Split Decision

Media outlets disagree about naming a suicidal attorney before police released his name. Did the public have a right to know?

There's no denying that Michael Andre was a public figure. As a defense attorney, he represented numerous well-known individuals over the years, including Koleen Brooks, the former stripper who once served as mayor of Georgetown, and Willie Clark, a so-called person of interest in the slaying of Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams. So when police surrounded a Cherry Creek townhouse early on February 23 amid reports that a man inside was suicidal, it didn't take long for reporters to learn that Andre owned the property. However, Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson says he asked news organizations not to use Andre's name until much later in the day, after officers burst into the building and discovered the lawyer's body.

Most outlets complied, including Channel 4 and the Rocky Mountain News -- and Channel 9, which initially identified Andre on its website and in news crawls that ran across the bottom of TV screens during its broadcasts, but subsequently yanked those references until police gave the go-ahead. But the Denver Post, 9News's print partner, listed Andre as the townhome's owner in an online article that was accessible throughout the standoff, stirring the ire of many readers who commented on the paper's website. Their unhappiness was shared by Denver resident Rick Peart, whose note to the Post's newsroom declared, "The Denver Post is an absolute joke and a disgrace to humanity."

Chuck Murphy, the Post's assistant managing editor/local news, responded to Peart's e-mail and says he sympathizes with him. Nevertheless, he defends the broadsheet's choice. "We didn't take it lightly," he emphasizes. "But in my mind, we provide people with information -- and that's what we did."

Mark Andresen

Adds Post editor Greg Moore, "If we thought publicity in a very sensitive situation would have had an adverse effect, we wouldn't have done it. But in this case, we didn't feel that way."

Police spokesman Jackson says his sensitivity to the naming question was raised by a scenario sketched out by Bob Steele, an ethics expert at Florida's Poynter Institute. "He cited a case where a TV reporter did a play-by-play outside a hostage situation using the name, and the person inside saw it and killed his family," Jackson recalls. The Andre events can't be directly equated to this example, he concedes, "but you never know what's going to push a person over the edge. So from our standpoint, we wanted to err on the side of caution."

This philosophy swayed Patti Dennis, Channel 9's news director. Her station reported that Andre was at the center of the Cherry Creek drama just over an hour after police responded to the scene, but she ordered a pull-back after speaking with Jackson. "They felt our naming him might put him in more jeopardy, so we didn't broadcast his name until the six o'clock news," Dennis says. "Our responsibility is to report what we know -- but we also use other criteria to decide if reporting everything we know at a given time is in the best interest of everyone involved."

As for Murphy, he says that while Post types knew the DPD wasn't releasing Andre's name and understood why the cops preferred it not to be circulated, they weren't specifically asked by Jackson or any other department representative to remove the moniker from the website. Moreover, Murphy believes the Post was extremely responsible in its phrasing (at first Andre was described only as the townhome's owner) and in its consideration of stakeholders such as neighbors, whose access to the area was restricted, and taxpayers who'll pick up the tab for the all-day presence of an estimated fifty-plus police officers.

Andre's prominence was a factor, too, Murphy acknowledges: "One of the things that flashed through my mind was the ludicrous scenario of helicopters following a white Bronco down the 405 and reporters having to say 'Police have declined to release the name of the Bronco's owner' instead of saying 'The Bronco is owned by O.J. Simpson.'"

Reader Peart doesn't buy this rationale. In an e-mail, he writes, "Mr. Murphy will never know whether he played a role in the successfully carried out suicide. But I, for one, am glad I don't have to live with that kind of guilt."

Murphy, though, isn't second-guessing himself, despite the tragic end to Andre's story. "Nothing in the business is ever a slam dunk, and we always know there'll be somebody out there who has an opposing viewpoint -- maybe objective, maybe subjective," he says. "But in this case, I think I ran through what Bob Steele would call a sound, ethical decision-making process."

Towering dilemma: Judging by media reports, the long-running dispute over a proposed digital-television tower on Jefferson County's Lookout Mountain ended in December, after President George W. Bush signed a law permitting its construction; the original bill, sponsored by Colorado senators Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar, was ramrodded through Congress during the lame-duck portion of the last term. But this may have been wishful thinking on the part of local TV stations affiliated with the Lake Cedar Group, the consortium pushing the tower, and the Denver dailies, each of which partners with a Lake Cedar outlet (the aforementioned 4 and 9). The past two months have been marked by a contentious hearing and multiple court filings, and a March 12 meeting of Jeffco's board of commissioners that's supposed to settle things once and for all probably won't do the job.

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