One thing's certain about reporter Steve Paulson's recent news stories about Denver International Airport for the Associated Press: They could hardly be getting better play.
One of them--charging that expansive soils are causing the widespread cracking of runways at the new airport--went out on the AP's national wire in August and precipitated a substantial drop in the price of DIA bonds. Another, publicizing former airport inspector Dean Hill's claim that walls and ceilings at DIA were in danger of collapse, moved last month and ran on the pages of some of the nation's largest newspapers, giving DIA a shiny new black eye. "Denver aide tells of laxity in airport job," read the October 17 headline in the New York Times. "Says shoddy work imperils the public."
The stories, in fact, have been big news almost everywhere--except in Denver itself. Here both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post have downplayed Paulson's work. Neither paper, for instance, ran the AP's original story on Dean Hill, and both have followed it with articles that have cast the inspector's charges in a dubious light. Paulson's article on the runway cracks received similar dismissive treatment.
The result has been a confusing situation for any careful consumer of news about the airport. It has been possible in recent months for Denver residents to pick up the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, the Boulder Daily Camera or USA Today and find AP-generated stories on DIA--and yet see no mention of them at all in their hometown papers.
A cabal of oft-quoted airport critics is stepping up complaints that the dailies are purposely suppressing negative news about the airport. "Neither the Rocky or the Post is covering these stories," says Paul Earle, a Denver resident who frequently calls local radio talk shows to lambaste the airport project. Agrees Jim Buck, one of Earle's sidekicks and a tireless DIA detractor: "The people in Denver know less about what's going on [at the airport] than the rest of the world."
Behind the scenes, however, editors and reporters at the Denver daily newspapers are voicing doubts about material coming from the Associated Press. The result: a media family feud over one of the biggest news stories in Denver history. More than a year ago News airport reporter Kevin Flynn complained in an eleven-page letter to Joe McGowan, the AP's Denver bureau chief, that Paulson's DIA stories were "nonsensical" and "filled with errors and holes." Recently, sources say, management at the Post circulated a memo in the newsroom requiring that all of Paulson's airport stories be run by the paper's own DIA-beat reporters before appearing in the paper. "We are trying to be very cautious about what we run with, so we don't have to retract it," says Post executive editor Neil Westergaard. "I don't want to go into print with stuff that isn't fully baked."
Meanwhile, Denver city officials are getting in their digs at Paulson as well. They note that the Federal Aviation Administration this summer certified DIA's runways as safe and free of major problems. Two weeks ago the city released an independent engineering report that contradicted Hill's most serious allegations about DIA safety hazards.
"We're concerned about Paulson's stories about DIA because they've turned out to be so baseless," says Amy Lingg, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works. "We are questioning the credibilty of Paulson's stories and the responsibility of the AP putting [them] out."
Paulson declines comment. Joe McGowan says the Associated Press stands by the stories but refuses to discuss them in detail.
There's no doubt that Denver International Airport is a severely troubled project. Now more than a year behind schedule and more than $1 billion over budget, the still-unopened airport has become a national joke, its image tarnished by everything from a luggage-devouring baggage system to allegations that it's turned into a gigantic pork barrel for cronies of Denver mayor Wellington Webb.
There's no doubt, either, that Denver city officials have made things worse for themselves by making misleading statements about the project along the way. Two years ago, for instance, when DIA bond lawyer Tyrone Holt was suspended from practice for drug abuse and failure to pay income taxes, Webb issued a press release saying he was "distressed to learn" of Holt's problems and that he was severing the city's ties to the attorney. A few days later the Rocky Mountain News reported that Webb had known about Holt's drug use for close to a year and had even testifed on his behalf at a secret disciplinary hearing the previous summer. Just last week, Assistant City Attorney Lee Marable appeared to give highly incomplete answers to questions from a DIA bondholder about a controversial 1993 memo urging that a delay of the airport's opening date be kept secret as long as possible.
Media-relations employees at the city say they're used to negative coverage of DIA. But Paulson's DIA stories have struck a nerve, Lingg and others say, in part due to the singular role of the Associated Press in the local and national media hierarchy. "If you have an agenda, you can do a great deal of damage" as an AP writer, says Briggs Gamblin, Webb's press secretary. "It's a hell of a lot of clout to have, and it demands a hell of a lot of responsibility."
In terms of sheer manpower, the AP's Denver bureau pales in comparison to the Post and the News, which between them employ close to 400 writers, editors and other newsroom employees. The AP bureau, though it has fewer than twenty editorial staffers, enjoys greater impact nationally. Hundreds of American newspapers and television stations subscribe to the AP, which long ago established itself as the nation's preeminent wire service. Stories sent from the bureaus to AP headquarters in New York often beam back out on the national wire and run on news pages all over the country.
That's just what happened with Paulson's exclusive on Dean Hill.
Hill, a former construction inspector for DIA contractor CMTS, first surfaced publicly this summer. On July 5 Hill visited the office of Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter and told prosecutors there that he'd witnessed workers cutting corners at the airport that could lead to buckling walls and falling ceilings inside Concourse C. He said his warnings about the bad work had been ignored and that other inspectors had falsified reports to cover up the problems. Though Hill hadn't worked at the airport since 1992, he claimed he had pictures to back up his allegations.
Accompanying Hill to the DA's office that day was a coterie of die-hard enemies of DIA. One was Jack Wogan, a leader of an unsuccessful voter drive to defeat the airport back in 1989. Another was Jim Buck, a retired engineer from Englewood who says he was asked to join the group as a "technical advisor." Buck notes that he's devoted "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours" to researching DIA's flaws over the last nine years and then sharing his findings with reporters and like-minded friends and associates.
Yet another DIA opponent along for the ride was Stew Webb, probably the Denver area's best-known conspiracy theorist. Webb, now a leader of a group called Guardians of American Liberties, hocks videotapes linking DIA to scandals in the savings-and-loan industry, the junk-bond market and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also claims to have evidence that former president George Bush and members of Congress operated a huge child-sex ring called "Operation Brownstone," which preyed on young boys and girls imported to Washington from orphanages all over the country. Webb declines comment on his role in the Dean Hill story, saying he plans to file a $100 million lawsuit against Westword for an article the paper wrote about him in February 1993. "I already own your newspaper for the character assassination you did," Webb says.
After concluding their meeting with prosecutor Phil Parrott and investigators from Ritter's office, Buck says, Hill and the rest of the group trudged across the street to the Rocky Mountain News and made a similar presentation to reporter Dan Luzadder. Luzadder confirms he heard them out but says he was hindered in pursuing the story because Hill refused to make his charges on the record.
Several weeks went by and, say Buck and Wogan, the News seemed to give up on the story. Eventually, both say, they approached the AP's Steve Paulson, in whom they found a more receptive audience. "He seemed interested, so we kept going to him," Wogan says. "It's that simple."
Buck says he's not surprised the News didn't follow through with an article on Hill's allegations. Both of Denver's daily papers, he claims, have become mere shills for the Webb administration on the airport project. "I don't think the newspapers have done a decent job at all" covering the airport, Buck says. "The top management in the Post and the News know that this thing has the potential for enormous corruption and public-safety questions. But they have just ignored it."
Unlike the News, Paulson was able to convince Hill to attach his name to the shoddy-work allegations. He printed Dean Hill's charges in a story that moved October 16 and quickly burned up the national wire. The next day Hill saw his mug shot in USA Today next to a headline that read "Another blow for Denver airport." The article was peppered with inflammatory charges, quoting Hill as saying that DIA workers routinely ignored safety problems in the rush to get the airport done on time. "Everything was based on the schedule," Hill told Paulson. "If a contractor got behind, they'd let them get by with murder."
The only problem with the story, Denver city officials contend, is that Hill's allegations aren't true. The city scrambled to respond, setting up meetings between Hill and top airport-construction officials over the course of the next two weeks. Airport officials sent Hill copies of Concourse C blueprints so he could point out specific problems, but Hill never got back to them. The city even spent $7,500 on an outside firm, Olson Engineering Inc., which X-rayed walls and support columns in an investigation of Hill's most serious claims.
In the end, the city says, none of Hill's charges could be substantiated. "We've failed to find any validation of the concerns Mr. Hill raised with us," says Mike Musgrave, director of the public works department.
Both the Post and the News, meanwhile, reacted warily to Hill's charges. Editors at both publications kept Paulson's story out of their October 17 editions. The following day, Kevin Flynn of the News and the Post's Patrick O'Driscoll reported Hill's apparently odd behavior in his dealings with Denver's district attorney. In the weeks since his July 5 meeting at Ritter's office, both reporters noted, Hill had declined to hand over evidence supporting his allegations. Hill, both papers said, complained that Ritter's people had been "too pushy."
On October 19 Flynn invited Hill to tour Concourse C and point out the most serious safety hazards. Hill, Flynn reported the next day, ended up retracting one of his most damning allegations--that a pillar in the building's basement was in danger of collapse. "I don't think it could ever fall now," Flynn quoted Hill as saying. (Hill subsequently denied making the statement; Flynn insists he got the quote right.) The Denver Post, meanwhile, ran an editorial urging that everyone maintain "cool heads" while Hill's claims were investigated. Hill's charges, the paper said, "may not be as serious as they initially seem."
It's possible, of course, that professional jealousy played a role in the dailies' treatment of Paulson's story. Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia and an authority on the mass media, says news organizations frequently ignore their competitors' scoops. "There's a kind of proprietary nature to the news," Sabato says. "Any news organization will blow up a story it has gotten beyond its real importance. And it will play down a pretty important story [from] a competitor. I don't think the average news consumer understands that fully."
Editors and writers at the dailies, though, say envy wasn't a factor in the Hill case. And the way the story played out, they say, shows they handled it properly.
On October 28 the city set up a final meeting with Hill at DIA to go over his charges and review the Olson report. Denver officials invited TV and newspaper reporters to be there as well. Hill agreed to come to the meeting, but when he arrived at DIA's west gate and saw the flotilla of press vehicles, he turned tail and fled.
"He asked if all the media were going to the same place he was," says DIA public affairs director Chuck Cannon, who met Hill at the gate. "I said yes, and he said, `I'm going home.'"
Kevin Flynn refuses to criticize Hill, saying he believes him to be a "very sincerely motivated individual." He even says the News "dropped the ball" by failing to pursue the inspector's charges more aggressively in the beginning. Had Flynn been on the story, however, he says he would have tried to corroborate all of Hill's allegations first with a physical inspection of Concourse C and a review of DIA construction records. "They took an incredible risk with their source," Flynn says of the AP.
The Post's Neil Westergaard is more blunt. "I guess we applied a higher level of skepticism [on the AP's story about Hill]," Westergaard says. "As it turned out, I think we were probably right."
Hill could not be reached. Through Jim Buck, however, he declined to comment on the allegations that caused such an uproar. "I'm not going to talk to anybody else," Buck quotes Hill as saying.
Other than the fact that they were written by Steve Paulson, the biggest thing the AP's stories on runway cracks and Dean Hill had in common was the involvement of Paul Earle and Jim Buck, known to city and media insiders as the "Batman and Robin" of DIA critics.
Jim Buck says he first got interested in DIA way back in 1985, when his wife was in the hospital with cancer. To distract himself, he says, he began closely following the development of the airport. "I wanted to keep my mind doing something," Buck says.
Earle, a self-employed, semi-retired engineering consultant from south Denver, describes himself as a "world-renowned expert in the field of asbestos cement." Earle, who spent most of his career working for the Manville Corporation, says he now makes between $150 and $350 per hour studying material failures for clients like Bechtel and the Tennessee Valley Authority. City officials, though, disparagingly refer to Earle as "Dr. Macaroni," because his 1947 doctoral thesis at the University of Minnesota examined factors that affect the drying times of macaroni noodles.
According to Earle's thesis, on file in the university's archives, he became interested in the subject after visiting a number of macaroni factories in the summer of 1937. "`Any man who really earnestly tries to master the art of drying macaroni will go crazy,' [it] has been said," Earle wrote in his introduction. "This is a strong statement, but the problem of drying macaroni lies not in the difficulty of the removal of water but in the inability to predict ahead of time whether or not the macaroni being dried will be sound and free of cracks at the end of the drying period."
Earle says he's surprised that city officials are making his thesis an issue. "Little did I realize back in my graduate days, post-World War II at the University of Minnesota...that this would have such far-reaching applications in today's structural problems--even as far as DIA's cracking up," he says.
Buck says he determined early on that DIA was nothing more than a boondoggle. In his relentless promotion of the airport to Denver residents, Buck says, former Denver mayor Federico Pena proved he was both incompetent and dishonest. "I saw in 1985 and 1986 that Pena was making statements [about the airport] that were totally irrational," he says. "He had no idea what he was talking about." Earle says he's even heard Pena is "a very close friend of" Daniel Ortega, the former president of Nicaragua and leader of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front. Pena could not be reached for comment.
Earle has also long been convinced that expansive soils at DIA will settle and heave so badly over time that they will wreak havoc on the airport's buildings and runways. This summer both he and Buck shopped that story idea to papers around town, including Westword and the Denver Post, but didn't have any luck getting it into print.
Eventually, though, Earle and Buck say they convinced Paulson to investigate the effect expansive soils were having on pavement at DIA. With their help, Paulson got Fu Hua Chen, a local soils expert affiliated with the University of Colorado's Expansive Soil Research Center, to tour DIA and view numerous hairline cracks that had surfaced atop sections of pavement there.
In an August 17 story, Paulson quoted Chen as saying the cracks were the likely result of expanding soil beneath the pavement. "What we see here is a good indication that in the future we'll have serious problems with these runways," Paulson quoted Chen as saying. Chen predicted that the city faced a substantial increase in maintenance costs over the forty-year life of the runways. And Paulson reported that workers were already patching cracks with glue.
As with the Dean Hill article, the runway-cracks story went out on the AP's national wire and received prominent play. Connie Chung mentioned it on the CBS Evening News. Over the course of the next few days, the value of DIA bonds dropped steeply as investors tried to unload them in response to the news.
The daily papers, however, watered down the article. The Post ran a shortened, non-byline version of the story on page B5 of its August 18 edition. On August 19 News reporter Bill Scanlon reported that N.Y. Chang, head of the expansive soil center, was urging the city to pay the University of Colorado $100,000 to investigate the runway cracks further. Scanlon also pointed out that Chen had merely undertaken a "visual inspection" of the airport, rather than a full-fledged "study," as initially reported by the AP.
City and federal officials sharply criticized Paulson's article, saying that the cracks were caused by "shrinkage" common in new concrete, not by the soil beneath the pavement. Jack Scott, a Federal Aviation Administration pavements engineer, says today that Paulson's story was "really distorted" and "blown out of proportion."
Chen, meanwhile, continues to deny the cracks are due to concrete shrinkage and says further study is needed to determine the exact source of the problem. But the runway cracks sound much less cataclysmic when he describes them today. "It's very simple," Chen says. "I just said that the cracks at present are an indication there will be future [maintenance] problems. But right now there is no hazard. It's not dangerous or anything."
One of press secretary Briggs Gamblin's biggest beefs is that national media organizations like the New York Times are picking up the AP's initial stories about the airport but aren't running follow-up reports that call the articles into question.
"It is absolutely the most frustrating thing in the world," Gamblin says. "It really sets up a very difficult situation in terms of getting a fair shake from our point of view."
Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post, says Gamblin shouldn't be surprised. Major newspapers and television networks, he says, will usually only cover stories about DIA that make a big splash--and ignore "all the back and forth" that comes out afterward. "That may or may not be fair," Kurtz says, "but that's the way the news business works."
The University of Virginia's Sabato agrees and says the practice can leave a highly skewed impression. In the average person's conception of the American "news pyramid," Sabato says, information reported on the networks and in national newspapers is generally regarded as more credible--even if it came directly off the wires. "People assume the ones at the top are the best, and that the quality of information is the best," Sabato says. "And that just isn't always true, especially about state and local subjects."
Like the Washington Post's Kurtz, however, Sabato says Denver city officials shouldn't hold their breath waiting for things to change.
"The `story line' on the Denver airport is that it's a horrible, terrible mess," Sabato says. "The stories likely to make a national broadcast have to fit that line. The good news just isn't going to be included."
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At the dailies, meanwhile, reporters say they expect the conflict with the Associated Press to continue. With Paulson, they say, the AP has begun to compete directly with them for hard-hitting stories about the airport. Paulson's stories, they say, will continue to go out on the national wires, while those from their papers receive considerably less play.
"They [the AP] have invested in Paulson," says one daily reporter, who asks not to be identified. "Essentially, Paulson is a competitor with the dailies now. You're going to play your own stuff up."
And both the News and the Post are bristling at the increasingly popular suggestion that they're flacking for the Webb administration. Kevin Flynn says he knows Jim Buck, Paul Earle and other DIA critics think he's the "spin doctor for the city" on the airport. But he says they routinely ignore the long list of "devastatingly negative" stories he's written--on Webb's misleading statements about Tyrone Holt, on scandals involving DIA parking and concession contracts, on a grand jury investigation into the airport's largest paving contractor.
"Not only is the charge not true, we're [covering DIA] far better than anyone else," Flynn says. "It just doesn't hold water. They [the critics] need to renew their subscriptions.