Bang for the Bucks

Fred Harper

No Denver event in recent memory has received the sort of unleavened media praise that was heaped upon the New Year's party staged at the 16th Street Mall as 2000 turned to 2001. Even afterward, the press was so eager to please that it happily discarded initial crowd figures from the Denver police -- 80,000, not counting folks crammed into restaurants or bars -- in favor of the subsequent, and far sexier, total of 200,000, double pre-gala estimates. Hell, mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson could have hypothesized that there were a million bodies on hand, and most journalists would have run with it. (Betcha he wishes now that he had.)

Likewise, light-rail glitches and other transportation problems affecting revelers were generally buried in articles or broadcasts, if they were included at all, and jokes about the fete proving once and for all that Denver is a year behind the rest of the world were rarer than environmentalists on Gale Norton's bandwagon. Furthermore, Denver mayor Wellington Webb, whose bunker mentality in the face of the phantom Y2K meltdown helped turn Denver into an entertainment black hole a year earlier, received no needling for his egocentric role as narrator for the countdown to 2001 (he concluded with the somewhat awkward salutation "Happy Millennium"), even though playing this part was tantamount to director John Huston casting himself as the voice of God in his version of The Bible.

Why such reserve? The soiree's popularity had a lot to do with it (scribes and broadcasters were unquestionably relieved not to be put in the position of pumping up a celebrant-starved bash), as was the crowd's generally peaceful demeanor, which gave cops no excuse to break out those tear gas canisters one more time. But credit is also owed event organizers, who played the press like a Stradivarius via countless canny PR strokes. For instance, offering free entrance to facilities such as the Denver Art Museum and Ocean Journey helped lend the happening a cultural/family-friendly jolt it might otherwise have lacked.

Even more important, planners provided the media with something it desperately needed -- a visually exciting story to cover during one of the deadest weeks of the year. Newspapers and television stations, especially, are desperate to fill space and time between Christmas and January 1 because of staff shortages (many senior employees take vacations over this stretch) and a traditional dearth of news about things other than hordes of shoppers returning unwanted gifts. It's hardly a shocker, then, that the press marched out a parade of lighter-than-helium fireworks pieces, including one TV report that stated as fact that the city would make up the $250,000 or so it spent for New Year's, excluding private donations, through increased tax revenues downtown on the big night. Maybe that's true, but I'd sure like to see the math.

Denverites who chose to watch things from the comfort of their homes on New Year's would probably have liked to see more skyrockets in flight. Cameras offering live looks at the display, including those from channels 4 and 9, had good angles on the D&F tower, the center of the action, but seemed to miss many of the other pyrotechnics, as if their operators were unaware of where they'd been placed or when they were going to be detonated. In numerous shots, the colorful bursts were obscured by buildings or other structures; in others, none were visible at all or were seen from such a distance that they seemed about as majestic as sparklers. In addition, most of the booms and blats that are a big part of any fireworks extravaganza were drowned out by the audio feed from KISS-FM, which departed from its usual teeny-pop fare in favor of patriotic and classical airs. Lucky thing: "Who Let the Dogs Out" might have started a riot.

Odds are good that outlets will get a chance to make up for these shortcomings in the future. Even before the smoke cleared, Webb was dropping immense hints that the city is already looking for ways to do it all over again, in spite of the trouble he'll have convincing an expert to claim that the real millennium starts in 2002. And if a sequel is mounted, expect the media members to hype it just as energetically as they did this time around.

But when it comes to fluff-free reporting, well, wait 'til next year.

A Clear defeat: As noted here last month ("Scene From a Mall," December 21, 2000), Emmis Communications, owner of Alice and the Peak, filed suit against the Clear Channel radio empire in an effort to prevent it from airing the morning show starring Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce on its KTCL signal beginning January 2; Emmis claimed that the program's just-lapsed contract with Alice included a non-compete clause preventing its debut in the market until July 1. On the surface, this scenario seemed likely to result in another Clear Channel triumph. After all, the Texas firm, which controls eight powerful stations in Denver, is the biggest bully on the block and generally gets what it wants. But not this time: Just prior to a December 28 hearing scheduled to take place at a court in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Emmis head Jeff Smulyan and Randy Michaels, his Clear Channel counterpart, agreed to drop the whole thing -- meaning you Jamie and Danny fans desperate for titillation on the way to work won't be sated until summer at the earliest.  

Clear Channel's submission is exceedingly out of character: The execs who oversee the Denver cluster of stations -- most notably Don Howe -- have a well-deserved reputation for taking on all comers. But after coming up on the punk end of the Jamie-and-Danny pact, neither Howe nor Mike O'Connor, who oversees KTCL, returned calls from Westword on the subject. Such silence hardly undermines speculation among some radio observers that management at the home office is miffed at Howe and company for blundering into a no-win situation. After all, Clear Channel has no interest in attacking non-compete clauses in general, since the company uses them widely. That left no logical strategy with which to attack the White-Bonaduce contract -- and had Clear Channel lost, it would have had to pick up Emmis's legal costs, which, in the event of a protracted battle, could have approached six figures.

Joe Schwartz, Emmis's main man in Denver, does his best not to gloat about this conclusion: "All we ever wanted was what's in the agreement, and that's what we got," he says. But the victory should pay dividends, giving Alice another six months to establish the new occupants of its morning-drive slot -- Greg Thunder and Bo Reynolds, who are a definite upgrade over White and Bonaduce -- even as it demonstrates that Emmis won't roll over when Clear Channel bares its fists.

Emmis's aggressiveness is further illustrated by its signing last week of former MTV jock Nina Blackwood to helm the afternoon shift at the station. Blackwood spent a week on the Peak last year helping to reintroduce the station to the public, and these cameos were practically unlistenable -- vapid, cloying and just plain dumb. But in a celebrity-starved burg like this one, inking her is probably a coup anyway, even though she'll only be here part-time. Expect reports from Bill Husted and Penny Parker before long about Blackwood's favorite place to eat lunch when she's in town.

Who, what, when, why, how -- but not where: On December 31, the Denver Post reported that Tina Griego, recently hired as a Post columnist, won the 2000 Morton Margolin Prize for Distinguished Business Reporting, a bauble bestowed annually by the University of Denver, for "Colorado's Way of Work," a story published in 1999. But the piece failed to mention one other significant bit of information: "Work" was printed not in the Post, but in the Rocky Mountain News, where Griego toiled until late last year.

This is hardly the first time the Post has played such a childish game: When Post business editor Al Lewis won a previous Margolin prize for work he'd done while employed at the News, the Post blurb patting his back excluded the same fact. The News, meanwhile, didn't note the accomplishments of either Griego or Lewis.

Will the two papers begin behaving in a more mature manner now that outgoing attorney general Janet Reno has finally okayed the long-delayed joint operating agreement between the Post and the Rocky Mountain News? Probably not. (The blessing everyone expected finally arrived on January 5, precipitating the dailies to unleash another deluge of cheery it's-all-for-the-best articles in the days that followed.) Would such maturity compensate for the rising subscription and advertising rates that will be coming down the pike lickety-split? Definitely not. So they might as well keep it up -- for old time's sake.

Death penalty redux: It's up to you, tender reader, to decide. Does the following item suggest that the gaffes at the Denver Post are contagious, or does it help explain why there are so many of them?

To elucidate: In the aforementioned December 21 edition, I wrote about a December 13 Post story bearing the byline of staffer Andrew Guy Jr. that included quotes from Ruth Meier, who was identified as a former member of the jury that convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. As it turned out, the Ruth Meier who had been on the jury died in 1999 and shared only her name with the person with whom the reporter thought he was speaking. Oops!  

To discover how this screwup could have happened, I contacted Post editor Glenn Guzzo by e-mail, and later spoke with him on the phone. In the midst of that conversation, I asked if the reporter who wrote the story had found a phone number for a Ruth Meier but had failed to confirm with her that she'd helped determine McVeigh's fate. Guzzo replied that the reporter had actually gotten the digits in question from another reporter -- and when I asked the identity of the second individual, he didn't provide it. Hence, I wrote that Guy had made the call to Meier. But the day after our paper hit the streets, I was reached by Post city editor Evan Dreyer, who told me that Guy was awfully upset because he hadn't actually phoned Meier. Rather, he had given the flawed number to Post reporter John Ingold, listed in the original story as a contributor, and that Ingold was the one who'd spoken with Meier but failed to ask about her jury experience -- or lack thereof. In subsequent chats, both Guy and Ingold confirmed this tale. Guzzo, for his part, replied to an e-mail on the topic by apologizing "if I led you astray," adding that since he couldn't remember if I'd asked specifically about "the reporter who wrote the story," he would not dispute the sequence of events as I remembered them.

By the way, Dreyer characterized the original error as among the worst imaginable, and because of the muddle that resulted in trying to describe what led to it, you've been reminded of it again. But despite its severity, it'll likely be lost among mistakes made in its wake, including a January 5 correction about an error in that same day's paper: The lead paragraph in a review of the film Traffic, which ran in the pre-printed Weekend Movies section, was supposed to say that viewers of the flick might reckon afterward that the war on drugs can't be won, but instead stated the opposite.

Maybe in the future, corrections can be published a week or two before the mistakes actually appear. It would sure make things easier on me.

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