A World of Possibilities
The people in charge of the news conference held at Denver police headquarters on January 11 were, in pissing order, Mayor Wellington Webb and Chief of Police Tom Sanchez, followed by Assistant District Attorney Chuck Lepley, divisions chief Armedia Gordon and Sergeant Jon Priest. Or at least that would have been true if we weren't living in Media America. But since we most definitely are, the biggest swinging dicks in the chief's conference room that day were the folks with the magic boxes, the soul penetrators, the eyes that never close.
In other words, the television cameras.
"Hold on a second, Mayor," said a camera jockey from his elevated perch at the back of the room, stopping Webb in the middle of what was to have been his introductory sentence about the arrest of three juveniles suspected in the New Year's Day murder of schoolteacher Emily Johnson. "I'm getting some weird tone off audio."
The two dozen or so media types gathered for the announcement turned to watch the cameraman (one of five operators prepared to lens the proceedings) try to bend the equipment to his will. At one point, he joked, "I'm putting in an extra tape," spurring an appreciative chortle from the assemblage. When Gordon asked, with mock indignation, "What station is he with?," more har-dee-har-hars followed -- but they ended abruptly after the cameraman finally gave up on his disobedient rig and allowed the show to go on. Then it was all grim faces and a common sense of purpose. Gotta keep the audience in mind.
After briefly citing the arrests, Webb launched into a salute to the men and women in blue: "We want to use constructive criticism when appropriate, but we also want to give commendations when appropriate. This is a good police department." But then he abruptly veered into an unexpected area. "Listening to all the presumptions and moving to pre-judgment on talk shows and other places, I think we have to be careful. We have to be careful raising issues about the deceased and her lifestyle, who she dates and interracial couples. Making pre-judgments serves no purpose."
Whoa! Hold up! Red light! There was only one fella at whom those comments could have been aimed -- Peter Boyles, KHOW's morning-drive talk-show host, who'd beaten the drums about the Johnson slaying for the better part of a week.
Granted, a lot of the gab on Boyles's program in relation to Johnson had been on the loopy side, with the host and others floating unsubstantiated theory after unsubstantiated theory about Robert Davis, Johnson's boyfriend, a parole violator found sleeping naked in her home with blood on his hand at the time her battered body was discovered. (For example: He must have been dealing drugs -- how else could he have paid for his share of the Lexus he and Johnson purchased together? Or: He surely had to be a snitch -- otherwise, he would have been in the pokey for his many sins.) And there was plenty o' stuff, too, about Johnson, who was reportedly adored by her students at Skinner Middle School, yet also worked for part of 1997 and 1998 tending bar at the Diamond Cabaret, a strip joint for the monied class. (Hey, didn't that sound a little like Looking for Mr. Goodbar, that '70s-era Judith Rossner novel -- Diane Keaton was in the movie -- about a schoolteacher by day/bar-crawling thrillseeker by night who winds up dying a brutal death at the hands of a psychotic pickup? Sure it did!) But come on: This was just talk radio doing what talk radio does best -- giving people a place to say whatever pops into their heads, be it profound or insane.
Now, the mayor of a major U.S. metropolis, the Queen City of the West, was here to praise what appeared to be an extremely impressive slab of police work -- one that cleared the most obvious suspect (Davis) even as it suggested that the initial motive of three young men implicated in Johnson's murder (David Martinez and Lloyd Kenneth Martinez, both sixteen, and Lorenzo Montoya, fourteen) was garden-variety burglary. Webb wouldn't take time out from this chore to wag his finger at Boyles, would he?
Well, sort of. Webb declined to mention Boyles by name ("I don't want to single anyone out"), but his subsequent comments -- "When we try to make other analogies and do the work of the police department, that undermines that type of effort" -- made it ultra-obvious just who had raised his dander. Even Sanchez got into the act, noting "a rush to judgment running rampant in our community" before pointing out that "we have a responsibility to clear innocent people in spite of severe pressure...Miss Emily Johnson's lifestyle had nothing to do with this at all. We're convinced of this."
Such comments, and the connotations they carried with them, were seemingly too much for Channel 2 reporter Dave Young, who in lieu of an actual question about the arrests chose instead to argue against lumping legitimate journalists (like him!) together with air-polluting broadcast gasbags: "Talk radio doesn't represent us, and vice versa," he declared in his best sucking-up tone. Webb seemed both taken aback and pleased by this proclamation, telling Young, "I'm glad to hear you say that, and that's a distinction we'll try to make in the future." Sanchez also offered Young and those he sought to represent a dollop of reassurance. "I think we know the difference between entertainment and journalism," he said.
The Let's-Lance-Boyles campaign kept rolling in subsequent days, with even Steve Kelly and April Zesbaugh of KOA's Colorado Morning News timorously stepping up to the plate: In one January 12 segment, Zesbaugh asserted that some talk-show hosts had gone "overboard" in the matter of Emily Johnson but never mentioned Boyles (could it be because Boyles is employed by Clear Channel, which also owns KOA?), while Kelly insisted, "We aren't talk radio" (maybe not technically, but at times the program comes damn close).
Still, digs like a paragraph in a January 13 Denver Post editorial that seemed to be about Boyles but also neglected to name him (that's taking a stand for ya!) and a hand-wringing, January 14 apologia to the schoolteacher by Rocky Mountain News columnist Bill Johnson that didn't identify him either (in an anti-Boyles piece on January 14, the News's Vincent Carroll said Johnson had been "too kind") withered in the face of the full-frontal assault masterminded by Andrew Hudson, Webb's longtime spokesman. In a January 12 e-mail sent to numerous media outlets, including this one, Hudson really let 'er rip, confirming without the slightest ambiguity that the barbs tossed out at the previous day's press conference were aimed at Boyles. "This murder is a tragedy, plain and simple," he wrote. "It has been made more so by the mean-spirited and outrageous comments made by Peter Boyles, who has not only tarnished the memory of Emily Johnson, but also the outrageous statements and theories about who was responsible for the murder." (Apparently, "outrageous" was Hudson's adjective of the day.)
Next, Hudson referred to a program that morning in which Boyles bet a caller $10,000 that Boyles hadn't advocated the hypothesis that Johnson was slain by bloodthirsty bigots because she and Davis were an interracial couple. Hudson then presented two quotes as evidence that Boyles had. (In one, Boyles noted, "If it were motivated as a white racial attack, which is absolutely possible, two guys see them together and make a decision to kill them or her, because of who she's with"; in the other, he said, "Going down the list of things of possibilities of why Emily Johnson was murdered -- number one, which is the most recent one to the list, a white racist attack.") "By the way," Hudson concluded, "Peter doesn't have to pay me the $10,000. He can save it for his ongoing legal fees" -- a snarky reference to a still-pending defamation suit filed against Boyles by Denver policeman Brian Gordon in relation to on-the-air comments he made about a 1997 altercation involving officers at Pierre's Supper Club.
Of course, neither quote definitively endorses the racism angle; they pivot on the words "possible" and "possibilities," respectively. Moreover, Boyles says he was merely recounting a theory espoused by a caller, not one of his own. But understanding that didn't make Boyles any more sanguine about Hudson's accusation. After he was informed about the missive by David Green, an exec at Channel 7 who'd received a copy of his own, Boyles got into a telephone squabble with Hudson in which, according to Boyles, he said it was "chickenshit" for Hudson not to confront him with his views directly. ("I always invite those guys on, every fucking day sometimes, but they won't return calls," he says.) Nonetheless, Boyles gladly cooperated with a Channel 7 package about Hudson's remarks that aired on the station's afternoon and late-night newscasts on January 12 (Hudson turned up in the report as well). After all, Channel 7 is one of Boyles's gigs (7 Speakout, weekdays at 11 a.m.), and a little extra face time never hurt anyone. Nor was he bothered that last week the folks at Shotgun Willie's, another mammary-viewing parlor where Boyles has been claiming Johnson once worked (a Shotgun Willie's spokesman wouldn't address the subject on the record), put up a sign infor-ming passersby that the joint was the "FORMER HANG OUT OF PETER BOYLES." Even though he swears he's visited the club only three times in his life (in his old drinking and drugging days, the long-sober Boyles says: "I didn't want to see naked women; I wanted to get high"), his sole complaint about the message was that "they didn't put up what time the show's on."
As this riff indicates, Boyles isn't wallowing in guilt over the way he's handled the subject. He says he didn't start focusing on the crime until spotting a Charlie Brennan-Hector Gutierrez article in the January 5 News that detailed Davis's lengthy criminal record and the relatively minor punishment he received for transgressions that included cocaine possession, forgery and second-degree assault. "I remember thinking, you have this schoolteacher, who by all accounts is tremendous, who's with a four-time convicted felon who keeps getting community corrections. What's she doing with him?"
Even Boyles recognizes this line of inquiry might smack to some of the hugely offensive blame-the-victim philosophy. "I don't want it to sound like I'm somebody from a 1930s rape trial," he says. (You know the sort: "Wearin' somethin' like that, she was just askin' for it!"). But, he notes, "It still seemed like a weird relationship. Maybe I'm the only one who thought that, but I did." He doesn't need to add that a sizable percentage of Denverites were on the same wavelength; indeed, the murder spawned a "soapbox" page on the Digital City Denver Web site (www.digitalcity.com/denver/soapbox/main.dci) that encouraged Web surfers to comment about the possibility that Johnson was leading a "double life." A guy calling himself BigDaddy voted yes: "Have you ever seen Looking for Mr. Goodbar?" he wanted to know.
For Boyles, the rise of such questions "didn't have anything to do with her being white and him being black. I don't give a shit about that. But to find out that she worked at Shotgun's and Diamond Cabaret, which isn't like working at regular restaurants, well...That doesn't make her a bad person, but they're not jobs that everybody does." And then there was Johnson's association with Davis, a nightclub employee with a nasty past who couldn't have looked guiltier if he'd tried; he even told police that if he had attacked Johnson (something he didn't remember doing) "there may be someone else inside me." So how can anyone blame Boyles (or the dailies and the town's TV stations) for concentrating on him in the beginning? "The police are the ones who called him a prime suspect," Boyles says. "The police. Not Pete Boyles." In fact, as word about unknown youths seen running from Johnson's crashed Lexus dribbled out, Boyles says he began to believe that Davis might not have been the killer -- and he verbalized his ideas into his microphone, for everyone and his mother to hear. Some of his callers felt otherwise, but he wasn't responsible for what they thought. Regarding Davis's innocence, he believes, he was ahead of the curve.
Not that Boyles exactly cracked the case. Instead, he spent a great deal of time discussing the significance of some burritos that were found in Johnson's house and the presence of her dog, Cassius, in the garage ("We broke those stories," he boasts). Likewise, he concocted, or repeated, a slew of scenarios that might have taken place -- not just the white-supremacists notion, but the drug-deal-gone-bad prospect and many more. Not once, however, did he argue that one of them was the guaranteed answer to the enigma. All of them were simply possibilities.
Such distinctions don't sway Hudson. "Anything's possible," he says. "It's possible a UFO could have come down, and aliens did it. So at what point are you going to quit tarnishing the memory of this woman based on insinuation, rumors and innuendo and show a little more responsibility than this?
"I think there's got to be a line drawn in terms of somebody who's been murdered and their reputation and their personal life," Hudson argues. "And we have to look at what that says about us as a community. Are we going to allow people like Peter Boyles to define us? Are we going to raise legitimate speculations, or are we just going to play junior detective? Because that's what he was doing. Peter struck paydirt with JonBenét Ramsey, and he saw this as a way to get back on the national shows."
Ooof! Bringing up JonBenét hits Boyles where he lives. The cover story in the February Brill's Content, a media watchdog mag, is "JonBenét Inc.," a sometimes caustic piece by journalist Katherine Rosman about "local media people cashing in on the ravenous appetite of national news outlets for a story that had only one problem: There was never any real news." And whaddya know: Boyles (along with Charlie Brennan, reformed and apologetic former tabloid pit bull Jeffrey Shapiro and the Post's Chuck Green, among others) is one of the major players! In the article, Rosman, who hyped her effort to Paula Zahn on the Fox News Channel on January 13 in the midst of the latest round of Boyles-bashing, writes that the host's ratings jumped from a 4.9 audience share in the fall of 1996, just before JonBenét died, to a 7.1 share a year later, and shows how an "Open Letter to John & Patsy Ramsey," which Boyles paid to print in the Boulder Daily Camera in August 1997, led directly to interviews on Dateline NBC, Rivera Live and Good Morning America.
By now, the JonBenét train is running out of steam: Boyles says he probably has done no more than five shows on the topic since a Boulder grand jury declined to indict anyone for the girl's murder last year, "although I'm sure we'll do something with the movie [Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, slated to air on CBS beginning in late February]. We can't pass that by."
Nor could he slough off the arrests in the Emily Johnson murder, which he thought might become Colorado's next made-for-the-cable-news-networks extravaganza. More than once in reciting the developments of January 11, he used the loaded descriptive "Columbine-esque," and days later, when it was clear that the national media wasn't going to jump all over the story, he continued to talk about Columbine assassins Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the same breath as the three teens suspected of involvement in Johnson's death.
That we know who the juvenile suspects are is another thing that ticks off Hudson. Police at the January 11 news conference refused to release their names owing to their ages and kept mum about other details for fear of endangering the ongoing investigation, but while the News and local TV and radio stations (even KHOW) initially played by those rules, a January 12 Post article by journalist Mike McPhee included the boys' names and a chronology of the killing that was jam-packed with particulars -- in short, a crackerjack bit of crime reportage that left McPhee's competitors snacking on his dust. Predictably, other media outlets took his achievement as permission to circulate the names as well.
Hudson doesn't hold the Post solely responsible for opening the floodgates in this matter; he acknowledges that "the police department is a sieve" when it comes to keeping supposedly confidential info confidential. But he adds, "In general, the public expects the press to be more careful when juveniles are involved. So that's an institutional decision the Post is making about whether it's the right thing to do after they've been told it might jeopardize the district attorney's case."
"Institutional decision" is right. McPhee says he handed in his January 12 story without the suspects' names because of his sense that one of the three won't be charged with murder, but editor Glenn Guzzo and assistant managing editor for news Frank Scandale convinced him to include them. Guzzo doesn't tiptoe around when asked about his reasoning: "We will name juveniles who are charged with crimes where deadly force is used with intent to kill," he says. "Expect that to be a consistent pattern."
The Post was less bold when it came to McPhee's discovery that Emily Johnson had worked at the Diamond Cabaret; the fact was excised from one of his stories in what McPhee, in typically straightshooter fashion, calls "a moral judgment by the copy desk, which is bullshit." But overall, the paper's reporting on the Johnson slaying made the most of what was available at the time and generally avoided syrupy lapses like a January 9 News report about Johnson's funeral in which reporter Katie Kerwin McCrimmon wrote that Cassius the dog "seemed to have red eyes." (She didn't reveal if the pooch also wore a drawn expression and held a moist tissue in its paw.) But the Post did make one significant gaffe: A January 7 article credited to McPhee and Marilyn Robinson claimed that police had pulled over Johnson's Lexus prior to impounding it, when in reality, cops found it wrecked. Among the people who publicly pointed out this mistake was Boyles, who McPhee thinks has no room to talk. "He turned on all of us, but his own reporting on this was lousy," he says. "The way things worked out really stunned all of us, and we all have egg on our faces. But Peter won't admit that he has egg on his face, too. His ego won't let him."
That's not quite right, but close. Boyles doesn't go so far as to say he saw the latest twist coming, but neither does he see the validity of the criticism raining down on him. "To think that anything I could say would impede or influence the investigation is ridiculous," he says. "If I was able to do that, John and Patsy Ramsey would be in jail, and so would O.J. Simpson." Yet he's decided that the time has come for Hudson and him to put their disagreements behind them: "It's gotten to the point where it's like the Vietnam war. We fight every day, but we don't even remember why anymore." So he and Hudson are scheduling a bury-the-hatchet luncheon in the hopes that the hatchet won't be buried in either of them. But that doesn't mean Boyles is planning on altering his style.
"This is the age of new media -- talk radio and the Internet and desktop publishing and Web sites and e-mail," he says. "The old political stalwarts could try to control the mainstream press by denying people access or the kinds of things we've seen happen in this town, where no one wants to ask a sports figure a difficult question or no one wants to piss off the mayor or the governor. But new media doesn't give a shit about that, and neither do I."
Meanwhile, back at the Post, staffers are departing at a dizzying rate. Stephen Keating, one of the paper's most prolific business writers (and the author of Cutthroat: High Stakes and Killer Moves on the Electronic Frontier, a recently published cable-industry exposé), is departing at the end of this month to become director of research for the Privacy Foundation, a startup headed by former Liberty Media chief Peter Barton that's dedicated to developing credit cards and the like that give users more control over what personal information winds up in the hands of Internet companies. Also going the telecom route is assistant city editor (and onetime Westword scribe) Arthur Hodges, who just left to flack for Level 3 Communications, a Broomfield firm currently marketing a new fiber-optic network. Roger Fillion, the man charged with covering Level 3 as part of his Post business beat, has decided to become a full-time freelancer. And Chris Lopez, a former reporter and deputy state editor hired back in 1993, left on January 14 to found Lopez Communications, which will specialize in what he calls "online communications and traditional media communications."
What sparked this recent rash of defections? Numerous gossipmongers suggest a link to management restructuring ballyhooed in "Newsroom Reorganized," a January 2 piece that detailed multitudinous moves intended to "widen the Post's newsgathering ability in Denver, the Front Range, Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Empire." The theory makes sense in some instances: For example, the elevation of Don Knox to business editor hints at a shakeup in that department. Moreover, the shifts create a new level of bureaucracy -- not one, not two, but three managing editors -- that has left some staffers wondering who is in charge of what. But none of that explains the decision made by Lopez. He was announced as the new city editor in the aforementioned article, yet he resigned less than a week later.
Editor Guzzo is no help in plumbing the mystery; despite the many rumors spawned by the departures (particularly Lopez's), he offers a blanket "no comment" regarding any personnel questions. And conversations with the exiting parties reveal no single reason for fleeing. Hodges cites the wonderful opportunity to enter a burgeoning field, and his viewpoint is echoed by Keating. As for Fillion, whose upcoming gigs include occasional pieces about high-altitude cooking for the new Foodfit.com Web site, he trots out the old I'm-leaving-to-spend-more-time-with-my-family explanation (he's married, with a four-year-old daughter who, he laughingly admits, "sometimes likes my cooking and sometimes doesn't").
For his part, Lopez says that the "entrepreneurial spirit" that's been bubbling inside him for years finally convinced him to start a business that will pair him with Kristie Porter, a onetime public-affairs director for the City of Aurora who just happens to be his ex-wife. (Lopez and Porter have a very modern relationship; although they've been divorced since the mid-'90s, they remain so close that Lopez agreed to stand as godfather to Porter's now-eighteen-month-old son by her current husband.) Lopez Communications is planning a Web site that he describes as "a clearinghouse for information about Latinos and Hispanics" (Latinolife.com), and he hopes to supplement the project with jobs for a variety of corporate and civic clients. He's said to have been awfully cozy with folks in the Webb administration; when he went to pick up some of his belongings at his wife's home at the time of his divorce, he actually took one of the mayor's off-duty bodyguards with him. Perhaps that's why he says, "Hopefully, in the seven years I've been at the Post, I've built up a good name for myself with people around Denver, both businesspeople and officials."
The timing of his exodus may look a little weird, Lopez concedes, but he insists that it wasn't based on a snap decision. "Before the announcement, I actually talked to Mr. Guzzo about whether I was going to be here longer. I know he was hoping that I would be part of the team, and I didn't want to stand in his way of what he's trying to accomplish. But my heart was burning another way. It's nothing against the Post or Mr. Guzzo. He's been absolutely fantastic to me."
Keating is also sympathetic to the newspaper's new editor, who's spent the last several months sifting through the wreckage left by his widely despised predecessor, Dennis Britton: "Glenn Guzzo inherited a tough situation at the Post," Keating says, "but he's turning it around. I would definitely work for him again." (In fact, Keating plans to do some "special projects" for the Post down the line.) Even Posties speaking behind the cloak of anonymity offer relatively sunny assessments of the new boss; although there's plenty of grumbling about low morale and high tension resulting from the News's strong circulation gains, no one contacted by Westword believes Guzzo is the reincarnation of El Britto Grande, and most feel he's got the ship headed in the right direction. But the question remains: Will there be anyone left to set the sails?
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.
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