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The Message

Mark Poutenis

In today's version of television news, graphics are slowly but steadily eating the screen. Broadcasts without at least an update ticker running along the image's base have grown exceedingly rare, and plenty of programs feature additional flotsam: time, temp, logos, American flags, the current terrorism-danger color scheme, and assorted banners trumpeting upcoming events in a style that suggests Doc Severinsen on crystal meth. During one recent evening, viewers who stopped by the Fox News channel saw a bold red banner with white letters that screamed about a "FOX NEWS ALERT." Turned out a press conference in relation to a fatal nightclub fire in Rhode Island a day or so earlier would be taking place about ten minutes hence -- interesting, but far from earth-shattering when put in the context of this post-9/11 age.

On a local level, the situation isn't quite as extreme. But graphics are a growing part of every Denver newscast, especially as concerns what's regularly labeled as "breaking news" -- a term that's lately been the subject of contention in commercials for two of the market's most prominent stations. Channel 4 has spent months airing spots identifying itself as the area's one-stop shopping place for breaking news. More recently, Channel 9 countered with ads noting that 9News doesn't label items as breaking news when they're not.

Television insiders immediately interpreted this promo as a blow aimed at Channel 4's midsection, with many wondering why Channel 9 would bother taking such an obvious swing at a less-popular crosstown rival. One reason might be the narrowing news-ratings gap separating the stations, while another motivator could be the possibility that Channel 9 anchor Jim Benemann is considering a jump to Channel 4, as reported in the February 27 Rocky Mountain News. Setting these prospects aside, the questions raised by Channel 9's promo are intriguing in and of themselves. To wit: What's the definition of "breaking news"? And are some stations pretending that lesser stories deserve breaking-news status in a self-aggrandizing effort to spice up their broadcasts?

The news directors at the five local stations that cover events of the day -- channels 2, 4, 7, 9 and 31 -- all say they're careful not to mislabel reports, whether they touch upon breaking news or not. Typical are the remarks of Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy: "When people see the words 'breaking news,' their expectation is that there's something major about this story and that it must be happening right now. I think if you begin to push the boundaries of that, you're not doing your viewers any service at all. The key is to be honest."

Pinning down the meaning of "breaking news" is considerably more difficult. Notes Patti Dennis, news director for Channel 9, "That's pretty subjective. What's important to one segment of the audience might not be important to another."

True, but graphics don't lend themselves to ambiguity; they're meant to simply tell folks what's coming next. In the case of Channel 4, nearly every feature of the average newscast is introduced by visuals -- not just weather and sports, but investigative pieces, traffic updates and breaking news, which is central to the persona the station has worked hard to establish.

The man behind this makeover is Walt DeHaven, who was named Channel 4's vice president and general manager last August. In previously unpublished comments from an interview conducted for a column that ran the following month ("Not Kinder, Not Gentler," September 19, 2002), DeHaven made it clear that breaking news was extremely important to him and shared his opinion that Channel 4 delivered it "better than anyone else here." He also acknowledged that at the time of his arrival, these words were being slapped on quite a high percentage of stories.

"From a promotional standpoint, there's a lot of breaking news," he said. "What I wanted to make sure of is that it meant something, and it does mean something. I think if anything, you'll see a little less of that jumping out at you -- 'Breaking news! Breaking news!' But you'll see a lot more of us doing breaking news.

"We want to be first on and, if it merits, last off," DeHaven added. "We want to be the most comprehensive, we want to be the most thoughtful. You've seen IDs saying that's what we are, and I'm not opposed to that. I'm against it being exploitive -- but if we stand behind that, I don't think it is. We know people will respond to us if we do it in a respectful fashion."

Channel 4's news director, Angie Kucharski, doesn't construe these marching orders as permission to tag everything as breaking news -- but neither does she shy away from employing the phrase if, in her view, such a step is justified. "We want to make sure that we are very direct in telling people that this is a developing story or a new development in a story we've been reporting," she says. "That's why you see, for the sake of a better word, the labeling of breaking news."

Kucharski insists that the vigorous promotion of Channel 4 as the breaking-news leader, which has expanded exponentially since DeHaven's arrival, places no pressure on her to make sure newscasts include something dubbed breaking news as often as possible. "I can't speak for the other news organizations in town," she says, "but whether it's coverage of the search for an avalanche victim or breaking information about a storm that's coming in, we know what 'breaking news' means for us. And more importantly, we believe our viewers are able to understand and identify that with us."

For stations like channels 2 and 31, which produce far fewer hours of local news programming per day than do channels 4, 7 and 9, other considerations come into play as well -- chiefly, whether an incident that takes place outside of a newscast is important enough to require temporary preemption of other programming. Bill Dallman, Channel 31's news director, concedes that he has different criteria depending upon whether something has happened during a newscast or not.

"If we break into non-news programming, it's because there's something of relevance that people need to know right away," Dallman says. "But when it comes to our nine-to-ten news, we try to keep it as fluid as possible and try to keep on top of anything that's developing. People have tuned in to watch news, and to me, news is what's occurring at that time. That's a different structure than breaking into entertainment or other programming."

Matters get even more complicated when what's clearly breaking news lingers, as it did on January 24 after two planes smacked into each other and fell to earth in northwest Denver. All five area news stations went live with coverage as soon as possible and stuck with it for varying lengths of time, leaving open to question the moment at which the story went from "breaking" to "developing."

According to Channel 2 news director Tom Sides, whose station reported live from the scene between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m., then regrouped for half an hour prior to the 9 p.m. newscast, "It took a while to understand exactly what was happening and what the impact was. So could it continue to be labeled as 'breaking'? Certainly up to a point. There were still things that were being discovered. Could it also have been labeled in some other way? I suppose so. But regardless of the labeling, it didn't change the fact that we were consistently trying to summarize the story and what we knew throughout the evening. And at no point later in the evening did we ever pretend that the planes had just crashed."

In other words, for every claim that something's not breaking news, there's a supportable counter-argument that it is. That's one of the reasons the Channel 9 promo caught observers like Channel 7's Grandy off guard. "It was a strange one," he says. "We don't get into that sort of station fighting, so to speak -- they do this, or they don't do that. We're focused on what we have to do, not the work everyone else has to do."

Still, Channel 9's Dennis believes some restraint in regard to the breaking-news stamp would be good for everyone. "From my perspective, there are a lot of things in the TV industry that can be overused, and they're undervalued because of it," she says. "And I think that's one of them."

Moving days: The cover of the February 25 Denver Post was more interesting near the bottom than at the top, thanks to a pair of unexpected items. The first was a photo of Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic, who was returning to the ice after a fifteen-game absence. To the right of Sakic's image was a blurb teasing a hockey story, but to the left, in a spot that seemed to correspond to the snapshot, was the line "Avalanche kills noted architect Curt Dale." No wonder Sakic had been out of the lineup.

Adjacent to the Sakic "exposé" was a piece headlined "To Our Readers" and credited to Post editor Greg Moore. In it, Moore noted that page two of the paper, which had for years included celebrity-news snippets and gossip columns by Bill Husted and Dick Kreck, would from that point forward "be devoted to important world and national stories, and...to a roundup of news briefs from around the globe." As a result, Husted, Kreck and the celebrity morsels were being transplanted to the second page of the Scene section, near the rear of the paper -- "a more logical home," Moore wrote.

On the surface, the shift would seem to be a de facto demotion of Husted and Kreck, two of the Post's biggest names, but Moore disputes this characterization. "I just think that people news and celebrity news belongs in the living-arts sections of newspapers, which is where it's generally found," he says. Because the Scene has earlier deadlines than the front portion of the paper, some gossip might not be as fresh as it previously was. "It's going to put a little more pressure on them," Moore acknowledges. "But these guys are pros, and good gossip, particularly in Husted's case, is predicated on having information exclusively. And if something's really hot, we'll make room for it in the regular news pages." For these reasons, Moore doubts that the profiles of Husted and Kreck will sink: "People follow stars, and once they know where they are, I don't think it'll have any effect."

Other changes are in the offing from a design perspective, but not all at once. In an interview last year ("Moore Than Before," August 8, 2002), Moore predicted that alterations would be rolled out early this year in a manner similar to that employed by the Rocky Mountain News in 2002. Now, however, Moore says the new look will be "more of an organic process that'll happen over time. We're looking at everything: body type, cutlines, how we do identifiers under thumbnail photos. So it'll be a gradual, evolving thing presented in proportion so people can absorb it."

The same approach was applied to the search for new columnists to replace the departed Chuck Green and Tina Griego. And after several months, Moore announced to staffers last week that he'd hired the first of what will be two scribes: Jim Spencer, currently a columnist with the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia. As another East Coaster among many brought in by Moore -- a concern recently raised by ex-Poster Ron Franscell in these pages ("Makeup!," February 20) -- Spencer has little personal knowledge of Denver, albeit several connections to the local media. When he toiled at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in his early days, Spencer was a colleague of late News columnist John Coit and current News opinion font Mike Littwin, with whom he's still buddies.

Spencer also shares many aspects of Littwin's ideology, joking that "between the two of us, I'll be the second-most liberal moron in town." Such beliefs will certainly bring him into conflict with conservatives who gripe that the Post already slants too far to the left. Even so, he's eager to do original reporting rather than just "contemplating my navel," and views the job at the Post as a big-league opportunity. He took the gig in Newport News in 1988 after a stint at the Chicago Tribune in order to raise his family in his home state. Now that his sons are grown, though, he wanted "one more shot at playing in 'the Show,' as they say in Bull Durham."

Although Spencer arrives at the Post on March 24, the date for his debut column has not been set. Nonetheless, he's already written about one hot local topic. "Rape Is a Crime, No Matter What," his February 18 offering for the Daily Press, concerned the growing scandal at the Air Force Academy, and in it, he quoted from a damning e-mail written by General Silvanus "Taco" Gilbert that had been sent to Westword reporter Julie Jargon for her article on the subject, January 30's "The War Within." Spencer explains that he saw the e-mail excerpted in an Associated Press story, which neglected to credit Westword and wrongly implied that the e-mail was a public document. As such, he apologized for innocently failing to attribute its source.

Maybe this guy will work out after all.

Beat the press: Last week, the Denver Press Club was the scene of a farewell to Andrew Hudson, departing press secretary for Mayor Wellington Webb. As part of the festivities, several media types, including yours truly, contributed to a satirical proclamation of the sort Hudson penned on what seemed like a daily basis. (My line was: "Whereas Hudson has been able to remain friendly with reporters even though most journalists regard press secretaries to rank just below pimps on the scale of most admired professions...") Organizers hoped Webb would sign this document, but he declined to do so, purportedly because it contained the expression "blowhard," which -- I'm not making this up -- he thought was obscene. Then again, if more politicians thought "blowhard" was a dirty word, the world might be a better place.

Attendees of the bash, which benefited the Press Club, describe the affair as quite cozy, and that bothered an anonymous letter writer to Westword, who questioned the ethics of reporters overseeing a soiree for Hudson, who's now the senior manager of public affairs for the American Water Works Association. "If they are friendly enough with him to host a party, could they have been covering him very well and very fairly?" asked the correspondent, who felt that the non-business-related e-mails Hudson sometimes sent out on city time were only one of the topics that hadn't received enough scrutiny.

Hudson dismisses such complaints: "I've got a lot of friends in the media -- friends I've screamed at, friends that have screamed at me, friends that I've shared a shot and a beer with after work after we've screamed at each other. But I've never crossed the line of asking something of a reporter because they were a friend."

As for his e-mail list, Hudson points out that only a small percentage of the oodles of messages he sent out weekly didn't directly pertain to city business -- like, for instance, one in which he sought a home for a dog being cared for by Rocky Mountain News reporter Lynn Bartels. Yet this was actually a non-partisan act, since the dog was named Reagan and had previously belonged to a campaign staffer for Republican senator Wayne Allard. "I didn't put that in the e-mail," Bartels says, "because I wanted someone to adopt it."

Still, Bartels doesn't brush aside questions about Hudson's effectiveness. "To be truthful, Andrew's good relationship with a lot of reporters probably did prevent some bad stories about the mayor -- but isn't that a good press person's role?"

Hammered: A few years back, Sam Hammer (born Dean Edward Letschka) was the most amusing traffic reporter on Denver radio. But on February 27, he was arrested here and charged with a very unfunny offense -- attempting to produce child pornography by requesting explicit Polaroids from what he thought was a fourteen-year-old girl. Over a three-month period, Hammer allegedly sent what was actually a postal inspector scads of lewd e-mails, not to mention a copy of a Westword profile ("Hammer Time," October 7, 1999) penned by yours truly. At one point in that article, Hammer, 49, was quoted as saying, "I don't tell anyone how old I am. I'm dating too many young girls."

Regarding Hammer's apparent use of the column, it's important to realize that The Message is not part of Westword's romance or personals sections, which make every effort to ensure that those listed are of legal age. In addition, future column subjects should know that being quizzed by me won't automatically lead to your incarceration, but neither will it prevent you from being busted for unrelated matters -- so act accordingly. I don't want to start every interview from now on with a morals survey.