There's no denying that Michael Andre was a public figure. As a defense attorney, he represented numerous well-known individuals over the years, including Koleen Brooks, the former stripper who once served as mayor of Georgetown, and Willie Clark, a so-called person of interest in the slaying of Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams. So when police surrounded a Cherry Creek townhouse early on February 23 amid reports that a man inside was suicidal, it didn't take long for reporters to learn that Andre owned the property. However, Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson says he asked news organizations not to use Andre's name until much later in the day, after officers burst into the building and discovered the lawyer's body.
Most outlets complied, including Channel 4 and the Rocky Mountain News -- and Channel 9, which initially identified Andre on its website and in news crawls that ran across the bottom of TV screens during its broadcasts, but subsequently yanked those references until police gave the go-ahead. But the Denver Post, 9News's print partner, listed Andre as the townhome's owner in an online article that was accessible throughout the standoff, stirring the ire of many readers who commented on the paper's website. Their unhappiness was shared by Denver resident Rick Peart, whose note to the Post's newsroom declared, "The Denver Post is an absolute joke and a disgrace to humanity."
Chuck Murphy, the Post's assistant managing editor/local news, responded to Peart's e-mail and says he sympathizes with him. Nevertheless, he defends the broadsheet's choice. "We didn't take it lightly," he emphasizes. "But in my mind, we provide people with information -- and that's what we did."
Naming victims in the media
Adds Post editor Greg Moore, "If we thought publicity in a very sensitive situation would have had an adverse effect, we wouldn't have done it. But in this case, we didn't feel that way."
Police spokesman Jackson says his sensitivity to the naming question was raised by a scenario sketched out by Bob Steele, an ethics expert at Florida's Poynter Institute. "He cited a case where a TV reporter did a play-by-play outside a hostage situation using the name, and the person inside saw it and killed his family," Jackson recalls. The Andre events can't be directly equated to this example, he concedes, "but you never know what's going to push a person over the edge. So from our standpoint, we wanted to err on the side of caution."
This philosophy swayed Patti Dennis, Channel 9's news director. Her station reported that Andre was at the center of the Cherry Creek drama just over an hour after police responded to the scene, but she ordered a pull-back after speaking with Jackson. "They felt our naming him might put him in more jeopardy, so we didn't broadcast his name until the six o'clock news," Dennis says. "Our responsibility is to report what we know -- but we also use other criteria to decide if reporting everything we know at a given time is in the best interest of everyone involved."
As for Murphy, he says that while Post types knew the DPD wasn't releasing Andre's name and understood why the cops preferred it not to be circulated, they weren't specifically asked by Jackson or any other department representative to remove the moniker from the website. Moreover, Murphy believes the Post was extremely responsible in its phrasing (at first Andre was described only as the townhome's owner) and in its consideration of stakeholders such as neighbors, whose access to the area was restricted, and taxpayers who'll pick up the tab for the all-day presence of an estimated fifty-plus police officers.
Andre's prominence was a factor, too, Murphy acknowledges: "One of the things that flashed through my mind was the ludicrous scenario of helicopters following a white Bronco down the 405 and reporters having to say 'Police have declined to release the name of the Bronco's owner' instead of saying 'The Bronco is owned by O.J. Simpson.'"
Reader Peart doesn't buy this rationale. In an e-mail, he writes, "Mr. Murphy will never know whether he played a role in the successfully carried out suicide. But I, for one, am glad I don't have to live with that kind of guilt."
Murphy, though, isn't second-guessing himself, despite the tragic end to Andre's story. "Nothing in the business is ever a slam dunk, and we always know there'll be somebody out there who has an opposing viewpoint -- maybe objective, maybe subjective," he says. "But in this case, I think I ran through what Bob Steele would call a sound, ethical decision-making process."
Towering dilemma: Judging by media reports, the long-running dispute over a proposed digital-television tower on Jefferson County's Lookout Mountain ended in December, after President George W. Bush signed a law permitting its construction; the original bill, sponsored by Colorado senators Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar, was ramrodded through Congress during the lame-duck portion of the last term. But this may have been wishful thinking on the part of local TV stations affiliated with the Lake Cedar Group, the consortium pushing the tower, and the Denver dailies, each of which partners with a Lake Cedar outlet (the aforementioned 4 and 9). The past two months have been marked by a contentious hearing and multiple court filings, and a March 12 meeting of Jeffco's board of commissioners that's supposed to settle things once and for all probably won't do the job.
Previous Jeffco commissioners approved the project in 2003 and 2004. But in May 2006, District Judge Brooke Jackson ruled in support of zoning-related gripes from the city of Golden and Canyon Area Residents for the Environment, better known as CARE, placing a stay on construction and sending the controversy back to the board. Then, in February, Lake Cedar, which had already begun work on the site, presented a settlement offer to the county intended to clear the last bureaucratic obstacles. But rather than accept the 2003 deal, which called for broadcasters to take down three older towers, among other provisions, Lake Cedar refused to abide by the agreement until every lawsuit against it is dropped or tossed -- and considering how invested CARE is in the fight, that might not happen for years. As a result, Jeffco commissioners Jim Congrove, Kathy Hartman and Kevin McCasky unanimously rejected Lake Cedar's pitch.
Although Congrove, who's currently in hot water after hiring a private detective to investigate Jeffco critic Mike Zinna, didn't reply to an interview request, Hartman and McCasky weighed in. Hartman, in particular, has problems with the Allard-Salazar law, which she feel usurps local control, yet she doesn't want to spend scarce county resources on a potentially futile court battle. Still, both she and McCasky think the act's language is much too broad and needs to be revised to prevent abuses. "The way it reads, anyone with an FCC license for digital broadcast appears to be able to buy any property on Lookout Mountain and put up a tower," Hartman says. "And it's a big mountain." Golden City Manager Mike Bestor, who dislikes the law (but rejects a costly court challenge), calls this "the pin-cushion theory," and it's being put to the test by the folks at Channel 2, a non-Lake Cedar station that's asserting in court that the Allard-Salazar law also applies to them. CARE attorney Deb Carney says her group is preparing paperwork to counter this claim.
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In the meantime, a zoning appeal -- the same one that spurred the March 12 hearing -- continues to linger in Jefferson County court. According to Assistant County Attorney Eric Butler, Lake Cedar filed a motion to dismiss it, "and we responded by taking the position that the federal legislation does not completely preempt the county's zoning authority." Golden and CARE have objected to Lake Cedar's dismissal plea as well.
With all this going on, what's supposed to happen on March 12? Predictably, no one knows for sure. CARE's Carney says all anti-tower arguments are on the table; in contrast, Lake Cedar spokesman Marv Rockford suggests that only a potential tower fall can be debated. But no matter which conversations are allowed and what the commissioners ultimately decree, Rockford insists that nothing will stop tower construction from going forward. "As far as we're concerned, this is all over," he says.
Locals have heard that before. Media outlets disagree about naming a suicidal attorney before police released his name. Did the public have a right to know?