The Message

Learning Curve

Students who turned up for a journalism conference at Mesa State College earlier this month picked up some helpful hints, like not to become reporters unless they can deal with low pay, long hours and placement just below "Kobe Bryant defense attorney" on the list of most-respected careers. Yet many young attendees -- particularly those representing the Grand Junction High School Orange and Black and the MSC Criterion -- had as much to teach the journalism pros participating in the event (yours truly included) as they could ever hope to learn.

Take Criterion editor Megan Fromm, who exhibits persistence that would earn her the respect of any veteran investigator. When the MSC board of trustees declined to provide minutes to closed-door November meetings that Fromm thinks may have violated state law, she didn't meekly accept the judgment. Instead, she personally sued the board. "We're seeking the minutes and a justification for this process," she says.

Before taking the wheel at the Criterion, Fromm had already distinguished herself as a student journalist interested in writing about more than junior-prom royalty. While working on the Orange and Black at GJHS, her high school alma mater, she delved into topics such as an alleged sexual assault involving a student -- and after wrangling an interview with one of the case's main parties, she was rewarded with a cease-and-desist letter from a local attorney. Fromm was subsequently named 2002 Colorado High School Journalist of the Year by the Colorado High School Press Association, but earning the lawyer's letter may be her proudest achievement. It's on display in her Criterion office.

More recently, controversy erupted at MSC after its trustees, who were appointed by Governor Bill Owens, chose as sole finalist for the position of college president another Owens appointee: Tim Foster, director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. These factors left naysayers wondering if the hiring search had been fixed.

Against this backdrop, a source phoned the Criterion to question the board's rationale for going into executive session at the November meetings. After reading minutes from the open portion of the gatherings, in February Fromm wrote a letter to board chair Lena Elliott. "These records show that no vote of the Board of Trustees was ever taken to go into closed session.... This failure to vote, by two-thirds majority, on whether to hold an executive-session discussion is a clear violation of the Colorado Open Meetings Law." Fromm added that failure to provide the missing minutes within three business days would cause her "to seek judicial review."

She wasn't bluffing. When the trustees refused to turn over the requested material, Fromm engaged attorney Kenzo Kawanabe, who's working pro bono. After Kawanabe filed a complaint on March 2 in Mesa County District Court, Fromm became part of the story, and watched several media representatives fumble the telling of it. One Grand Junction TV station reported that the Criterion was suing the board -- an impossibility, since that would mean one part of the college, its newspaper, had gone to court against another part, the trustees. (The suit is in Fromm's name alone.) Later, in an editorial, the Denver Post referred to the Criterion as "the Clarion." Both gaffes were corrected.

Once Foster's hiring was confirmed (hardly a shock, given that he was the only finalist), pressure built on Fromm to drop her suit. She has no intention of doing so. "People have said, 'The process is over. What are you doing?'" she concedes. "But there will be other presidential searches for Mesa State and other colleges in Colorado, and they need to be done right. If there was anything illegal in this process, the public has the right to know."

Fromm picked up this philosophy from Orange and Black journalism advisor Mark Newton -- and last fall, he got a chance to pass it on again when his latest charges decided to report about fallout from a state law pertaining to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The legislation, passed last session, required students to recite the pledge daily unless their parents wrote a note exempting them. A judge later stayed the measure because he felt sections infringed on First Amendment rights, but in the meantime, GJHS teachers were asked to follow its dictates as best they could. Unfortunately, they lacked clear guidelines -- and as a result, some students were forced to say the pledge against their will, with other balkers being sent to the principal's office. Two students expressed their frustration over this patriotic witch-hunt by offering the flag Nazi salutes.

An Orange and Black photographer captured the protest, which took place in a classroom overseen by a teacher whose daughter, Lyndsay Thompson, co-edited the paper. Afterward, Newton and his students -- including his son, Chris Newton, who wrote the fine pledge article -- debated whether to run the snapshot. "It came down to two things," Newton says. "First, the picture really did speak to the confusion of what to do in this situation. And second, it was the truth, and we had an obligation to tell the truth." GJHS principal Kevin Schott agreed. He saw the photo in advance and approved its publication in the newspaper's October 14 edition.

Anger over the image bloomed soon after, with most, but not all, of the criticism focused on the saluters. Too bad this distinction was lost when the Denver Post tackled the topic on its October 19 front page. A quote from Grand Junction pathologist Aaron Long was made to seem like a swing at the Orange and Black, when Long was actually denouncing the gesture. The Post printed a correction about that, too, but the furor it stirred was painful for Newton and his students.

In the end, the uproar led to positive change. "Within days, we had a policy in our district about responsible ways to deal with the pledge," Newton says -- and the legislature's approval of a less restrictive Pledge of Allegiance bill a few weeks back may prevent a repetition of the worst abuses. Nonetheless, free speech continues to take a beating in some GJHS classrooms. A handful of teachers upset over the salute photo's publication persist in refusing to distribute the paper, despite an e-mail from Schott urging them to do so. Repercussions like this one are reminders that, as Newton says, "journalism isn't easy. It's extremely hard."

Even so, there are satisfactions for Newton -- like seeing Fromm, his former student, making difficult choices for all the right reasons. She says she'll keep fighting the good fight because "that's why I'm here, that's what I do. That's what Mr. Newton taught me."

For better or worse: Because Colorado has become more Republican with each passing year, truly competitive statewide elections are a rarity. No wonder, then, that political junkies are salivating about the race to replace retiring senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Many elements had to fall into, and out of, place to produce the current chaos, and in most instances, the press has played the role of observer. An exception is the Post's Jim Spencer, whose bare-knuckled March 4 column, "Owens Needs Reality Check for Senate Run," may have done more to fuel the frenzy than anyone's admitted.

Had Governor Owens sought Campbell's seat, the smartest money would have been on him to win in a walk. Still, he has an Achilles heel -- his separation from wife Frances Owens. The majority of the Denver media has tiptoed around this situation, but not Spencer. His broadside warned Owens that if he announced his candidacy, discretion would be as gone with the wind as Scarlett O'Hara. "Focus on the family, Governor," Spencer wrote, declaring that if Owens became a candidate, he should "get ready to answer for everything. You're the guy who invited the inquisition."

This language earned censure from the Rocky Mountain News's Vince Carroll, who's on the other side of the ideological fence from Spencer, but his equal in partisanship. The barbs made a point, however. Spencer's column promised that Owens would be in for months of unwanted marital counseling and speculation by the media if he dared declare, which he didn't. On March 9, he just said no, precipitating the biggest campaign scramble in years.

Don't mess around with Jim.

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