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Minor Threat

Mark Poutenis

On August 8, news organizations in Denver received a fax topped with a grabby logo reading "Koleen Brooks: Defender of all that is right...and having fun doing it!" Following this pronouncement was a description of Playboy pinup Brooks ("the internationally famous single mother and controversial former mayor of Georgetown, Colorado; a topless dancer; seen on air with Greta Van Susteren; as shown on Inside Edition; interviewed by Dick Clark") and word of a press conference the following day at which she would make "a major political announcement."

From the beginning, it was clear to most observers that such an event would be ridiculous. In previewing the appearance the next morning, Channel 9 personalities Gary Shapiro and Drew Soicher guffawed as they speculated that Brooks, who's scheduled to go on trial in November for faking an attack on herself, had her eyes on the governor's mansion.

By coincidence, Shapiro and Soicher were on the right track, since Brooks was supposed to divulge that she'd been named spokeswoman for Libertarian gubernatorial hopeful Ralph Shnelvar. Instead, she told the assembled press corps -- consisting of "four television cameras, four newspaper reporters, a radio station [and] a couple of photographers," according to an amusing article by Rocky Mountain News scribe John Sanko -- that she wanted nothing to do with the job. Furthermore, she accused Shnelvar of asking that she display breasts partially covered with photos of Governor Bill Owens and Democratic challenger Rollie Heath by way of exposing "a tremendous pair of boobs."

In a photo gallery viewable at her Web address, www.koleenbrooks.com, Brooks mainly conceals these accessories, but she shows off plenty of other assets. Elsewhere on the site, under the banner "What is going on with the Libertarians?" she provides a heartfelt, if grammatically suspect, account of the press-conference fiasco, pinning the blame for it squarely on "Ralph Scnelvar [sic]." As she puts it, "The morning of the press release we were receiving returned e-mail from address's that were unknown to me, I suddenly realized that Ralph had sent out the press release as if it was from me!!! When I confronted him he called it a spoof. I was furious!... He also wanted me to lie to the press and tell them that the reason I was his spokesperson was because he had nude photos of me!! The list just goes on.

"I did not want to go," her narrative continues. "But because the media believed the press release was from me I had to. So I went and declined his offer in public, explained why and went and had a cocktail and watched myself on the news."

Her timing was apparently good. Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis says a brief report about the press conference aired during a noon broadcast but never again because "it wasn't really newsworthy," and most other broadcast outlets took a similarly low-key tack. The same can be said for the Denver Post; its coverage consisted of a colorless blurb under the ultra-bland headline "Ex-Georgetown Mayor Back in News." Presumably, this wasn't intended to point readers to the Rocky's funnier depiction of the incident, but who can be certain?

Nonetheless, Shnelvar isn't complaining all that much about how his scheme went awry. He's disappointed by the actions of Brooks, whose version of events he contradicts on virtually every point. For instance, he says her "tremendous boobs" were to have been shrouded in "an opaque T-shirt -- and she approved everything else we did. Either she misunderstood or she had a last-minute change of heart." But even though things didn't go as hoped, he still derived some benefits.

"I've been trying to get on a variety of talk-radio shows for months, with no luck," Shnelvar says. "Then this thing broke, and I am now guaranteed slots on those shows. So I'm thrilled at how it turned out."

Maybe he should be. But representatives of other minor parties, as they're officially defined by Colorado's secretary of state, view such success stories with trepidation. Folks like Bruce Meyer, the co-chair of the Green Party in Denver and Colorado as a whole, feel that the mainstream media regularly, and perhaps systematically, excludes minor parties from coverage routinely given to individuals affiliated as Republicans or Democrats.

"Now that the primary elections are over, I hope there'll be a change, and whenever major candidates are covered, we'll get mentioned and get a fair shake," Meyer says. "But before the primaries, that wasn't the case."

Adds Victor Good, a Reform Party candidate for the 7th Congressional District, "The media's opinion seems to be, 'If it's the outrageous and the bizarre, we'll report on the minor parties; if it's productive debate, then we don't have any room for it,'" Good says. "That seems to be the prevailing view."

As evidence, Good and Meyer point to an August 2 Denver Post editorial dubbed "Let the Flowers Bloom." The unsigned offering features generalized praise for alternative parties ("...minor parties can make a major difference in the American political system"), as well as specific accolades for the Colorado Coalition of Independent Political Parties. A joint effort of the state's five most prominent minor parties (Libertarian, Green and Reform, plus the American Constitution and Natural Law factions), CCIPP gives Web surfers a single address -- www.coloradovoices.org -- where they can learn more about each organization. "The Post is delighted to see CCIP's [sic] formation," the anonymous author declares.

A few sentences later, however, the writer implies that CCIPP gives the paper, and, by extension, the media as a whole, an excuse not to take much notice of minor parties: "We'd love to give full coverage to all parties and candidates. But as a practical matter, we rarely have the staff or space to cover all the possible bases in the hundreds of state and local races we cover. And in time-limited forums, such as broadcast debates, giving equal time to all candidates is actually a disservice to the great majority of viewers, who usually want to see the Democrat and the Republican slug it out."

This passage vividly outlines a catch-22 situation the late Joseph Heller would have appreciated: Big media outlets won't cover minor parties unless they seem credible -- but minor parties won't seem credible unless big media outlets cover them. To Meyer, the editorial shows the Post "actually being proactive in denying us full coverage. I find it interesting that they would come right out and say that politics is too big for them to actually cover."

Good, for his part, responded to the Post's contentions with a letter to the editor in which he accused the paper of carrying water for major-party designates who "do not want minor party candidates in the debates for their own self-preservation. They want to be viewed as the only choice. Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura both received double digit bumps in the polls after appearing in the debates. The major parties are simply afraid of any REAL competition." But Post readers weren't given the opportunity to read this opinion. "They didn't publish the letter -- of course," Good mutters.

If this is a sign of things to come, Dan Haley isn't saying. The staffer coordinating election reporting for the Post, Haley didn't return numerous phone calls from Westword inquiring about the paper's plans for covering minor parties. But a sampling of other media gatekeepers demonstrates an awareness of access issues, if few promises to increase coverage.

Channel 9's Dennis points out that her station's Web site, www.9news.com, contains links to minor parties' Internet homes. When it comes to on-air coverage, though, "we tend to follow the interest level based on polling, and just by following the temperature of the electorate. We try to look at the candidates that are gaining interest based on their own efforts at public exposure." This approach extends to debates, as well: "I produced a debate years ago where there were eight or nine candidates for mayor, and it was difficult to get much substance from the candidates on top of the interest list because there was so much clutter. You've got to keep in mind the objective of the program, which is to disseminate as much important information as you can in a half-hour or hour format."

Jerry Bell, news director for KOA, Denver's most popular news-talk purveyor, employs a philosophy similar to Dennis's. "As we come up to the general election, we'll probably look at some polling and whether there's a strong-enough constituency to merit coverage -- and I'm thinking you probably need to be getting over 5 percent in the polls to merit coverage. At some point, depending on how many people are running, you've got to have some kind of cutoff, or it will get totally out of control."

At the same time, limiting coverage too severely can also have negative consequences. The Rocky Mountain News learned this lesson in 2000, when it excluded minor-party candidates from its voters' guide, spurring notable condemnation and protest. Lynn Bartels, who's often charged with putting together the News's lively election page, recalls that this decision was based on space considerations, but she now considers it a mistake and has been working hard to mention minor-party candidates whenever possible. The News is far more consistent than its crosstown rival when it comes to publishing complete rosters of candidates for a particular position, not just the Republican and the Democrat; likewise, information about minor-party events or Web sites has turned up in election-oriented blurbs collected in a section called "The Stump." Bartels says that even more of these items might have been published, "but sometimes third parties are their own worst enemies. If you go to their Web sites checking on events they may be having, some of the information may be six months old. So they need to make a better effort, too."

The Green Party's Meyer doesn't cop to this failing, but he does say, "We'll be working in the next few months to get the media a flood of information about our candidates so they won't have the excuse that they didn't have prior knowledge of what we're doing and how we operate." He also notes that while the News is making strides in the right direction, the minor-party candidate on which it's spilled the most ink is Rick Stanley, a Libertarian Senate candidate with a reputation for outrageous behavior: He was convicted earlier this year for taking a loaded semi-automatic handgun with him to a December rally for the Bill of Rights, and he recently called for Republican senator Wayne Allard to be hanged as a traitor. At press time, some Libertarians were trying to remove Stanley's name from the November ballot.

"We may create a protest or a rally to drum up support," Meyer says. "But I don't endorse stunts for stunts' sake."

Neither does Victor Good, but he's ready to move in that direction if necessary. "I've got an old fire truck, a '54 Ford fire truck, that we'll be using in the campaign. We'll put a big banner on it about 'putting out the fires of political corruption,' and if they try locking me out of debates, I'll pull up to the door and hit the siren."

In the meantime, Ralph Shnelvar says the Koleen Brooks debacle hasn't cooled him on political theater -- and Rene Defourneaux, a Shnelvar intimate who conceived the press conference, feels the same way.

A Crested Butte raconteur, Defourneaux has an extremely eclectic resumé. He's produced two CDs for Harvey "The Snake" Mandel, a guitarist who was once a member of the blues-rock act Canned Heat, and worked with ABC on Vanished, a documentary broadcast in January about Richard Gordon Bannister, an alleged cocaine importer who for many years lived a law-abiding life in Crested Butte under the assumed name Neil Murdoch.

To date, Bannister, who was trying to hide, has gotten considerably more tube time than Shnelvar, who isn't camera-shy in the slightest. That's why Defourneaux believes poorly financed candidates must turn to Brooks-like happenings if they want to turn the media's head: "You're forced into it." He hints that an upcoming Shnelvar event, slated for October 5 at City Park, near the Denver Zoo, will be something to behold.

Shnelvar is happy to participate in the occasional circus as long as it draws a spotlight toward the Libertarian message, which he synopsizes as "freedom and peace and prosperity and unity among people and tolerance and all the things you guys in the media should be promoting." But he's also somewhat frustrated that he has to go to such extremes -- an emotion he illustrates with some gallows humor.

"If I went down to Texas, climbed a clock tower and shot a dozen people, the media would be down there in an instant -- until they found out I was Libertarian," he says, adding, "When I tell that joke to party newcomers, they laugh and say, 'That's really funny.' But people who've been in the party for ten or fifteen years don't even crack a smile."

The scoop that wasn't there: News organizations are always on the lookout for stories of great interest to their audiences -- and on those occasions when they break them before their competition can do so, they typically react with pride and delight. But when KOA recently found itself in this position, its actions were uncommon, to say the least. The station broadcast its exclusive just once before going on the air to apologize for it.

On August 9, says aforementioned KOA news director Jerry Bell, a reporter received a tip that United Airlines was unlikely to receive $1.8 billion in loans from the federal government and might have to file bankruptcy as a result. Clearly, this prospect could have enormous repercussions in this area, since United is the largest carrier at Denver International Airport. But after a report about it led KOA's noon newscast, the station's phone lines were instantly jammed by panicky United employees and other listeners -- and rather than stand by the story, Bell ordered it to be retracted.

"That was my call," Bell says. "I felt we were still in the process of checking everything and didn't have the story fully nailed down. So I felt like a retraction was the responsible thing to do."

Subsequent developments made such caution seem largely unwarranted. On August 12, the Associated Press reported that UAL head Jack Creighton, in a message to employees, said that the airline's loan application was in trouble unless employees agreed to participate in further belt-tightening. The next day, Rocky Mountain News broadcast columnist Dusty Saunders printed an item spanking KOA for its "erroneous" United revelation despite the presence of numerous articles in other sections of the paper that established the report as downright prescient.

"Our tip had been right on the money," Bell says -- but he still feels he did the right thing. "We intend to be more careful about how things get on the air. But I'm not sure about people who tried to make it out to be a big mistake. It was a mistake, but we were close."

Strip tease: How dumb do the folks at the Denver Post think their readers are? An indication arose last week in regard to a surprising section of the paper: the comics.

Arguably the most entertaining strip in the Post's cartoon roster is The Boondocks, by Aaron McGruder, which often has strongly political overtones but also manages to skewer pop culture on a regular basis. That was certainly the case on August 14, when two of McGruder's creations, Huey and Caesar, discussed the recent breakup of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. When Caesar wondered how Brit was taking the split, Huey responded, "Last I heard, she was dating five different black men named Muhammad." Boxed beneath this comment were the words "Tomorrow: Lawsuits!"

The next day, the space normally filled by the strip's first sketch was occupied by text labeled "Editor's Note." It read, "The editorial staff of this paper would like to express regret at this feature's tasteless assertion yesterday that Britney Spears is currently dating five black men named Muhammad. Since yesterday, we have received hundreds of calls, mostly from black men named Muhammad, asking if this is true. We assure you it is not. We would like Ms. Spears' legal representation to accept our deepest apologies. Mr. McGruder now understands such reckless and irresponsible humor has absolutely no place in the funny pages. And now, back to the feature." In the next frame, Caesar says, "So she's not dating five black men named Muhammad?," to which Huey replies, "No. But she is dating Al Sharpton."

Hilarious stuff, and obviously a joke, as anyone capable of winning a duel of wits with a department-store mannequin undoubtedly realized. But the powers at the Post were apparently still concerned about confusion, since the paper addressed the matter in its August 15 corrections section with this: "The 'editor's note' in The Boondocks cartoon on page 7F today is not from editors of the Denver Post but rather was written by the cartoon's creator and is intended to be the first of three panels [two, actually] that make up the cartoon strip."

Really? And Christmas presents aren't made at the North Pole and delivered by a jolly elf with a thing for red velvet?

A search of the Nexis database turned up no other examples of newspapers elsewhere in the U.S. sending a similar warning. As for the Post's gesture, it turned out to be unnecessary. A source at the paper says no one called to express confusion over the editor's note in question.

Guess Post readers are pretty smart after all. Either that, or none of them are black men named Muhammad.


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