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Beyond JonBenét

The Colorado Daily is feeling a little buffaloed.

More than three and a half years after her murder, JonBenét Ramsey continues to make news from coast to coast. The August 28 edition of NBC's Today opened with hype about her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, preparing to speak with Boulder police, and the subsequent decision by the Ramseys' showboating attorney, Lin Wood, to release videotape from these sessions provided lurid cable-network filler for many days thereafter, proving once again that voyeurism in this country has reached the pathological stage. Would someone please confess so we don't have to be subjected to any more of this crap?

Yet JonBenét: The NeverEnding Story is hardly the only weird media tale being spun in Boulder. Below, find several other twisted examples.

Boulder, take one: Can the relationship between the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Boulder-based Colorado Daily get any worse? Theoretically, yes: No one's mailed any letter bombs yet. But the latest dust-up involving CU and the Daily, which was the official campus publication until the early '70s, suggests that only the springs in hefty comedian Louie Anderson's mattress are under higher tension.

Pressure has been building for quite some time. The Daily's investigation of former CU president John Buechner and his connection to high-priced consultant Fran Raudenbush was marked by legal challenges (when the university failed to provide some requested documents, the Daily sued) and cold shoulders (Buechner eventually refused to speak with Daily representatives). Daily editor Pamela White concedes that the situation improved after Buechner resigned last year, but she fears that the overt hostility demonstrated then has merely gone underground via a pair of arrangements CU made with the third party in this particular contretemps: the Boulder Daily Camera, a sister property of the Rocky Mountain News (both are owned by Scripps-Howard) that was mainly asleep at the switch during the Buechner investigation.

The first deal dates back to October 4, 1999, when CU chancellor Richard Byyny wrote a letter addressed to Colleen Conant, the Camera's publisher (and a member of CU's advisory board), and several other muckety-mucks at the publication. In the missive, Byyny formally accepted the Camera's offer of a $10,000 donation, from which would be deducted $4,875 to pay for 500 six-month subscriptions to the Sunday Camera that CU personnel would stack up inside of four university dormitories. The Camera also agreed to insert 7,500 copies each of the Carillon, a CU publication that's primarily promotional, into two separate Friday editions of the Camera and to "develop an advertising campaign that promotes the link between newspaper readership and student success in a Total Learning Environment" -- this last program being a controversial CU concept heavily endorsed by Buechner.

White sees this accord as favoritism, pure and simple, with the Camera sucking up to CU, a massive institution that it's supposed to be covering objectively and aggressively, in order to pimp its product to a student body that the Daily considers a vital part of its market. But Conant makes no apologies for the pact, and neither does Byyny, who sees it as giving CU an opportunity to get the Carillon into the hands of people who might not otherwise peruse it, thereby more widely spreading news of CU's good works. Likewise, he regards the availability of the Sunday Camera in the dorms as a way of encouraging students to pay more attention to the events of the day -- "and that helps every newspaper, not just the Camera." (He also questions whether the papers compete in any way with the Daily, which doesn't publish a Sunday issue.) Overall, Byyny terms the Camera's contribution "pretty altruistic."

CU personnel put the same spin on a more recent arrangement. On August 9, in a prominent article, the Camera announced that it would take over printing and advertising for the weekly, student-staffed Campus Press, which rose in the late '70s as the university's replacement for the Daily. A letter, dated July 17 and signed by associate professor/Press advisor Bruce Henderson, reveals that the contract will last for three years, with the Camera paying the Press an annual fee of $17,000 and increasing circulation from 6,000 copies to 10,000.

The Daily took umbrage at this turn of events, too, and no wonder: Back in the early '90s, the Daily negotiated with the Press to create a similar operating agreement that never came to fruition. Nonetheless, publisher Russell Puls shot off an August 10 letter to Ken Lane, Colorado's deputy attorney general for policy and governmental affairs, formally complaining about what appeared to him to be "a case of collusion between the University of Colorado and the Boulder Daily Camera/Scripps-Howard to damage the financial well-being of our newspaper and the other independent newspapers catering to this demographic." In the discourse that followed, he noted that the alliance hadn't been put out for open bid; that the sale of advertising for the Press would enrich the Camera at the expense of its competitors; and that the increase in circulation was a "blatant attempt" to "control the student market" that would have no tangible benefit for student journalists. Puls also hinted that CU might be engaging in retaliation for the Daily's Buechner reporting. "After speaking with our attorney," he wrote, "we have to wonder if there is a conspiracy between certain members of the University and the Boulder Daily Camera to damage the business of the Colorado Daily."

 

To this, Conant, advisor Henderson, interim mass communications and journalism school dean Stewart Hoover and CU spokeswoman Bobbi Barrow respond with the equivalent of a collective "Ha!" Because of declining ad sales, they say that the Press, which is only partly funded by the university, had suffered serious shortfalls and was in danger of going under. Consequently, Hoover phoned Conant to ask for advice and was thrilled when she suggested a compact that would not only keep the Press afloat, but would actually expand it. Last year, Henderson notes, the average Press was just sixteen pages long, but its August 31 salvo, the first produced with the Camera's help, clocks in at double that length. That, in turn, gives more students the chance to get their bylines in print.

Henderson doubts the Daily would have been able to offer nearly as much -- not that such a proposition would have had a legitimate chance, anyhow; at present, CU won't even let journalism students intern for the Daily because Henderson feels they wouldn't be receiving a sufficiently practical educational experience.

Conant, for her part, insists that the Camera-Press connection won't result in the softening of CU coverage: "This is all done through our marketing department. The news department doesn't have anything to do with it, and the newsroom is still doing its job -- reporting the news." Likewise, she scoffs at the suggestion that she's taking part in a stealth assault on the Daily. "That's ludicrous," she says.

Chancellor Byyny goes even further, declaring that the Daily's objections "seem like a form of paranoia" to him -- and some might feel that another grievance lends credence to this argument. Last month, a Daily employee wandering the CU campus noticed a Camera banner emblazoned with the phrase "Buffs Stampede" (see photo) and concluded from a conversation with the rep near it that the Camera would soon introduce a new section under that name. Well, the Daily already has a section called "Stadium Stampede" -- so on August 21, publisher Puls wrote a cease-and-desist letter to Conant. But according to her, the Camera has no plans to introduce anything called "Buffs Stampede." The phrase was just a slogan on a banner, and nothing more.

That hasn't placated the Daily; White says the banner still signifies copyright infringement. As for the robust friendship between the Camera and CU, she hopes it's subjected to legal scrutiny by Deputy Attorney General Lane, who reveals that his office is "conducting a preliminary review to determine what statutes might apply" to the Daily's grievances. Of which there are many.

Boulder, take two: If Lane's office moves forward with a full-scale investigation into the Camera's dealings with CU, it would become the second party to target the paper of late. Fleet and Priscilla White, once good friends of the Ramseys, filed a criminal libel complaint on August 3 arising from contentions made by a California woman who claimed to know the White family and some damaging information about them; she believed JonBenét (yeah, her again) died during a sex ritual of the sort the tipster allegedly recalled from her youth. The story, which the Boulder police looked into but quickly dropped, got front-page play in the Camera thanks to an article written by editor Barrie Hartman in which embattled Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter was quoted as saying that the woman's account seemed credible enough to check out. Hartman referred all questions about the case to Conant, who says, "We were very, very careful in writing that story and were certainly conscious of the sensitivity of it. We believe we practiced solid, credible journalism."

The Camera isn't the only media outlet to report on these assertions -- indeed, Westword did so extensively in a profile of Boulder attorney Lee Hill ("The Accidental Jurist," March 30). But the Camera was first and loudest, making it the likeliest target of a lawsuit. (Because of a potential conflict of interest arising from Hunter's comments, Boulder Assistant District Attorney Bill Wise asked Chief District Judge Roxanne Bailin to assign the matter to another district attorney in the state for possible prosecution; at press time, she had not yet acted.) Whereas this may not prove injurious to the Camera in the long run given the many questions surrounding criminal libel statutes as a whole (Nevada's was ruled unconstitutional in 1998, and Utah's is presently under fire), it's certainly embarrassing. Like so many things in this case.

 

Boulder, take three: The news is better for reporter Brian Hansen, who was arrested for failing to leave a federal closure area during a 1999 protest in Vail he was covering for the Daily ("A Failure to Communicate," July 13). On August 30, federal magistrate James Robb signed a motion to dismiss the charges against him; the motion had been filed the week before by Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Wallace. That means that Hansen is now officially off the hook.

For Hansen, who recently left the Daily to become assistant bureau chief for the Washington D.C.-based Environment News Service, this ruling comes as a significant relief. Earlier in August, he'd been offered a "diversion contract" that would have stricken a conviction from his record if he behaved himself during a six-month probationary period, but he turned it down because he would have had to admit to committing an offense. Now he feels his stubbornness has paid off: "I'm very happy and relieved that the federal government has finally seen the light," he says. But, he adds, "I remain outraged that the government attempted to criminalize me for simply doing my job as a member of the press, and I'm strongly considering filing a civil-rights lawsuit against U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wallace and the U.S. Department of Justice."

Hansen reserves many of his choicest barbs for Strickland, whose name appeared on the aforementioned diversion contract even though he'd informally recused himself from the case because he'd represented Vail as a private attorney. U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Jeff Dorschner defends Strickland, calling the mention a "pro forma" matter that in no way contradicted a recusal done out of "an abundance of caution" and concern for Hansen's rights. Dorschner also refutes Hansen's suggestion that new Forest Service policies relating to the possible arrest of media members covering news on public land were written in response to his arrest; he acknowledges some parallels but says the regulations have been in the works for several years and are "consistent with the previously existing policies of other federal law-enforcement agencies." Finally, Dorschner pours cold water on the implication that higher-ups in Washington ordered Wallace to cut Hansen loose before more bad publicity was generated; he calls it "a local decision."

Be that as it may, the motion to dismiss is certainly written as narrowly as possible. It states: "While the fact alone that Defendant was acting in his journalistic capacity is not a defense to the original charge, upon a further assessment of all facts and circumstances, the Government has determined as a matter of policy that it is not in the best interests of justice to proceed."

That's far from the admission of error Hansen would like to have gotten -- but he hasn't given up hope of ultimately receiving one. After acknowledging the support he garnered from the Society of Professional Journalists, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and other journalism groups, he says, "I think I'll have no shortage of attorneys knocking on my door eager to take this on."

Boulder, take four: Following a column that touched upon the dizzying turnover rate at Boulder's KWAB-AM ("Radio for [Lots of] Change," May 25), Los Angeles-based personality Bob Harris, the station's morning man, came out swinging: He wrote a letter to the editor longer than many of the articles we publish -- and as regular readers know, that's mighty tough to do. But he had radically less to say about his own resignation, which took effect after his August 25 show: "I have no comment on the situation other than the folks at KWAB and I remain good friends, and I still have a lot of respect for what the station is trying to accomplish and the people who are trying to accomplish it," he says. KWAB general manager Chuck Lontine's take on his departure is similar: "Bob is a tremendous, tremendous talent, and we'll miss him very much."

Boulder muckraker Jann Scott ("Access Denied," February 10) sure as hell didn't receive valentines like this one for his stint at Longmont's KLMO-AM, at 1060 on the dial. His plug was pulled on August 30 after a grand total of one hour on the air; afterward, general manager Ron Crider laughingly described those sixty minutes as "the low point of my entire career as a broadcaster."

Predictably, there's plenty of dispute about what led up to this catastrophe. Whereas Scott says Crider, who'd hired him to work at his former outlet, KNUS, back in 1993, made a verbal contract with him to helm the 7-9 a.m. weekday shift for $50,000 per annum, Crider swears he was simply conducting an "experiment" by pairing Scott with host/Second Amendment zealot Robbie Noel, previously heard on KHNC, Johnstown's notorious "patriot" station.

 

Noel, who debuted on August 28, is ideologically in tune with KLMO, part of a five-station mini-network owned by Indianapolis's Pilgrim Communications (its ultra-right-wing programming includes Ken Hamblin). But he crumpled under attack from Scott, who did the August 30 broadcast from his Boulder home; Crider estimates that Noel stormed out after around two minutes. That left Scott free to splash conservatives with ridicule, calling right-wingers "gun nuts" and "jack-booted Nazis" and celebrating the liberal virtues of his hometown. "You hate Boulder?" he asked at one point. "Well, Boulder, Boulder, Boulder, Boulder, Boulder!" Then, after announcing that he was communing with nature "bare-ass naked," he said he would prove his devotion to "the most famous small town in America" by walking into his backyard and hugging a pine tree. "Mmmmm," he moaned. "That feels good! Pine-tree love makes me feel horny in the morning."

A couple of dozen hysterical listeners phoned the station to voice their hatred of Scott, which by KLMO standards qualifies as a deluge. So Crider put on a half-hour infomercial and went looking for Noel, who was coaxed back to the station just before it concluded. "After all these years, I thought maybe Jann had mellowed a little bit," Crider says, "but he's crazier and more radical than he's ever been."

To a thoroughly remorseless Scott, that's a fabulous compliment. "No Timothy McVeigh-loving dirtball is going to start a right-wing debate with me and win," he says. "Never. Because I'm from Boulder."


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