Hurricane Katrina can't be said to have ushered in a new golden age of journalism, since the lethal weather system struck the Gulf Coast mere weeks ago, and the press's commitment to the story already shows signs of waning. Still, the generally impressive work done by national correspondents has trickled down to local markets, including this one. Post-storm coverage by the Denver media -- even at the television stations -- has been stronger and deeper than anyone could have anticipated. In terms of what was being reported, the news was undeniably grim. From a qualitative standpoint, it was anything but.
The width and breadth of the disaster gave an assist to Denver news organizations. They didn't need to strain to localize events tangentially connected to this area, since more than 1,000 evacuees were transported here, and numerous law-enforcement and military groups traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi to aid in assorted operations. Katrina also spawned newsworthy variations on animal stories (one of local TV's most noxious staples), as more than a hundred displaced pets wound up in area shelters. For once, close-ups of furry muzzles and big brown eyes justified their screen time.
Granted, some of the coverage was overdone or intellectually slack. At times it seemed as if each refugee at the former Lowry Air Force Base was assigned his or her own personal reporter, and words like "recovery" and "healing" tended to be used too cavalierly given Katrina's long-term repercussions. In addition, the feel-good nature of most Lowry stories largely swept aside rumblings of bureaucratic confusion. Yet such pieces were balanced by more explorations of vital race and class issues than have appeared on Denver airwaves in recent memory -- a totally unanticipated bonus.
Of the local reporters in the hurricane zone, the Denver Post's Elizabeth Aguilera and the Rocky Mountain News's David Montero did solid work, and Channel 4's Jodi Brooks, who helmed a series of consistently evocative reports, deserves particular praise. So do the managers at all the major Denver stations, for shortening weather and sports segments and cutting down on gab to accommodate more Katrina-oriented fare. By dispensing with the sort of puff and promotion that take up far too large a portion of most newscasts, they demonstrated how worthwhile their programs could be if news value was allowed to rule on a regular basis.
That's unlikely to happen, of course. By September 13, Channel 7 had found room in its 10 p.m. newscast for talking heads Mike Landess, Anne Trujillo and Lionel Bienvenu to cackle about a clip showing Jack Russell terriers running hurdles -- and no, the pooches didn't look as if they'd just been plucked from Lake Pontchartrain. Two days later, during the September 15 edition of Channel 4's morning show, footage of Brooks rescuing a Denver evacuee's wedding ring from her mold-slathered Louisiana house was followed by a shot of an elephant on a treadmill.
Journalism's briefest golden age is receding like water from the Big Easy -- but it was nice while it lasted.
The window closes: In a June e-mail, consumer advocate and walking conflict of interest Tom Martino declared that he wouldn't communicate with me again because I have an "automatic bias" against him. So imagine my shock when he recently e-mailed to inform me that dueling lawsuits pitting consumer Eric Beteille against K&H Windows had been resolved in the company's favor. Beteille has been ordered to pay for windows he says never worked, plus interest, lawyer fees and court costs amounting to an estimated $80,000. This sum wouldn't overwhelm Martino, who testified that he's paid $70,000 for endorsing (you guessed it) K&H Windows, but Beteille isn't so fortunate. In his own e-mail, he writes, "I am financially ruined."
Although Martino didn't gloat (much) in his missive to yours truly, he couldn't resist doing so in an e-mail he sent to Beteille after the latter reached out to a representative of Troubleshooter.com, Martino's for-profit Internet business. "You ask what I can do to help," Martino wrote. "The answer is nothing. That is because you are wrong. You see, there are times consumers are wrong. There are times businesses are wrong. My job has always been to try to work out solutions and when that is impossible to expose the wrong-doer. In this case, in my opinion, you are the wrong-doer." Martino concluded, "I often run across consumers trying to take advantage of businesses. That is what I believe you were trying to do. Thank goodness, in America we have justice. That is 'Life.'"
For Beteille, the life lesson he received has been painful and prolonged. According to him, he ordered eight windows from K&H in 2003, but after three installations or repairs, one of them wouldn't open and two wouldn't shut. He only paid $2,000 of the $6,400 the windows cost, under the theory that the outstanding charge would motivate K&H to put things right. Instead, company reps said they could do additional fix-ups under warranty only if the remaining debt was paid in full. Attempts by Troubleshooter.com employees to mediate the dispute were unsuccessful, as was a similar effort by Better Business Bureau representatives. Eventually, litigation ensued, and before and during a Denver County Court proceeding that dribbled out over five months, Beteille poured his frustration into a series of blogs in which he repeatedly battered K&H and Martino. The public nature of his vitriol didn't endear him to Judge Melvin Okamoto, who oversaw the trial. According to Beteille, "I was questioned on the witness stand for hours -- not just on my postings about my feelings about K&H and Martino, but about other random unidentified comments left on my blog. Judge Okamoto said my blogs showed I did not have 'clean hands' in dealing with K&H." He adds, "Judge Okamoto is no friend of free speech. Denver bloggers, beware."
Likewise, average folks should realize that going into court against adversaries with infinitely deeper pockets is an enormous gamble. Had Beteille paid the $4,400 he initially owed, he would have been in a much-improved legal position if K&H had subsequently failed to make the windows function. Instead he stuck to his guns, and they backfired in a big way. "I may have to declare bankruptcy," he allows. "I may have to surrender my home to the mortgage company."
He has no intention of relinquishing his loathing for the Troubleshooter, however. "It's quite telling that Tom Martino would like to rub my face in it, especially in light of his admission about K&H Windows' five-figure payments to him," Beteille maintains. "Tom's not much of a consumer advocate when it comes to my case." In his view, "Calling K&H Windows was the second biggest financial mistake of my life. Trusting Tom Martino was the first."
Dis connection: Like Beteille, Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple is an active blogger whose online musings, accessible via the paper's website, have sometimes had unanticipated consequences. That was certainly true of his September 7 offering, "Former Rocky Writer Winning Accolades." In it, Temple lauded J.R. Moehringer, author of a much-hyped memoir titled The Tender Bar, who worked at the Rocky from 1990 to 1994. "He gave pleasure to many readers with his storytelling skills and was a pleasure to work with," Temple enthused.
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Typical, right? Yet Temple's eagerness to bask in Moehringer's glow received harsh censure from a gaggle of commentators who implied that they'd once been on the Rocky payroll. "John, this entry on your blog makes me want to throw up," wrote a person identified as Former Reporter. "Perhaps you don't remember how rude you were to J.R. when he was leaving, or how you were so stupid that you wouldn't hire him back when he sought to return to Denver. For you to jump on the J.R. bandwagon now or claim any credit for his success is just disgusting." GW Lawrence remarked, "Funny how the editor has to ride the coattails of a reporter," while Call Me Dave chimed in with, "How many of your current and former employees detest you? Shouldn't that be a wake-up call for your conscience?"
When interpreting these slams, remember that sour grapes grow wild on the web. Even so, here's an anecdote worth considering. At his Tattered Cover book signing on September 14, Moehringer offered kudos to a gaggle of Rocky colleagues, Marty Meitus and Joe Rassenfoss among them, but neglected to salute Temple.