The Man Who Wasn't There
Bill Johnson had a hard act to follow.
A former staffer with Southern California's Orange County Register, Johnson was hired as a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News in August 1996, mere months after his predecessor, the widely revered Greg Lopez, was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Since then, by most observers' reckoning, his writing has seldom reached Lopez-ian heights, and to make matters worse, he inspired a series of non-column headlines for some rather unpleasant reasons -- specifically, he was accused of third-degree assault and negligent child abuse in Boulder County following a December 1997 incident involving his ex-wife, Carol Shirley. (He was acquitted of the charges in November 1998.) So it was likely with a palpable sense of surprise that News subscribers experienced "The Children Nobody Wanted," Johnson's 9,000-plus word Thanksgiving epic about the poignant reunion of four siblings who'd been featured on the News's cover back in 1963. The article was unnecessarily melodramatic at times, and sometimes overwritten, yet in the end it was intriguing and undeniably moving. In addition, it required some real digging, not just a conversation or two and a bit of imagination.
Was this a sign of better, more energetically reported Johnson pieces to come? Perhaps -- but before anyone starts comparing him to Mike Royko, lend an eye to his December 1 column, "The Policeman's Job Reconsidered." In it, Johnson wrote about a conversation with an unnamed Denver detective who chided him for offering negative opinions about the police. When Johnson countered that he only criticized crummy officers, not good ones, the detective apologized for the bad apples but insisted that such items lead many members of the public to think poorly of even the worthiest boys and girls in blue. The detective then forwarded to Johnson "The Lousy Cop," an essay attributed to "Trooper Mitchell Brown of the Virginia State Police" that attempted to make the average person revise his assumptions about the police with assertions such as "You have no use for me at all. But, of course, it's OK if I change a flat for your wife, deliver your child in the back of the patrol car or, perhaps, save your son's life with mouth-to-mouth breathing, or work many hours overtime looking for your lost daughter." It concludes, "So, Mr. Citizen, you can stand there on your soapbox and rant and rave about the way I do my work, calling me every name. But you never stop to think that your property, family or maybe even your life depends on me or one of my buddies. Yes, Mr. Citizen, it's me. The Lousy Cop."
Afterward, Johnson delivered his verdict on the submission: "Yes it is, I think, a dandy piece of prose. Quite haunting, too. In this way: Trooper Mitchell Brown was killed in the line of duty two months after he wrote it."
Or was he? A reader of the column was suspicious about the origins of "The Lousy Cop" and decided to do some checking. To that end, he contacted the Virginia State Police, and learned that the organization had no knowledge of the essay's purported author. Karen Scales, the Virginia State Police's director of public affairs, said the same to Westword: "We've never had a Mitchell Brown work for us, and no Mitchell Brown has been killed in the line of duty as a Virginia state trooper."
A little Web surfing turned up copies of "The Lousy Cop" on numerous law-enforcement-oriented computer sites, contributing to the mystery of its creation. Such documents have become a part of Internet culture, and they're often either misattributed or outright shams: A 1997 column by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, which eventually served as the basis of Baz Luhrman's quirky 1999 hit single "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," was falsely reported to be a commencement address delivered by Kurt Vonnegut, and a bogus note attributed to Columbine High School gunman Eric Harris wound up getting prominent play in the News before being revealed as fiction (see The Message, August 19). But when the reader who'd discovered that no Mitchell Brown had served as a Virginia trooper e-mailed Johnson with this information, Johnson's e-mail reply showed that he hadn't bothered to investigate the veracity of "The Lousy Cop" before putting it in the News -- and that he didn't view the possibility of it's being a phony as all that problematic. "Indeed, I will call the Virginia patrol," Johnson wrote. "Yet whether it is an Internet hoax, whether the Virginia officer exists or not, is, in my view, irrelevant."
In a conversation with Westword on December 2, Johnson didn't back away from this jaw-dropping assertion: "I don't think that was the point. The point of the column is that the essay spoke to [the Denver detective], and it spoke to me." He amended that view slightly in regard to his claim that virtual Trooper Brown's "death" two months after penning "The Lousy Cop" gave it a "haunting" quality: "That part makes a difference. But what's most important is that what's written makes you stop and think."
Johnson said that he would address the Mitchell Brown matter in his December 5 column, but for whatever reason (perhaps all those phone calls to Virginia), he did so on December 3, in an effort titled "Fictitious Trooper's Message Remains." During the first paragraph, Johnson confirmed his gaffe -- "There is no Trooper Mitchell Brown of the Virginia State Police. I never checked to see if there was one" -- albeit without mentioning the date of his previous column. He also engaged in some spin-doctoring, writing, "At the time, I didn't believe it mattered," as if he'd mulled over looking into the trooper's background but eventually decided against it, adding, "But he doesn't exist and, therefore, couldn't have died two weeks after he wrote 'The Lousy Cop.' [As noted above, the original column had Brown dying two months after completing his masterwork.] So I gotta eat a little crow."
But rather than leaving it at that, Johnson attempted to blunt any criticism of his methods by talking about the tremendous positive response the column had received, quoting at length from a letter sent by Sgt. Victor Ross of the Glendale Police Department. Yet he never stopped to ponder whether such compliments might have been tempered had the readers known the real details, and his flippant final line ("And you know, crow -- once you get past the feathers -- isn't really such a bad dish") strongly suggested that the question didn't trouble him in the slightest.
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The arts and entertainment output of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post is weighed -- almost literally -- as part of Reporting the Arts: News Coverage of Arts and Culture in America, a just-released ten-city study conducted under the auspices of the National Arts Journalism Program at New York's Columbia University. Rather than critiquing the quality (or lack thereof) of these sections' component parts, the researchers, overseen in large part by project co-director András Szántó, concentrated on cataloguing it, counting the column inches devoted to these topics whether in the form of reviews, articles or listings and then trying to put it in an overall context. Locals will find numerous flaws in the data, some of which are mighty sizable. For example, the Denver gay publication Out Front is identified as Up Front (sounds like a porno mag for dudes into big busts), and a parenthetical mention of Westword argues that this publication "once boasted a wide readership throughout the metropolitan region [but] that changed when the paper was acquired by the New Times chain" -- a description that has no connection to reality. (When it was purchased by New Times in 1983, Westword was a biweekly with a circulation of 35,000; today it's a weekly with a circulation of 110,000.)
A few of the findings about the News and the Post are on the suspect side, too: The News is said to give "hardly any coverage at all" to classical music, when in fact classical/dance specialist Marc Shulgold is generally kept quite busy. But many of the study's conclusions are fairly intriguing. Arts coverage in the News is said to "take up a small share of the paper's pagination," with most of that total coming in the Friday and Sunday "Spotlight" sections. Staffing in this department is described as "very lean," and arts and entertainment editor Mike Pearson admits that much of it has an emphatically populist slant: "If the Rolling Stones are in the arena vs. 700 people at a classical concert," he allows, "then I'll cover the Stones." As for the Post, it devotes "a meager share of its space to arts coverage," with listings on the weekend consisting of between 49 and 75 percent of the available space -- "which is the highest among the [fifteen] reviewed papers." The working environment is also criticized by an anonymous former Post critic, who says, "The arts were pushed deeper and deeper into the paper and reduced in length to twelve inches. The paper wants to be liked and thus seeks out what they think is popular and basks in the glow of the coverage. The idea is to trumpet things about which writers have no particular knowledge."
In contrast with this slap, co-director Szántó makes it clear that he has a great deal of respect for the vast majority of reporters, critics and editors covering arts for the News and the Post, all of whom he feels are working hard under difficult circumstances created by the battle between the papers -- the closest, most hard-fought scrap of its kind in the nation. "You have two strong organizations that have dug in and are trying not to let the other beat them at anything," he says. "So readers in Denver benefit from having two newspapers doing their absolute best to capture readers in all areas of coverage. But there are also indications that at times their efforts are more focused on the competition than on generating the deepest possible coverage in every area." The Portland Oregonian wins praise from Szántó for the latter characteristic: "It does an exemplary job with a weekend section that surpasses the efforts of many much larger papers. That shows that, if you want to, you can do better." Still, he feels that neither Denver daily is in a position to follow suit. According to him, "Denver is unique, and perhaps the freedom to make those kinds of decisions isn't so great, because all the resources are stretched to the max. It's a warfare situation."
See? War is hell.
In "Show & Sell," our November 25 analysis of Denver's late newscasts, Channel 9 was identified as the longtime ratings leader in this market, and its sweeps month ratings performance confirmed its supremacy: The station was number one in every weekday time slot with the exception of the 4-to-5 p.m. block, when it was bested not by a news competitor, but by Oprah Winfrey.
Why does 9 rule? Among the reasons are its flashy, graphics-heavy weather reports and management's ability to get the maximum mileage out of this portion of the program. An example of the latter is The Colorado Weather Book, credited to "Mike Nelson and the 9News Weather Team." The tome is an elaborate soft-cover presentation filled with illustrations aplenty and a slew of colorful photographs by the likes of John Fielder, whose participation in Channel 4's current "Colorado Millennium 2000" project means that he's probably the only local media figure in a business relationship with two rival Denver stations simultaneously. And that's not all: There are also entries about the century's biggest storms, instructions showing how to do weatherman Nelson's "tornado dance," and daytime weather dude Ed Greene's "favorite weather trivia questions." The resulting edition, which is being hyped by slick ads, demonstrates why Channel 9 is still kicking the cabooses of its competitors.
Still, the science spotlighted in The Colorado Weather Book is not nearly as precise as is implied in Channel 9's latest weather commercial, in which the outlet's forecasting team makes it snow only over the home of a little boy wishing for a white Christmas. Like his peers, Channel 9's Nelson seldom hedges his bets with phrases such as, "We predict..." or "Our best guess is...," so when the couple of inches of snow he told viewers of the 10 p.m. December 1 newscast to expect upon waking never arrived, he was left with some explaining to do. During the 5 p.m. broadcast on December 2 (the day before a sizable storm actually hit the area), he stepped up to the plate, more or less, by jokingly telling anchor Adele Arakawa that he'd done the folks who'd gotten up early for no reason a favor by ensuring that they got to work on time and giving them an extra few minutes to read the paper or play with their kids.
Betcha can picture the marketing campaign now: "Better weather through inaccuracy."
Talk about selective memory: Shortly after the April 20 shootings at Columbine High School, TV newscasts, newspapers and magazines were filled with stories about how athlete worship at the school had alienated a significant number of teens there, including, most infamously, killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. But during the playoff run of Columbine's football squad, the issue was all but forgotten. With the notable exception of "Columbine: Cheers and Echoes: Football's triumphs evoke darker issues," an intelligent and well-balanced article by reporters Peggy Lowe and Evan Dreyer that ran on the December 3 cover of the Denver Post, the vast majority of mainstream-media pieces have been one-dimensional tales implying that the team's success had united the entire student body in a glow of accomplishment and pure joy -- goths and other outsiders presumably included. The situation was only exacerbated on December 4, when Columbine won the state 5A football championship. For instance, Katie Couric's interview with winning coach Andy Lowry on the December 6 Today show focused almost entirely on the notion that the kids -- all the kids -- finally have something to celebrate. In other words, jockocracy rules, and anyone who doesn't like it (or doesn't care) should quit moping and start shaking some pom-poms. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.
Get the Weekly Newsletter