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Back in the era when information traveled at a rather leisurely pace, news sources could usually afford to wait for publications to correct errors -- but not anymore.
"Today we have a situation where media outlets are monitoring each other's coverage," says Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office. "In broadcast news, when you work the morning shift, you often write stories out of the papers, and the Associated Press utilizes both morning papers for much of their early information. The danger is that misinformation is widely distributed just by the nature of the business."
Indeed, the Internet, 24-hour cable-news channels and other modern-media venues disseminate gaffes just as quickly as they transmit the more reliable stuff. The increase in speed means that folks like Kimbrough, a former journalist with KOA radio who's been at her current job since September 1999, have to accelerate as well, especially when things go wrong. To do so, Kimbrough employs such old-fashioned communication devices as the telephone, as well as higher-tech tools like e-mail. But arguably the biggest gun in her rapid-response arsenal is "Setting the Record Straight," a page on the DA's website, www.denverda.org, that lets DA Bill Ritter and his minions clarify press accounts directly, without having to wait for the media outlets themselves to do it.
The introduction to the page states its purpose plainly: "The Denver District Attorney's Office strives to provide accurate information and proper context to the public through the media on cases and issues of public interest. Occasionally, a story may misrepresent or misinterpret the facts. In those cases, we can 'set the record straight' by making original information available directly to the public."
Far from claiming to have invented this concept, Kimbrough concedes that she borrowed everything about it, including its name, from the Xcel Energy website, www.xcelenergy.com. Mark Stutz, a Denver-based Xcel spokesman, says the company came up with its version of "Setting the Record Straight" in response to a series of pieces by "a former Denver Post columnist" he doesn't name, but which turns out to be Chuck Green. In 2000, "he wrote a scathing column about how Xcel never files for rate decreases," Stutz recalls. "Well, we looked at our records and discovered that of our previous sixty filings, something like 37 of them were for decreases. The cumulative effect may have been a wash, since we flow with the marketplace, but we do sometimes file for decreases, and we told him that. And he turned around and wrote another column saying the same thing the first one had."
Stutz, a former business editor for the Greeley Tribune, could have demanded a correction but wasn't sure that an admission of error would justify the effort. "Even if you win the argument with the print media, you worry that if it was originally a negative story, the correction will just bring everything up again -- or you might tick off the reporter," he says. "But when there's something we really do feel is wrong, we wanted to come up with a way for people who are proactively seeking more information to hear our side. And now they can go to our website and get it."
When Kimbrough discovered Xcel's page, she realized that "Setting the Record Straight" could also work for the DA's office. She's used the site twice in recent months, first in response to "Prisoner of Denver," an article by veteran gonzo scribe Hunter S. Thompson that ran in the June edition of Vanity Fair. The piece centered on Lisl Auman, a young woman who was sentenced to life in prison because of her brief association with Matthaeus Jaenig, a skinhead who murdered Denver police officer Bruce VanderJagt in 1997. Thompson has championed Auman's cause for years, even appearing on the steps of the State Capitol in 2001 for a pro-Lisl rally that co-starred the late Warren Zevon, and his latest broadside directed caustic verbiage at virtually everyone who helped put her behind bars. He called members of the Denver Police Department "a dangerous gang of vengeful, half-bright cowboys with a vicious reputation for brutality" and suggested that, figuratively speaking, Auman was "being brutally raped right in front of my eyes" due to an unjust law and officials who applied it with no regard for common sense.
DA Ritter responded to these accusations with a letter to Vanity Fair's editor, dated May 27, in which he argued that "contrary to the author's many mistaken assertions, Auman was anything but 'provably innocent.'" In truth, Auman was the "catalyst" to a burglary that preceded VanderJagt's slaying, Ritter declared, and that made her "directly and unequivocally responsible, as a matter of law, for the death of a man, because she set into motion the criminal events that led to his death."
Vanity Fair readers have yet to see these remarks. According to Kimbrough, the magazine intends to publish the letter, but not until its September edition. In the meantime, interested parties can read it on "Setting the Record Straight." Under a paragraph that says Thompson's salvo contained "many false statements and misrepresentations," the page provides access to a "statement of facts" and a summary of the Auman case based upon a submission by the Colorado Attorney General's Office to the Colorado Supreme Court, as well as a copy of Ritter's letter.