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April Fools

Mark Andresen

Most staffers at major metropolitan dailies go their entire careers without writing a front-page article that turns out to be completely bogus. So kudos to the Denver Post's Trent Seibert, who's managed to pull off this rare achievement twice in the span of a month. Someone inform the Pulitzer committee.

But while the first error was acknowledged, Seibert and the Post haven't admitted that a second gaffe was made -- and that's frustrating to state house-minority leader Dan Grossman, who was the subject of article number two; in it, he was said to be considering a proposal that would amend the photo-radar law to make it friendlier to adulterers. But nothing could be further from the truth.

"I'm very displeased," Grossman notes in regard to the Seibert story and a followup, published on April 2 and 3. "This is certainly not what I want to be spending my time on right now, with only a few weeks left to go in the session and a lot of important decisions yet to be made."

Seibert, for his part, didn't respond to several messages left by your humble correspondent, and his reticence is understandable. After all, the comments that formed the basis of his generally straight-faced reports were made on April Fools' Day in a room -- Grossman's office -- where all of those present were laughing.

"Everything was in a joking context," confirms state representative Tom Plant, a Democrat from Nederland who was on hand when the April 1 exchange between Grossman and Seibert took place. "I wasn't under the impression that anyone was seriously discussing amendments to legislation."

A misunderstanding about the legislative process is nothing new for Seibert. In a March 1 page-one Post article, Seibert claimed that Governor Bill Owens was "taking millions of dollars from the state's employee retirement program to help balance the budget." But as it turns out, the scheme to withhold a percentage of the state's payments to the Public Employees' Retirement Association (PERA) over a four-month period hadn't gone beyond the idea stage. Moreover, Owens couldn't turn this notion into reality without legislation allowing him to do so -- and at the time of publication, no such proposal had been presented, let alone passed and signed into law ("Spin Cycle," March 14).

Because Owens spelled all of this out at a well-attended news conference held just hours after the story appeared, lying low wasn't an option. The Post quickly pulled the bungled information from its Web site, replacing it with a hasty rewrite that also turned up in the next day's "bulldog" (the version of the Sunday paper sold on Saturdays). In addition, the main Sunday edition contained a correction that downplayed the scope of the screw-up (it stated that a "point" was faulty, not the entire article), even as it conceded that the facts of the matter had been given an uncomfortable twist.

If anything, "Photo-Radar Idea Shields Adulterers," Seibert's April 2 offering, was even loopier than its embarrassing predecessor. Grossman, the article declared, was floating an amendment that would prevent snapshots of speeders from being mailed to their homes with tickets -- the implication being that lawmakers afraid of being caught on film with someone other than their spouse would be more likely to support the concept as a whole.

"I call it the adulterers amendment," Seibert quoted Grossman as saying. "The purpose is to increase traffic safety, not to catch people cheating on their wives."

Grossman doesn't deny that such words came out of his mouth in Seibert's presence. But according to Grossman, they were nothing more than wisecracks that the reporter treated as something else entirely. "I have never introduced, nor will I ever introduce, a bill to shield adulterers from having their identity revealed by photo radar," he maintains, adding, "I never said, 'This is my proposal,' or that I was going to introduce an amendment along those lines. It never happened."

So what did take place? As Grossman tells it, a group consisting of three legislators, including Plant, plus a staff member and Seibert were hanging out in Grossman's office talking about photo radar, "and Trent brought up this incident that happened in Texas where a legislator was caught on photo radar with a girl in his car, and the following year, photo radar was discontinued in Texas. And we all laughed. Then Tom [Plant] said, 'He must have been in the majority,' and we all laughed at that, too. Then we started talking about the motivations of the people who are fighting photo radar here in Colorado, and Trent brought up the topic of blocking out the passenger seat in the photo. Everybody laughed at that, and I said, 'Oh, yeah, we could call it the adulterers amendment.' And everybody laughed again -- and that was basically the end of the conversation."

If this account is accurate -- and Plant's memory of the events is remarkably similar -- the person who first mentioned photo radar in the context of adultery was Seibert, and Grossman was merely joining in the fun. But the article as published didn't indicate that the "adulterers amendment" remark emerged during a bull session. Instead, it built a case for the proposal using a pair of anecdotes. One concerned the story of an unfaithful husband nearly caught in the act by photo radar; his fate was chronicled by the Post in 1998. The other involved rumors about a "Colorado legislator who had to come up with a Texas-sized tale for his wife after getting snapped by photo radar with a woman he had no business being with" -- but Seibert confessed that "Denver police and other local police departments say they don't know of any such incident.

The story Seibert told Grossman and Plant about a Texas legislator may be apocryphal, too. A 1990 piece from the Los Angeles Times spoke of a photo-radar incident involving an anonymous politician and his mistress that allegedly took place in an unnamed Houston suburb several years earlier; it went on to say that the official subsequently succeeded in killing photo radar in the town -- not the entire state. But a veteran member of the Houston Police Department's Radar Task Force remembers nothing about such an occurrence. He says photo radar isn't being used by any Texas municipality with which he's familiar because of issues like expense and vandalism.

And Seibert's article had at least one more glaring inaccuracy. He wrote that Grossman "also said he's been a faithful partner to his fiancée." But while Grossman points out that he has a girlfriend of whom he's very fond, he's not engaged -- which only added to the embarrassment of having a mug shot of his smiling face appear directly under the headline word "adulterers." "That was unfortunate," Grossman says. "I mean, I'm not even married."

Had this situation followed the pattern of the PERA botch, a correction would have been published in the next day's paper. That's certainly what Grossman expected. Reached on April 2, after a day spent answering questions from baffled constituents and alternately amused and thunderstruck colleagues, he said, "I talked with the reporter, and I understand that something of a clarification will be printed. But nobody reads those anyhow."

He was certainly right in this instance, because no correction was penned -- and what did appear in black and white only made matters worse from Grossman's perspective. "Lawmaker Drops Photo-Radar Idea," the headline that ran with Seibert's April 3 effort, implied that Grossman had been serious about the adulterers amendment but had backed away because of adverse publicity -- a supposition Grossman adamantly rejects. Grossman doesn't blame Seibert for the headline, which he assumes the reporter didn't write, and says the text of the article is "more along the lines of what we talked about." But he's upset by some of Seibert's phrasing. For instance, Seibert wrote, "House Minority Leader Dan Grossman said Tuesday that he raised the idea in a larger discussion about why people might oppose photo radar," when Grossman and Plant recall Seibert himself raising the idea first, and "He now says he never intended to sponsor it as an amendment," with the word "now" insinuating that Grossman changed his mind about something he insists wasn't ever a possibility.

Was this slant an attempt by Seibert to cover up his errors -- a way to bamboozle his superiors into believing that the first story was on the mark, and that Grossman's outrage was a form of politically motivated damage control? There's no way to know for certain. On the day the first article was published, Post editor Glenn Guzzo said he couldn't comment on the piece because questions about it "haven't reached me." As for assistant city editor Dan Haley, who edits Seibert, he didn't return calls. But there's evidence to suggest Seibert honestly believed that Grossman's witticism wasn't just an attempt to get a laugh.

"I told him that he'd misunderstood, and he disagreed," Grossman says as if he still can't believe his ears. "He told me that because I added some intellectual value to the conversation, that this had now become my proposal."

If that was really his logic, Seibert must be something of a journalistic King Midas, able to transform a gag into a legislative proposal using nothing more than his touch. And even if this power is only in Seibert's mind, it's made Grossman wary. "I considered Trent to be somebody I could be friendly and casual with, and I don't feel that way anymore. To me, we were having a casual conversation that was clearly off the record. Now, it was my mistake that I didn't make sure of that. But at the same time, to create a story where none existed is very disconcerting."

Then again, Seibert is accustomed to making a lot out of a little: In 2000, he posed nude for a photo accompanying a first-person Post story about his visit to the Mountain Air Ranch family nudist resort. Next on his agenda is a move to Washington, D.C., where he'll be reporting for the Post about legislation on a national scale.

Luckily, folks like Wayne Allard and Diana DeGette aren't renowned for their sense of humor -- because Seibert seems to have a tough time getting jokes.

Missing Chuck: Contrary to popular belief, I'm a big fan of Denver Post columnist Chuck Green. No local writer makes my jaw drop faster and more often than he does. So when his column wasn't in its usual place in the Sunday, March 31, issue, I was naturally disappointed. But his absence from later issues was more worrisome, especially because there was no box to tell readers that he was on vacation. Moreover, city editor Evan Dreyer didn't respond to my numerous messages and a page about Green. By week's end, even Post staffers were gossiping about his disappearance, and their curiosity was further stoked by a dictate from above to tell Green fans inquiring about him that he was taking a break and that the date of his return was uncertain.

Green, too, has heard assorted theories about why he vanished, which he blames on the lack of those pesky boxes: "They're very inconsistent about getting them in there," he says. But he swears there's nothing mysterious going on, despite a flood of very entertaining rumors that continues unabated. "My wife retired in September, so some people think I'm retiring -- but I'm not. I still have four or five years left on my contract. I just wanted to take some time off." He says he'll be back in the Post on April 19, then leave for a long weekend a week later, after which "I'll be around until my next journey."

To put it another way, his long, strange trip at the Post isn't over just yet.

Rack job: For free-distribution newspapers (like this one), news racks are vital -- the primary way the publication reaches the public. But the racks are seen by many business owners as irritating nuisances that clutter up the sidewalks in front of their establishments, and if they had their way, they'd either reduce the number or eliminate them entirely. The result is a conflict that pits press rights against an interest in tidiness -- and while journalists would seem guaranteed to win such a contest on merit, members of the neatness brigade often have the muscle to get things done their way.

That's the fear of newspaper representatives in Boulder, whose city council is scheduled to hear a plan on April 16 that would force publications wishing to distribute their papers downtown to place copies in "newspaper condominiums" -- a series of identical racks that are mounted to sidewalks and linked together in a line. Supporters of these condominiums, which can already be found in spots along Boulder's Pearl Street Mall, see this approach as a way to increase the uniformity and stability of the boxes as well as to increase safety for pedestrians and drivers.

"We've gotten a lot of complaints about lighter boxes tipping over and all the publications flying about in the wind," says Boulder public-affairs director Jana Peterson. "And we've also heard about their proximity to curbsides. People have told us some of their customers who try to parallel park can't get out of their cars because of newspaper boxes on the curbs. There's only a limited amount of sidewalk space in Boulder, and with the growing number of boxes, we're experiencing growing infringements on rights of way."

Publishers like Randy Miller of the Colorado Daily and Stewart Sallo of the Boulder Weekly (not to mention representatives from Westword) counter that reducing the opportunity for readers to receive a variety of information is a greater infringement.

"To me, this is a First Amendment issue," Miller says. "Some people are concerned that the ordinance might give advantages to larger, paid daily newspapers, because it's not clear how it would be determined what papers would be allowed to go where. But there's no question that the proposal also aims to reduce the number of outlets downtown."

The likelihood that the city would ultimately be in charge of administering the boxes is equally troubling to Sallo. "The First Amendment doesn't envision the government and newspapers doing business together -- and whenever that happens, you have a tremendous potential for corruption. As an alternative newspaper that takes more seriously our role as a watchdog on city government than do mainstream newspapers, that would put us at a disadvantage, because mainstream newspapers are more willing than we are to sidle up to the city to achieve their business objectives."

Newspaper condominiums have already come to Denver: Over twenty of the units will eventually be installed along the 16th Street Mall, and publications that want a slot in them must pay the city a fee for the privilege to cover maintenance and other costs. John Desmond of Downtown Denver Partnership says the condos address "aesthetic and safety concerns," and dismisses the notion that certain spaces in the racks, which were built under the auspices of the Denver Newspaper Agency, are better than others. "It's not like one's along the ground and one's way up in the air -- and I don't see how much of a difference being two feet further down would make."

Such platitudes don't reassure the Weekly's Sallo. "The city wants to expand these boxes to most areas of downtown and University Hill, and if this passes, you have to wonder where they'll want to go next. Which is why we're going to fight like hell to make sure it doesn't pass."


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