn't check in with him, "and I know exactly how they got there: They bought tickets."

Gut-wrenching: Radio yakker Greg Dobbs hasn't helmed his morning drive-time show on KNRC since December, and he won't return for several more weeks -- but he's got an extremely good excuse. "I had very major surgery that could have killed me," says Dobbs, his voice still weak from his ordeal. "The surgeon said he could write it up in a medical journal."

Those reading such an account will need a stronger stomach than Dobbs had until recently. His ailment, a congenital condition dubbed "malrotated bowel," hardly ever occurs in people like Dobbs, who's on the far side of fifty. Indeed, the National Library of Medicine lists this "twisting of the bowel with obstruction of material through the bowel, variable loss of blood supply and possible tissue death" under an affliction called "childhood volvulus," which "often occurs early in life, frequently in the first year." If a malrotated bowel is discovered in time, it can be surgically repaired, usually by removing the section that's necrotic, or dead, from lack of blood flow. If not, it can be fatal -- yet somehow, "I've carried this around with me my entire life," Dobbs says. "I just didn't know it."

He found out about the condition the hard way during the pre-dawn hours of January 2, as he prepared for his first broadcast on KNRC following an extended vacation in Australia. "I started feeling like somebody was playing a football game inside me," Dobbs reveals. "Somebody said to me, 'It sounds like when you're in labor.' I haven't been in labor, so I can't compare -- but I think this was worse."

KNRC news reader Dick Kelsey found Dobbs collapsed on the floor in the station's offices and immediately dialed 911. At St. Anthony's Hospital, Dobbs's problem was discovered and repaired during a four-and-a-half-hour procedure that required a twelve-inch vertical incision in his chest and abdominal region. When the doctors were done removing rancid chunks of flesh and rerouting Dobbs's digestive system, they stapled him up and marveled at how lucky he was. Had he been stricken the previous day, while flying back from Down Under, he probably would have wound up six feet under.

Too bad his fortunes turned south shortly thereafter. "The following Friday, I started to feel the football game inside me again," Dobbs says. "I had developed an internal infection down there, and they had to open me up and do everything all over again." This surgical sequel severely stressed defenses already drained by the initial procedure, and "they couldn't staple or sew this big incision shut," Dobbs says. Finally, on January 21, Dobbs was told he could continue his recovery at home, as long as he could deal with the inconvenience of a gaping chest packed with gauze. He eventually convinced physicians to use oversized Steri-Strips -- "surgical Band-Aids, really" -- to give him at least some degree of adhesion.

"I'm not bedridden," Dobbs declares. "And my insides are working, although I have to think it through a little bit. It's not automatic yet." By the end of January, he'd recuperated enough to risk some fast food. "I had a Whopper," he confesses. "I just needed to have something normal, to remind myself that there's life out there. It's a sad state of affairs when life is represented by a Whopper, but there it is."

Dobbs has more strength to gain before he can get back behind KNRC's microphones and in front of the cameras at Channel 6, where he hosts a weekly discussion program called Colorado State of Mind. He's grateful to both of these stations, as well as to fill-in personalities such as Channel 6's Cynthia Hessin and KNRC sub Reggie Rivers, who'd all but sworn off talk radio following a contentious stint at KHOW ("Many Rivers to Cross," February 7, 2002). Still, Dobbs hopes he won't have to accept their largesse for much longer. "It's slow, and I'm not patient," he says.

"I'm not a spiritual guy, but I'm counting my blessings."

Elway or the highway: The Broncos didn't participate in February 1's Super Bowl, which helps explain why the Denver media showed less than the usual interest in what turned out to be quite a contest. Instead, local sports scribes and broadcasters spent the days before the game building monuments to retired Broncos QB John Elway in advance of his predictable but well-deserved January 31 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That journalistic spectacle was infinitely more desperate than the glimpse of Janet Jackson's hooter seen during the Super Bowl halftime extravaganza.

When it came to Elway hype, there was more blowing going on than during his three Super Bowl defeats -- catastrophes that were rarely mentioned throughout the grotesque gush-fest. Rather than putting his stumbles into a context that would have made his subsequent championships seem sweeter, TV types, in particular, concentrated on tedious replays of Big John's greatest hits. Likewise, the off-the-field tension between Elway and former coach Dan Reeves was disregarded despite its relevance to the overall story. During a radio interview, Channel 4's Gary Miller justified this omission by saying the Elway-Reeves stuff had been covered extensively in the past -- as if "The Drive" against the Cleveland Browns in 1987 had been severely under-publicized.

Although The Fan's Lou From Littleton, who's already pimping a trip to Canton, Ohio, to watch Elway's enshrinement in August, was the ickiest hagiographer, he had a surprising amount of competition. Had Elway come up short in his first year of eligibility, the spectacle of these boosters having to explain themselves would have been poetic justice. Then again, they'd probably still be whining about the unfairness of the vote, to the displeasure of all. Either way, the sane sports aficionado was bound to lose.

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