He Got Blame
On December 11, the night Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel was captured on Channel 9 videotape yelling, "Go drink another beer, you Mexican piece of shit" at Bobby Bowman, a Hispanic ticket holder, the team had passed out thousands of Dan Issel bobblehead dolls that proved to be perfect props for sports anchors reporting the story. The next morning, for instance, Channel 9's Drew Soicher asked his Plastic Dan, "Should you have said that?" and the bobblehead wisely shook its head. "Was it a big mistake?" Soicher wondered, and the bobblehead nodded.
Had the coach responded to Bowman's shout of "Issel sucks!" in the same quiet way, he would never have been whacked with a four-game suspension sans pay, nor would he be the target of ire from a parade of Hispanic leaders and community activists stunned that the Nuggets didn't cut off his bobblehead and hand it to him. Many fans, too, were dumbfounded that Issel wasn't canned, and not just because the beverage offer he made Bowman was patently offensive. After all, the Nuggets were in the midst of another humiliating losing streak (the December 11 loss to the Charlotte Hornets was its ninth in ten games), and the team's best healthy player, Nick Van Exel, had recently gone public with his demand to be traded -- essentially a vote of no confidence in Issel, who'd signed him in the first place. What's more, this was hardly the only recent example of Issel's legendary temper getting the best of him. In early November, while being ejected from a game against the Sacramento Kings, Issel grabbed official Joe Forte -- a big no-no in the NBA.
Van Exel, of course, has his own history of on-court volatility, having shoved a referee during a game when he was a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Hence another irony of the videotape: In it, Van Exel can be seen trying to pull an angry Issel into the tunnel leading to the locker room, but the coach shakes him off and launches into his ill-advised tirade anyway. For future reference, Dan: If Nick Van Exel is more in control than you are, you know you're in trouble.
As it turns out, Van Exel was the reason Issel's outburst was captured for posterity. The Charlotte contest was Van Exel's first in Denver since his trade demand, and Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis confirms that station photographer Brian Willie was trailing him, not Issel. "Van Exel was the story," she says. By being in the right place at the right time (although not from Issel's perspective), Willie provided Channel 9 with a legitimate scoop. But when broadcasting the clip, the station censored both "shit," which isn't surprising, and "Mexican," which is -- so much so that viewers and media representatives were confused for days about what, exactly, Issel had said.
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First reports in the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post quoted Issel as hollering, "Go drink another beer, you (expletive) Mexican piece of (expletive)" under the apparent assumption that some really gnarly profanity must have followed the word "you," because there was no reason to bleep "Mexican." But a closer viewing of the clip reveals that no other adjective popped out, naughty or otherwise. The News acknowledged as much on December 14 with a sports-section item headlined "Clarifying Issel's Statement," but the Post's Mark Kiszla again referenced the phantom obscenity in his column the same day, as did Chuck Green, who is to fact-checking what the Taliban is to American boosterism.
What were Channel 9's reasons for aurally obliterating "Mexican"? News director Dennis points out that a judgment about how to present the story had to be reached quickly, since Willie delivered the videotape to the station at just past 10 p.m., only twenty minutes or so before it was to air. During that period of debate, Dennis maintains, it was decided that "Mexican" as Issel spewed it, was "a racial slur -- and we're very careful with racial slurs. So we tried to find a way to convey exactly what was said without inciting anyone or being insensitive, and without airing inflammatory comments. We did the same thing during the O.J. Simpson trial: We tried not to use the audio of racial remarks because they are so inflammatory. We've done it on many stories, and it seemed appropriate for this one."
Nonetheless, Dennis acknowledges that the intro to the piece on December 11, in which the word "Mexican" wasn't used, came across as somewhat vague, leaving a percentage of viewers hazy about what, precisely, Issel had said -- "so by Wednesday morning, we were describing it as 'a racial slur against a Mexican-American.' To us, that was a better way to convey the information for an adult audience to understand."
Things weren't nearly so muddled in the News, which ran a story on Issel's statement on December 12 in which "Mexican" appeared in black and white. But the report about the game in the Post made no mention of the videotape at all -- an omission that's all the more baffling since the Post and Channel 9 have a longstanding agreement to cooperate editorially. No wonder Post sports editor Kevin Dale was so frustrated by the results.
"In my opinion, the Rocky handled it exactly right, and we did not handle it right," Dale says. "We're not pleased with the way the paper came out that morning."
The pact linking Channel 9 and the Post gets plenty of use, with the organizations often working together on pieces and co-promoting each other's products. The 9 News logo frequently appears in the Post's pages, as do the bylines of staffers like business boy Gregg Moss and entertainment reporter Kirk Montgomery; in turn, the station regularly teases articles slated for the next day's paper in its 10 p.m. newscasts and interviews Post scribes from the publication's newsroom. Emblematic of the partnership was Channel 9's determination to let Willie talk to the Post about the Issel videotape while restricting the News's opportunity to do likewise. News staff writer Aaron Lopez sniffily reported Willie's unavailability on December 13 -- which, by the way, has a similar accord with Channel 4.
In addition, the Post and Channel 9 often communicate with each other when one or the other has something big about to break. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however. Post editor Glenn Guzzo says, "Channel 9 is under no obligation to us," and news director Dennis notes, "We share a lot of stories, but we don't share every story. Sometimes we don't share a story with them until it's on the air, and sometimes they don't share a story with us until after it's been on the front page."
That's how things worked out with the Issel videotape, yet no one seems especially happy about it. Sports editor Dale, who works the day shift and wasn't around after the Nuggets game in question, refuses to hold Channel 9 responsible for the Post's air ball, saying, "That's only part of the breakdown that happened. People in the sports department knew about [the videotape] -- not everybody, but some people did know. There was a discussion down here about the story, and a decision was made to play it the way we did. But it wasn't the right decision." Even so, Dale admits that he would have liked someone at the station to have picked up the phone, and editor Guzzo gives the same impression: "This is once where they didn't think to call and we didn't know to ask."
For her part, news director Dennis explains that she was still dealing with the Issel story long after the newscast was over; those efforts ultimately paid off with an exclusive one-on-one interview between the coach and primary anchor Tony Zarrella, aired the next day. But, she says, "I do believe it was our responsibility to call our media partner, and we didn't do our part."
Dennis conveyed this sentiment by phone to Post city editor Evan Dreyer, who is as critical of his paper's performance as sports editor Dale: "It would have been great if they would have given us a call, but nobody called the Rocky Mountain News, and they still managed to get a story in the first day." He says the way things went down serves as a reminder for the Post and Channel 9 to "get much more formalized and regular about the whens and whys of how we share stories, so it becomes more and more second nature."
The repercussions of Issel's eruption were such that every TV station in town had to cover it, but they didn't have the benefit of the Channel 9 videotape; Dennis released it only to NBC and CNN, which she calls "our video distribution partners." That helps explain why the Issel situation got more prominent play on NBC's Today show than on Disney-owned ESPN, which buried the tale in the middle of the December 13 SportsCenter. Meanwhile, Bowman skipped from one local media outlet to another on December 13; he seemed jazzed at being quizzed by the Fox's Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax in the morning and the denizens of KOA's Sports Zoo the same afternoon. But on the Fan, the official radio home of the Nuggets, morning host Sandy Clough not only declined to offer Bowman a forum, but got huffy and self-righteous about the stations that had -- a suspect stance if ever there was one. After all, if radio stations choose as a matter of policy to never again interview loudmouths desperate for a whiff of fame, they'll have a helluva lot of dead air to deal with. Besides, as Channel 9's Dennis succinctly puts it, "He was part of the story." The end.
The Post quizzed Bowman, too, but in December 13 and 14 stories by Carol Kreck, his jibe was printed as "Issel su---," a bit of self-censorship that might be even less defensible than Channel 9's rubbing out of "Mexican." Not only is "sucks" a word the Post has printed numerous times of late (a November 18 G. Brown piece featured the phrase "disco sucks!" and an October 28 Adam Schefter offering used it in a quote about Buffalo Bills quarterback Rob Johnson), but it's in the vocabulary of virtually every elementary-schooler in these United States, and most grownups, too. Indeed, Channel 4 illustrated a December 13 package about unruly fans with scenes of football addicts at a Broncos game joyously chanting, "Raiders suck!"
Clearly, Issel isn't the only bobblehead in these parts.
Is that your final answer? Since September 11, the name Osama bin Laden has appeared in American newspapers, magazines and broadcasts untold thousands of times, as has the handle of the terrorist organization he fronts. But the group's moniker has been spelled in a dizzying number of ways. A data search of articles printed on December 11, three months to the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, came up with "al-Qaeda," "al Qaeda," "Al Qaeda," "al-Qaida," "Al Qaida" and "al-Qa'ida."
Why the irregularity? According to Joe Hudson, copy-desk chief at the Denver Post, "Arabic words, names and phrases tend to throw us for a loop. Khadafy or Gadhafi?" Or Qadhafi and al-Qadhafi, for that matter? Not to mention that the Libyan leader's first name appears variously as Muammar and Mu'ammar. Hudson adds, "And it's not just Arabic. Any language that requires transliteration into English leaves us guessing a little bit."
The lack of consensus on bin Laden's troupe extends to the Denver dailies. The Rocky Mountain News uses "al-Qaida" because, says news editor John Boogert, the paper likes to stick with "AP style," and that's how the Associated Press spells it. The Post generally follows AP style, too, but in this case, Hudson says, the rush of data complicated matters. "The word was everywhere, spelled three or four different ways," he remembers. "As I recall, sometime in the first day or two after the attacks, I took a look at what the various wire services were using; 'al-Qaeda' seemed to be used more often than not, so that's what we went with." Eventually, AP, whose spelling "was not consistent in those frantic first few days," Hudson says, settled on "al-Qaida," but the Post "decided to stick with what we had been using."
That's easier said than done. The Post and the News have relied on a great deal of wire copy about bin Laden since September, and many of the services don't use either "al-Qaida" or "al-Qaeda." Take the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, which prefer "Al Qaeda." As such, copy editors at the papers have to go into every article from other sources and try to change disparate spellings to the preferred version. They don't catch everything -- each paper has published a few articles with spellings other than their first choice -- but they've been pretty steady since early October.
Still, none of that really addresses what's right -- so to get a better grasp on the debate, I consulted Liyakat Takim, an assistant professor in the religious-studies department at the University of Denver. Takim teaches a number of courses looking at Islam, including one about Islamic mysticism, speaks and reads Arabic, and is as close to an expert on the language as anyone at DU. In his view, the best, most accurate spelling would be one with a bar over the first "a" in "Qaida" to emphasize the correct pronunciation (his first name has one, too). The term is actually four syllables long, not three; it should be pronounced "al-kay-id-a" instead of "al-kite-a," as everyone from network anchors to President George W. Bush insists on uttering it.
Not that Takim's spelling is likely to be widely embraced. The equipment used at most daily newspapers would have trouble putting a bar over the letter. The News's Boogert thinks that for each one in his paper, "an actual printer would have to put a piece of border tape over it" -- and those of us at Westword discovered that we were in the same leaky boat. Presumably, using the "al-Qa'ida" spelling, the simplest alternative, would be less difficult, but apparently no one in America has done so; the three publications that made this choice on December 11 hail from Australia, Canada and England.
At the same time, none of the publications in the December 11 search spelled bin Laden's first name "Usama"; the only major U.S. news outlet doing so is Fox News. But Takim says "Usama" is more correct than "Osama," and his opinion received backing last week from the United States government. Its transcription of a videotape showing the al-Qa'ida frontman laughing about WTC casualties spelled his first name "Usama" throughout. The AP isn't budging, though; in its published transcription, every "UBL" has been replaced with an "OBL."
This war on terrorism is complicated, isn't it?
Street sense: Mayor Wellington Webb announced last week that he would ask the Denver City Council to rename a section of Elati Street that borders the headquarters of the News "Gene Amole Way," after dying columnist Gene Amole ("The Subject of a Lifetime," November 15). This worthy tribute is scheduled to be formalized at a December 20 ceremony at the News that Amole plans to attend. But whereas the News's future address will be 100 Gene Amole Way, the same can't be said of the Denver Newspaper Agency, which was created by the joint operating agreement between the News and the Post. Even though the DNA shares the News's building, spokesman Jim Nolan confirms that its address will remain 400 West Colfax.
Amole, no fan of the JOA, probably prefers it that way.
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