The Message


The first woman is an anti-abortion protester who Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson says repeatedly threatened him over a two-year period. The second woman is an e-mailer who thinks the protester is fictional -- and although Johnson insists otherwise, he was worn down by her persistence. Earlier this month, he penned "A Knucklehead Mistake," a mea culpa in which he acknowledged that he can't prove he previously wrote about the protester, as he'd asserted in print. That's the only gaffe he admits to committing, however. "I'm a target," Johnson allows. "Anybody with an opinion is."

Perhaps -- yet this particular "Mistake," which appeared on September 2, can't be dismissed so simply. The incident simultaneously demonstrates the limits of online technology and the power of individuals to influence the media in the Internet age. And even if the e-mailer has a personal vendetta against Johnson, as he suspects, his actions in this case suggest, at the bare minimum, a troubling level of sloppiness.

In July 20's "A Season for Hating Those Who Aren't Us," Johnson railed against "Operation Save America loonies" -- particularly "the woman from Fullerton Road in Southern California" he'd spotted on the 16th Street Mall. According to Johnson, who lived in SoCal while working for the Orange County Register prior to joining the Rocky staff in 1996, "I used to pass her every morning on my way to work, a woman who stood on a street corner outside an abortion clinic virtually in the shadows of Disneyland holding high these same pictures of aborted fetuses." He stopped to speak with her one day, he continued, and she answered each of his questions with "Jesus loves you" before growing frustrated and informing him that "she would 'kill' me if I didn't get away from her." He added, "When I wrote of her then, of her threat, in my column, she hounded me for two years with similar threats."

Patrick Merewether

These lines caught the eye of a woman whose e-mail address brands her as Boulder Babe; she declines to supply her given name. The Babe identifies herself as a journalist, and claims to have lived in Southern California when Johnson was with the Register. The protester paragraphs sounded like a "fabrication" to her, she states, in part because there's no Fullerton Road in Anaheim, where Disneyland is located. Indeed, the closest Fullerton Road to there is in La Habra, two suburbs to Anaheim's north. Describing a storefront on Fullerton Road as being "virtually in the shadows of Disneyland" is tantamount to contending that the State Capitol is virtually in the shadows of Red Rocks.

By her telling, Boulder Babe checked Johnson's story on the vast Nexis database and the Register website and asked "people who worked [at the paper] if they remembered the story or him being threatened." When she came up empty, she sent complaint e-mails to Johnson and other Rocky types; one made its way to editor/publisher/president John Temple. Then, on August 1, she e-mailed yours truly, laying out her concerns and writing that the Rocky had "ignored a request for a correction."

My Nexis searches failed to find any column like the one Johnson depicted, so I e-mailed him about it. He replied that he couldn't find the column but was certain that "if you go by that Fullerton abortion clinic, that woman is still standing outside every morning."

This response left plenty of loose ends, but I realized that tying them together would be practically impossible. Since Nexis isn't all-inclusive, I wrote in an e-mail to Boulder Babe, the only way to prove that Johnson hadn't previously mentioned the protester in his column would be to travel to the Register's offices and physically go through each back issue -- something I couldn't do.

Temple faced the same dilemma. "Essentially, you'd have to go through hard copy and microfilm for years," he says. So he tossed the ball into Johnson's court. As Johnson puts it, "I said, 'Okay, John, if I can't find the column, I'll write that I couldn't -- and I couldn't. I remembered what happened and thought I must have written about it, but apparently I didn't." Likewise, he didn't report anything about the alleged threats to law enforcement or superiors at the paper, even though he wrote in "Mistake" that the protester "called and e-mailed me at the paper numerous times." His reasoning? "I didn't take her seriously," he says. "I get calls all the time from crazy people." As for that Fullerton abortion clinic, he was unable to track it down, despite his previous confidence that the protester was still in front of it.

Johnson's career has had many high points (he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1993), but his past has some checkers in it. In 1983 he left a reporting job at the Wall Street Journal's Los Angeles office over a travel-expenses dispute. "I probably would have been fired, but I resigned instead," he concedes. He also stumbled when it came to a 1999 Rocky column called "The Policeman's Job Reconsidered." He built the piece around an impassioned defense of law enforcers attributed to "Trooper Mitchell Brown of the Virginia State Police," who supposedly died two months after putting his thoughts on paper. Had Johnson bothered to check, he would have discovered that there was no Trooper Brown; the apocryphal essay had been floating around the Internet for months. Johnson initially wrote to a reader who questioned the column that Brown's existence, or lack thereof, was "irrelevant," but he subsequently confessed his blunder, sort of. Today he says, "I got taken in on that one."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help