The Message

Are You Positive?

Members of the freakin' media are supposed to accurately convey what's going on in the world, but, as usual, they've got it all wrong. Although commentators and analysts insist that TV commercials associated with the 2004 election in Colorado are among the meanest, ugliest and most misleading in recent memory, folks from campaigns on both sides of the political divide say that's absolutely incorrect. Maybe their opponents' spots are negative, but not theirs. Perish the thought.

Yep, we're deep in the heart of Spin Season, when reality is a flexible concept and absurd statements repeatedly delivered with a straight face are treated like a reasonable facsimile of the truth. In such an environment, it makes perfect sense that associates of a given candidate decry blistering assaults made upon their guy, yet identify responses with a similar tone coming from them as informational opportunities that merely point out discrepancies in their rival's public stands.

Consider, for instance, an onslaught against Representative Bob Beauprez, a Republican running for re-election in the 7th Congressional District. The commercial begins with a stark black-and-white image of combat troops, followed by an ominous voice making charges against Beauprez that are reinforced by graphics such as "Bob Beauprez voted to slash GI health-care benefits and veterans' disability." Finally, an unflattering publicity shot of Beauprez appears just in time for the word "Failed" to be superimposed over his visage. "Bob Beauprez has failed," the glum narrator intones. "It's time to vote no to Bob Beauprez."

The ad wasn't sponsored by the national Democratic party, which, like its Republican counterpart, has bankrolled plenty of offerings here and around the country that focus on the alleged flaws of opposition candidates rather than the attributes of individuals in its own camp. Instead, the organization backing Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, the Democrat trying to unseat Beauprez, funded the commercial. Thomas can be heard at its conclusion delivering the election year's ironic punchline: "I approve this message."

So is Thomas engaging in negative campaigning? Hardly, says Dayna Hanson, his communications director. "Dave Thomas has vowed to run a very positive campaign," she says. "So we have chosen only to highlight Bob Beauprez's record in Congress and let voters decide if that reflects their values and concerns."

Hanson doubts that anything is beneath Beauprez's crusaders. When it's noted that no televised ads have surfaced questioning Thomas's actions in the aftermath of Columbine despite cover-up accusations recently leveled against him by some critics, she says the topic turned up in an anti-Dave mailing. As for their commercials, she declares most of them to be "dirty" and "not rooted in the truth." To her, this makes what she sees as Thomas's high-minded refusal to get into the mud with Beauprez all the more remarkable, albeit frustrating at times. "It's incredibly difficult" not to strike back in kind, she maintains. "I think anybody would be lying if they said otherwise."

At Beauprez HQ, meanwhile, campaign spokesman Jordan Stoick has a very different view: Beauprez's philosophy when it comes to commercials "has been to talk to the voters about his common-sense, mainstream principles and real-world experience." Beauprez would have stayed exclusively with that approach, Stoick continues, but "Dave Thomas for months ran a negative campaign against Bob Beauprez." Hence a shift in strategy, with the Beauprez crew deciding to shine a light on Thomas. "Dave Thomas's record is obviously fair game," Stoick allows.

An example is a Beauprez-approved commercial in which Thomas is slapped for having plea-bargained "three out of four criminal felonies" -- a far from atypical percentage in a major-metro area. Even so, Stoick doesn't view the spot as negative. "All we're doing is speaking about his record," he says, "and speaking about someone's record should be part of the process."

Cody Wertz, campaign spokesman for Ken Salazar, the Democratic aspirant to the U.S. Senate, hits many of the same notes. He stresses that Salazar "came out early with a positive campaign pledge that was verbally agreed to. Ken said, ŒLet's keep this about the issues and not get into the negatives, the slurs and the slime.'" Nevertheless, his campaign was behind a commercial that said Pete Coors, the Republican who is Salazar's foe in the Senate contest, wouldn't put Osama bin Laden to death. As it turns out, Coors is against capital punishment, meaning he wouldn't fry anyone. Dragging in bin Laden, then, is a colossal distortion on par with declaring that because Salazar is pro-choice, he might allow a future president of the United States to be aborted.

Wertz, though, doesn't consider the bin Laden spot either unfair or underhanded: "In that ad, we were legitimately pointing out the true differences between Pete Coors and Ken Salazar." Besides, Wertz feels that Coors's minions took this path first. According to him, "The Coors campaign and their friends went negative early on, attacking Ken on his environmental record and homeland security. But we reserved the right, in an open letter we sent to Mr. Coors, to defend ourselves when we're attacked, and we've done that."

For her part, Coors campaign spokeswoman Cinamon Watson uses verbiage much like Wertz's to paint her boss as the victim, not the aggressor. "It's in everybody's interest to make sure the race is very clean and focuses on the issues," she says. "That's why it's unfortunate that Ken Salazar has launched so many nasty attack ads -- and when you're attacked in that nature, you have to defend yourself."

Of course, a Coors-approved ad chiding his adversary for the early release of 71 sex offenders, even though Salazar fought against doing so in court, seems more like offense than defense -- but not in Watson's mind. The ad isn't negative, and it's entirely justifiable because, she says, "It's fair to draw strong contrasts between the two candidates."

Joanna Conti, a Democrat bidding to represent the 6th Congressional District, attempts to do likewise in a simple but effective commercial that introduces her to the public even as it takes a shot at the amount of energy the district's incumbent, Tom Tancredo, pours into immigration reform. Conti campaign manager Sean Bertram says the look of the ad is key. "We need people to understand that the campaign has a real shot at removing a single-issue, myopically focused candidate," he says.

Tancredo's people don't seem overly concerned, probably because their man is seeking re-election in what's widely considered to be the safest Republican district in the state. Many major candidates and backers of numerous ballot issues have turned to nationally recognized out-of-state players like Strother Duffy Strother, the Washington, D.C., firm that put together Conti's ad, to give their advertisements a professional sheen. In contrast, the pro-Tancredo spots are amusingly primitive; one of them features a family photo and the sort of graphics common to car-dealership commercials of the '80s. Dave Pearson, Tancredo's campaign manager, says the ads were put together by "local people" he doesn't name. If they're students in a high school audio-visual program, they did a fine job. If not, they at least worked cheap. According to Pearson, "We're fiscally conservative."

Regardless, Pearson went to the expense of consulting a lawyer after the release of a radio commercial put out by Coloradans for Plain Talk (CFPT), a private group known as Colorado Families First until earlier this month; it was being confused with Families First Colorado, a nonprofit that works with abused children. In the ad, a woman identified as "Nora Evans" of Greenwood Village is heard listing numerous controversies that Tancredo has stirred over the years: "You attacked an honor-roll student for pursuing the dream of a college education just because his family wasn't born in America," and so on. Pearson says the ad's content is as bogus as the person making the claims. After some investigation, he found record of a Nora Evans who lived in Aurora about six years ago (she's now in Wisconsin), but no one by that name who's ever resided in Greenwood Village.

CFPT, whose major donors include recent Westword cover-boy Jared Polis (his office didn't return two calls for comment), has a flair for dramatic interpretations. The outfit financed two commercials in which an actress in a pink suit portrayed Representative Marilyn Musgrave, a Republican pursuing re-election in the 4th Congressional District. In one, the Musgrave surrogate is seen robbing a corpse in an open casket to illustrate her opposition to legislation that would have prevented nursing homes from assessing charges against dead people.

Okay, that's gotta be negative, right? CFPT spokesman Tim Knaus doesn't use the word, but he comes closer than his peers when describing the ads as "very provocative and very satirical." He acknowledges that the goal of the commercials was to undermine support for Musgrave despite the district's heavily Republican cast; the 4th isn't quite as conservative as the 6th, but close. Still, Knaus is sure that negativity alone won't be enough to win an upset for Democrat Stan Matsunaka. "We can bring her down from a 60 percent vote to 50 percent," he says, "but it's equally important to get his positives up."

Federal election rules forbid CFPT from communicating with Matsunaka's campaign, and Matsunaka spokesman Ed Graham confirms that there's been no contact between the outfits. "Some people assume it's a wink-wink arrangement, but it's really not that way," he says. Graham claims to not even have seen the pink-suit ads because he's been too busy trying to complete Matsunaka's own commercials -- and the delay has hurt. In recent weeks, the airwaves have been full of Matsunaka-bashing, courtesy of the Republican Party and Musgrave's campaign, whose allegedly humorous spot linking her opponent to a perpetually screaming Howard Dean is borderline incomprehensible. Musgrave representatives didn't reply to numerous interview requests.

Amid all the televised sourness, a few campaign commercials actually take the high road, notably a smooth and sophisticated ad in favor of the FasTracks rail-expansion measure that features a strangely unbilled Mayor John Hickenlooper. If current polling is to be believed, the spot appears to be working, and David Kenney, whose local agency had a big role in putting it together, thinks he knows why. "This year, there's frankly been a lot of obnoxious election advertising," he says. "The challenge is to break through, and we thought we could do that by being smart and subtle, not by being louder and more obnoxious."

Isn't that looking at the situation a bitŠnegatively?

One more look at the Mirror: Earlier this month, a settlement was reached in a lawsuit pitting the University of Northern Colorado against three members of the Mirror, UNC's student newspaper. The fledgling journalists, led by editor Heath Urie, argued that the school's Board of Trustees cut the paper's funding on the recommendation of a group, the Student Representative Council, that was intent on punishing the Mirror for tough but fair coverage -- the subject of a previous suit.

The key to the agreement was a new five-year contract between UNC and the Mirror that removed the Student Representative Council from making any funding decisions about the paper. Now, the Mirror will receive $3.17 from each full-time student paying UNC student-activity fees, a number calculated to bring in an amount of cash roughly equal to the $37,000 it received last school year. The arrangement builds in increases based on the inflation rate up to 5 percent a year.

After four years, negotiations for a new contract can begin, and both sides will have the chance to opt out. UNC, under the auspices of the State of Colorado, "reserves the right to inspect the services performed under this contract at all reasonable times" -- and if the Mirror is found wanting, possible remedies include suspending publication. This language has an ominous ring to it, but Gloria Reynolds, UNC's director of media relations, doesn't think it should be interpreted in that way. "The contract does a good job of saying what we expect from them," she says, "and I think that will prevent any surprises."

Urie, who recently began an internship with the Denver Post, hopes so. "Our fate is in their hands, but it's every five years instead of every one, so that's less of a headache," he says. "And I don't think they'd really want to eliminate a century-old newspaper that's always been part of the university." He believes the resolution of the lawsuits represent a victory "for newspapers and for student rights. I would have preferred that there never would have been a hassle in the first place and everyone would have been grown-up about it, but these things happen."

Especially in journalism.

Named: On October 15, the Rocky Mountain News reported that the woman who accuses basketballer Kobe Bryant of raping her last year refiled the case under her own name, rather than that of Jane Doe. Moreover, the Rocky, which had contended in federal court that she shouldn't be allowed to proceed under a pseudonym, printed her moniker for the first time, with John Temple, the paper's editor/publisher/president, saying "fairness requires that both parties be named in reporting on this civil lawsuit."

Surprisingly, only a handful of national news organizations have followed the Rocky's lead, with the Denver Post explaining its reasons for taking the anonymity route in an October 17 note credited to editor Greg Moore and managing editor Gary Clark. Rape "provokes a unique set of questions and blame that does not apply to victims of other crimes," they maintain, adding that naming accusers "often discourages the reporting of rape."

While the Moore-Clark manifesto is well thought out and eminently defensible, one argument for maintaining the status quo -- that shifting course "might have necessitated a broader change in practice" -- isn't especially persuasive. Because the circumstances of the Bryant situation are so singular, applying them to other matters is all but impossible. That's one reason Westword prefers to deal with such concerns on a case-by-case basis. In this instance, the woman's decision to refile under her own name instead of settling the dispute or appealing Judge Richard Matsch's order that she do so suggests to us that she's now come to terms with being publicly identified, as she's been in many venues for more than a year.

Her name, by the way, is Katelyn Faber -- but a lot of you knew that already.

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