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Talking Points

Fred Harper

Fortunately for Coloradans, the biggest local story on September 11 and the days immediately thereafter wasn't collapsing buildings or appalling casualty totals. Rather, it was the closure and subsequent reopening of Denver International Airport -- a logistical nightmare that required immediate action here, as well as coordination with facilities across the country and beyond.

In the end, the operation was as successful as could have been hoped, with the airport closing promptly -- DIA representatives think it may have been the first major flight center in the nation to do so -- and stranded passengers eventually getting to where they wanted to go. But now, with the airport functioning on something resembling its regular schedule again and with new security measures in place, many area reporters are complaining about the performance of DIA's media-relations staff amid the crisis. Furthermore, they suggest that tensions exist between the airport office and the press in general that predate the terrorist assaults earlier this month.

Those opinions aren't universally shared. The Denver Post's Jeff Leib, who's written about the airport since the mid-'90s, says he's always found DIA media-relations folks, including deputy manager of aviation, public relations and marketing Amy Bourgeron and director of media relations Chuck Cannon to be accessible and helpful, adding that he had no difficulties with them while reporting about the repercussions of the September 11 events. Likewise, the Rocky Mountain News's Kevin Flynn, who's covered happenings at DIA since before it was built, points out that while getting through to the right person can sometimes be a challenge, the airport's staff handled the crisis "better than I expected."

And Bourgeron and Cannon insist they have no knowledge of either pre-existing troubles or new strains in their dealings with the media.

But other print and electronic journalists (some commenting on the record, a number speaking anonymously) tell a different tale. Several say the DIA press office is now the worst in the city, displacing the media unit at the Denver Police Department, which was under considerable fire last year ("A Failure to Communicate," February 17, 2000) but has since made a noticeable attempt to correct its flaws. "There's been an adversarial relationship from the very beginning," says John Ferrugia, an investigative reporter for Channel 7 who's exposed security lapses at DIA in special segments dating back to 1999. "And there's a huge contrast to the way the apparatus for the press works at the airport compared to everywhere else in the city."

Patrick O'Driscoll, a onetime Post scribe who's spent the past four-plus years as the region's correspondent for USA Today, voiced similar concerns in an e-mail he sent to Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Mayor Wellington Webb, on September 12; Hudson forwarded a copy of it, sans its author's name, to Bourgeron, but O'Driscoll gave Westword permission to quote from the correspondence. In it, O'Driscoll charged that updates to DIA's media telephone line, "to which we're all being referred because no one will answer direct calls (always in 'meetings') are s-l-o-w or non-existent"; in addition, "Simple requests for cooperation to allow working-journalist access to DIA to cover the evacuation Tuesday were met with, 'You're on your own, we can't help you.' Those lucky enough to get to DIA before the roadblocks went up had access. Those who weren't, didn't."

As a result, O'Driscoll was left to cobble together a report based on conversations with displaced passengers at car-rental businesses, "but I'd have had more detail, more color, more action by Denver -- and, by extension, a greater presence in my paper for how DENVER handled yesterday's crisis -- had the PR folks out there had their you-know-what together enough to deal with journalists needing to WITNESS the operation, not just stand out on Peña Boulevard watching cars go by."

In response, Cannon, who remembers talking with O'Driscoll on September 11 about these issues, says his hands were tied by orders from the Federal Aviation Administration to evacuate and, in governmental jargon, "sterilize" the airport. As Cannon puts it, "I have no authority to supersede a federal requirement to close an airport. We were part of a national effort to shut down the national air-traffic system, and we had to follow FAA procedure." Cannon acknowledges that, because the sterilization process began at the most distant concourse, C, and ended with the terminal, reporters who'd gotten inside before barricades were in place wound up with many hours more access to the building and those inside it than most of their peers, but there was no way around it: "Pat wasn't the only one I said 'no' to. Some were lucky enough to get in, and others weren't."

Occasional inequities like this were probably inevitable given the situation, which every reporter interviewed for this column acknowledges was a challenging and chaotic one. But O'Driscoll was still taken aback by the inflexibility of the airport's media strategy, which, he says, may have wound up harming DIA more than it hurt him. "I got my story, but I work for the largest newspaper in the country, and if I'd been able to witness what happened inside the terminal, it certainly would have put Denver in a better light as far as being on top of its game. As it was, Denver didn't get mentioned, pro or con. Maybe that doesn't matter to them, but given the vigorous and proactive approach of the city of Denver's PR operation, I was still surprised how unhelpful things were at the airport on Tuesday."

For the News's Peggy Lowe, Wednesday wasn't much better. She says she started phoning Cannon's office early in the morning, eventually leaving three messages before he called her back at approximately 5:15 p.m.

The cause of this delay could have been prioritization; while not addressing Lowe's case specifically, Cannon concedes that he responded first to broadcast media, because "in a situation like this, we're trying to get information to people as soon as possible. Tomorrow's paper doesn't help us much when we're trying to get the news out today -- and if I give a print reporter an interview at 8:30 in the morning, everything may have changed by the afternoon, and we'll need to do it again." But this approach completely disregards the Internet, to which untold thousands of people turned after the World Trade Center was hit. Because of Cannon's decision, Lowe says, she had to file updates for the News's site several times on Wednesday without being able to include anything fresh from DIA spokesmen. On top of that, she says, Cannon eventually told her, during their 5:15 p.m. exchange, that no flights would be coming into DIA that evening -- but fifteen minutes later, she received an update from Hudson revealing that a couple of cargo flights would indeed be landing then. "So Chuck waits six or seven hours to call me back, and when he does, he gives me wrong information while I'm on deadline."

Lowe also had a tough time getting anything out of Bourgeron when the latter arrived at city hall to brief Mayor Webb and the Denver City Council on the latest developments at DIA. Because Lowe was present, the group quickly decided to transform the large meeting into several smaller sessions ("to get around Colorado's 'sunshine' law," Lowe says), with Bourgeron promising to fill Lowe in afterward. "I basically had to stalk her around city hall to get any comment at all," Lowe says, "and when she finally comes out, an hour and a half later, she wouldn't tell me anything, even about things that were already in AP stories up on all the major Web sites. She was still acting as if this was all supreme secrecy, and if somehow the press knew about it, national security would be at risk." This reticence to part with facts continued the next morning, Lowe says; she found out when the airport was scheduled to reopen not from a DIA representative, but from a police officer at the roadblocks.

Bourgeron, a veteran of two decades in Denver government who's been at her present post for over three years, can't comment on this account, since she wasn't present at the checkpoint at the time. But she defends her office's conservatism when it came to dispensing updates. "One of the obligations we have to our media partners is to make sure, for the sake of their reputations and ours, that we provide the most accurate information possible," she says. "And accuracy is sometimes tough to come by during a crisis. There were even reports that a plane had crashed in Denver -- and that was only one of hundreds of rumors we had to deal with. And our goal was to help the media reach the maximum number of people with information that was as accurate and timely as it could be."

An opportunity to do so came via an invitation from Denise Washington Blomberg, staff producer at Channel 12, to have a DIA spokesperson appear on a special live edition of the public affairs program Colorado Inside Out. But Washington Blomberg, like Lowe, had an awfully hard time getting through. Attempts to reach someone on September 11 ended when an airport operator curtly informed her that the press office wasn't doing any interviews -- a statement that baffles Bourgeron and Cannon, who say they never received Washington Blomberg's messages. (In place of someone from DIA, Washington Blomberg booked Denver manager of safety Ari Zavaras, a likely mayoral candidate who recently secured the public-relations services of C.L. Harmer, widely viewed as among the most effective people on the PR scene.) Washington Blomberg didn't get a call back from DIA on Wednesday either, when she again tried to line up someone from the airport for the regularly scheduled edition of Colorado Inside Out. The following week, Bourgeron did appear on a Channel 12 show, Spontaneous Combustion, a satirical discussion program hosted by Aaron Harber; the episode first aired on September 20. But Washington Blomberg jokes that she personally "is still batting zero at the airport." She adds that, based on twenty years of working in Denver media, "I think DIA's got to be the most insulated government office in the city, and probably in the state."

Technical difficulties involving DIA's fiber-optic lines also plagued TV outlets trying to report live from the airport; Channel 9 news director Patti Dennis confirms that her station had communication problems, and sources say at least two other stations ran up against this obstacle, to the astonishment of all concerned. Eyebrows went skyward as well following the release of a September 11 DIA media advisory stating that no new developments were expected between that evening and the conclusion of a briefing slated for 8:30 the next morning (the briefing was eventually cancelled).

Cannon and Bourgeron say the release wasn't meant to imply that press inquiries would be ignored during this span, but many reporters took it that way, because the DIA office had attempted to restrict late-night phone calls a couple of months before. "We were getting paged during all hours of the night about things that would have been on the media line if there were problems," Cannon maintains. "Like if it started to snow, we'd get calls asking, 'Are there going to be delays?' Well, we had no way of knowing that. And we'd get calls every time the media line said there was an 'amber alert,' which is a precautionary rule; every time a pilot calls the tower to report a problem, there's an amber alert, and the communication center scrambles the fire trucks to the runway. But 99.99 percent of the time, they're not serious problems, and yet we were getting calls about them anyway. So we stopped the pager from even paging between ten at night and six in the morning."

Nonetheless, the guidelines sparked outrage from reporters who didn't think DIA media types had the right to unilaterally decide what was news and what wasn't. A series of meetings at local TV stations followed, and eventually, Cannon says, the press officers agreed to leave the pagers on, "but we asked reporters to page us after hours only in an emergency situation, and we made an effort to put more information on the media line for them. And for the most part, the media has been very cooperative with this new policy. I think it's been beneficial for all of us."

Perhaps -- but Channel 7's Ferrugia feels that bad blood remains. He's been extremely critical of security at DIA and other U.S. airports, and, in a series of investigations, he showed how easy it would be for someone in a wheelchair to sneak weapons onto planes. Ferrugia says Cannon shrugged off the initial reports with the remark, "Could have, would have. This is not a story." The casualness of this dismissal returned to Ferrugia's mind after the terrorist strikes, which he says made him physically ill: "I threw up after watching it." He says he called Bourgeron "to ask if this still wasn't a story, and she was very short with me. She gave the standard boilerplate response -- 'Security is our highest priority' -- and then basically cut me off." According to Ferrugia, this reaction is typical of DIA: After he's exposed problems at other city agencies, he's gotten thanks from officials for bringing faults in need of correction to their attention, "but that's not the way it works at the airport. The attitude you get from them is, 'This is none of your business, and we're not going to talk to you about it.'"

DIA reps seem not to know where such reactions are coming from. Cannon argues that his staff did a great job under difficult circumstances; not only were the attacks unprecedented, but Cannon was on vacation when they started (he wasn't supposed to return until September 13), and airport manager Bruce Baumgartner was in Montreal at an industry conference and didn't even make it back to Denver until the following Sunday. Bourgeron echoes these sentiments: "Every single man and woman that's part of the department of aviation did an incredible job in dealing with this incident, and the media-relations staff showed that they understand their role as the front line to reach people with information, and how it's in support of our overall mission, which is to ensure the safety of those who work at and use DIA."

Bourgeron also has praise for the press, which was feted in a September 15 airport press release: "The entire DIA family would like to thank all members of the media for the tremendous communications effort that has been sustained to reach the public with information. We believe that the overwhelming calm and immeasurable patience of the people who had to endure hours of waiting at DIA is a direct result of your efforts."

Even so, friction remains, and mayoral spokesman Hudson believes the air needs to be cleared. "I think there should perhaps be a debriefing among local press and city and DIA officials, so that we can have a dialogue about the situation that occurred out there," he says.

That would suit USA Today's O'Driscoll just fine. "This was not ground zero for these horrible attacks, but they were acting as if it were," he says. "I'm fearful of what kind of roadblocks are going to be thrown up if something truly horrible actually happens out there at DIA."


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