Full Court Press
Denver law enforcement authorities have long feared that the Oklahoma City bombing trial might attract riffraff, troublemakers whose presence in town would lead to friction or even violence. And the cops were right. So far, there's been at least one adolescent shovefest, a fight over money and a threat of secession down at the federal courthouse on Stout Street.
And that's just from the media.
With Timothy McVeigh's trial set for March 31 and Terry Nichols's even further away, tempers and stress levels in the press room are increasing in direct proportion to the delays. Without much real news to report, the reporters instead are turning on each other.
When it was announced last February that the bombing trial would be held in Denver, members of the media pledged to cooperate with one another on such sticky issues as finding office space, doling out parking spots and arranging for satellite transmissions.
The newspaper groups were the first to organize into a coalition, says Joe McGowan, the Associated Press's veteran Denver bureau chief. McGowan became the print media's designated mouthpiece, and aggressive NBC-TV newsguy Roger O'Neil was put in charge of the broadcast group--by virtue, some say, of his ability to intimidate just about anybody.
When the print and broadcast groups merged late last spring to form an umbrella coalition, the idea was that each paper, radio station and television station would pay to belong to the pool. The "dues" collected would help pay the cost of legal aid, telephones and the like. Newspapers and radio stations pitched in $500 apiece to join the pool, McGowan says; television folks paid about twice that. Additional funds were collected as needed.
"The original premise," says McGowan, "was that the costs were to be shared on a pro-rata basis." What that meant was that the newspapers didn't want to get stuck paying for the extra work that had to be done for the TV stations and networks--things like running cable and renting electrical generators.
NBC's O'Neil was named the head of the new "consortium" (since renamed the "Oklahoma City/Denver Pool"). One of the first moves made under his leadership was to hire a nationally known television production wizard named Wayne Wicks as the pool's paid, part-time point man.
Wicks's impressive resume includes stints as a media coordinator for the Pope's 1993 visit to Denver, as a technical manager for NBC at this summer's Atlanta Olympics, and as senior technical and operational director for this fall's presidential debates.
For his work on the bomb trial, Wicks, who got his start as a drive-time radio deejay, was to be paid $250 per day. According to Wicks, who works out of an office donated by KUSA-TV/Channel 9, that's a bargain-basement rate. "Two hundred and fifty a day is what the average cameraman makes," he says.
But while Wicks's list of duties is considerable--he does everything from coordinating security to renting portable toilets for the use of journalists--the print types in the consortium felt they should have to pick up only a small portion of his salary. After all, newspaper editors argued, their reporters could do their jobs equipped with little more than a pad of paper, a pen and a telephone.
The two groups managed to co-exist more or less peacefully until November 12, when consortium members met to discuss what their technical needs would be for the three days of pretrial hearings that were held last week. As usual, no agenda was specified for the meeting, but some members say they were taken by surprise when a motion was made to upgrade Wicks's job description from that of a part-time technician to that of a full-time "liaison"--and to hike his salary to $2,500 per week.
O'Neil says if there was any grousing about Wicks's promotion, it wasn't conducted in public. "There were more than a hundred people in that room," he says. "Some of them were not members--we also had a demonstration there by a private vendor--but we had a discussion [about Wicks's salary], and there was no dissension expressed."
Wicks, however, admits that following the meeting, he spoke with two coalition members who felt that his salary was too high. "I said, 'Tell me what's unfair,'" Wicks relates. "I asked them, 'What do you make?' And they said, 'None of your business.' But because I work for the consortium, my salary is an open window."
According to one pool member, there were more than a couple of people who were unhappy with the idea of pitching in even more money to keep Wicks on board. "Not everyone agreed with it," says the journalist, "but they didn't feel they could express their concerns with him present."
McGowan says he's since heard from representatives of several media outlets, including papers in Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma, who didn't feel they could speak out at the meeting. Some of them have even made noises about splitting from the group and forming their own coalition.
One of the papers reportedly ready to secede is the Dallas Morning News. But News state editor Roger Jones is cagey about his plans. "Joe McGowan and Roger O'Neil have done a good job and put forth a lot of effort and work," he says. "We appreciate everything they have done. And I think Mr. Wicks is probably worth what they want to pay him."
However, Jones doesn't deny that there may be a move afoot to form a breakaway group. "I will tell you this," Jones says when pressed. "The print media--the people at the Dallas Morning News included--probably need to work more closely together on certain things, and any costs we need to contribute toward, we certainly will. Joe [McGowan] is working on alternative ways to organize, and we will continue to pay any dues we need to pay to be responsible members of the media coalition."
But putting up more money hasn't necessarily made the reporters who work for coalition members behave more responsibly. Such was the case on November 13, when KCNC-TV/Channel 4 reporter Terry Jessup got into a rowdy shoving match with an unidentified newspaper reporter.
"From what I know of the situation," says KCNC news director Jack MacKenzie, "[McVeigh defense attorney] Stephen Jones was speaking and [Jessup] was trying to get his microphone underneath someone's arm. Usually they'll step aside or give way an inch or two.
"But that didn't happen, and there might have been some elbows to midsections. No punches thrown, as far as I know."
The Denver station, however, was left with a black eye. "I heard that KCNC showed their ass bigtime," says one law enforcement officer. Adds a Denver newsman, "I heard that there were angry words and threats of 'I'll call my lawyer.'"
The incident caused Wicks --whose job apparently has evolved to include the role of peacemaker/school principal--to fax the following memo to the news corps at the federal courthouse:
"An unfortunate incident occurred yesterday in the bullpen between a couple of our own kind. As the trial nears and the workload pressure increases, we all need to recognize the need for us to do our work. Our business is one of certain stresses and pressures that from time to time can get to be larger than life. When that happens, we all need to stay in full control of what we are doing and not allow that stress to be translated into a physical assault in any manner, to our peers or anyone else for that matter."
Wicks closed with a few cautionary words for his brethren. "Let this be a thought-provoking warning to all of us, as in the future if we cannot control our actions, the Federal Protective Service will take whatever action deemed appropriate up to and including the revocation of the [press] credentials of the parties involved," he wrote.
Wicks declines to discuss last week's fracas. After all, says the "liaison," whose job will pay him $130,000 per year should the trials go on that long, "I don't want anyone to think that the media is anything but professional in the way we go about our jobs.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.