Author and activist Ernesto Vigil is skeptical of the 
    Rocky's minority outreach.
Author and activist Ernesto Vigil is skeptical of the Rocky's minority outreach.
Brett Amole

The Message

On March 31, Denver observed an official city holiday in memory of Cesar Chavez, the late labor organizer who devoted his life to helping migrant workers. Yet the only allusion to the celebration in that day's Rocky Mountain News was a modest-sized blurb in "Extra!," one of the "channels" that appear on the tabloid's section fronts. Headlined "Hold on to Those Quarters!," the item declared that "parking meters are free all day." Talk about treating an important happening in the Hispanic community like pocket change.

Less than a month later, the paper gave Chavez a great deal more attention. Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple began "Yes, We Can Build Better Coverage," his April 26 column, with the words "Si Se Puede," a favorite Chavez phrase; it translates to "Yes, you can." Later in the piece, Temple acknowledged that members of Denver's Latino community were unhappy about the absence of Cesar Chavez Day features. His response: "It was a year we flubbed the story in the midst of the war. We didn't have a good answer."

The motivation behind this admission isn't tough to figure. On April 3, four days after the aforementioned botching, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists issued a press release announcing that the NAHJ and the E.W. Scripps Company would combine forces in an effort "to improve newsroom diversity and news coverage of Latinos." The public phase of the pilot program, dubbed Si Se Puede (hence Temple's reference), kicked off with an April 22 community forum at the Rocky Mountain News, which Scripps owns.

The Rocky was an appropriate setting for this get-together, given its less-than-spectacular showing in a Knight Foundation report on newsroom diversity that was presented at the American Society of Newspaper Editors' convention in New Orleans on April 8. According to researchers Bill Dedman and Stephen K. Doig, the News ranked 138th out of the 200 biggest U.S. newspapers in terms of diversity, thanks to a staff in which minorities make up just 8.5 percent of the total.

With a newsroom team sporting 18.1 percent minority members, the Denver Post fared better by comparison with the Rocky, finishing 70th in the Knight Foundation study. Nonetheless, MediaNews Group, the Post's parent company, could hardly trumpet this achievement without citing some far less laudable numbers. NAHJ president Juan Gonzalez, who's also a columnist for the New York Daily News, says his organization recently analyzed newsroom employment data and compiled a list of 57 newspapers with the poorest records of hiring Latinos as measured against the percentage of Hispanics in their circulation areas. These findings allowed the NAHJ to pinpoint problem chains, defined as the firms that owned the most papers among the ignominious 57. Finishing first, meaning worst, was MediaNews, with Scripps coming in a close second. That the flagship properties of both companies are based in Denver probably won't fill local Hispanics with hometown pride.

Unlike the Rocky, the Post didn't land on the NAHJ's dishonor roll, and it's apt to do better in subsequent Knight Foundation surveys because of a very public effort to make its staff less homogenous. Editor Greg Moore, who took the paper's helm last year, serves as chair of ASNE's diversity committee, and he displayed his commitment to its cause in the early months of his regime. Of the first fourteen new employees he brought on board, five were African-Americans, as is Moore. Then again, no one from this first batch of hires was of either Hispanic or Asian descent -- a fact that prompted several Post employees to add their names to a memo authored by business writer Louis Aguilar that was sent to Moore. The note underscored significant demographic shifts in Denver: The citizenry is approximately one-third Hispanic, and its Asian populace is growing much faster than the national average. As a result, Aguilar and company contended that the recruitment of Latino and Asian journalists is a greater necessity than ever before ("The Black-and-White Newsroom," December 19, 2002).

Similar sentiments were voiced during the April 22 meeting at the Rocky, which was well attended considering that it took place on a Tuesday evening. Mike Phillips, editorial-development director for Scripps, who was present, says "around fifty leaders and other people from the Latino community" turned out, as did "about 25 people from the Rocky staff, mostly editors and managers" and an NAHJ contingent led by Gonzalez and communications director Joseph Torres. Others who were present included executives with Channel 4, the Rocky's broadcast partner, which is also participating in Si Se Puede, plus a few wild cards, such as the Post's Aguilar. "John Temple wasn't really happy to see me," Aguilar allows, "but I'd like to point out that all NAHJ members were invited, and that means people who work at the Post as well as at the Rocky."

In his April 26 column, Temple conceded that the Rocky took more than its share of criticism at the gathering, documenting a healthy sampling of it along the way. However, he fears that this tack may not have given readers a true sense of the meeting's tone. "It didn't reflect how positive it was. People came early and talked, and they stayed late and talked. It wasn't anger, but engaged discussion. So I felt really good about it."

So, too, did many of the others on hand -- but the community representatives quizzed by Westword all characterized the session as a first step whose ultimate success will be judged on more than good intentions. Says Professor Estevan Flores, executive director of the Latino/a Research & Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Denver, "I think this is a great effort coming from the NAHJ. At the same time, I live here in Denver and recognize how difficult a task it is to get things moving at an institutional level at a place like the Rocky."

Even more skeptical is author and activist Ernesto Vigil. "It was the exact same type of meeting I've been to many times before, and they almost never come up with tangible results," he says. "It's just a lot of imagery and public relations."

Vigil won't be easily won over by the Rocky. After all, he knows plenty about the paper's history when it comes to the Hispanic community and views many of its past actions with contempt. His 1999 book The Crusade for Justice: Chicano Militancy and the Government's War on Dissent tells the story of the Crusade for Justice, which he describes as "the most significant urban organization for people of Mexican descent in Colorado" during the twentieth century. His tome reveals that the Rocky played a key role in sparking the movement. In 1966, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, who would become the Crusade's driving force, served as head of the Neighborhood Youth Corp, a youth employment program, until being fired by Denver Mayor Thomas Currigan. Why? Gonzales believed it was because he called for a boycott of the Rocky, which published an article that, in his opinion, charged him with discrimination. Immediately thereafter, the Crusade was born.

Seven years later, on March 17, 1973, a run-in between Crusade members and police led to the death of a young man named Luis Martinez, and Vigil himself was shot. Afterward, Vigil says he agreed to share his experiences with the Rocky if a Hispanic journalist was given the assignment. The paper sent reporter Frank Moya, now a local attorney, in the company of another writer, Richard O'Reilly -- and when the story, which Vigil says twisted his words, came out under O'Reilly's byline, he felt betrayed. All these years later, he's still steaming. "Three chapters in my book were motivated by what the Rocky did," Vigil says. "I wasn't happy about how the media in general handled things, but the Rocky was by far the worst."

To Temple, who didn't come to the Rocky until over a decade after the 1973 incident, baggage like this isn't surprising: "We held a meeting with the American Indian Movement a number of years ago, and the most important issue on the table was how the Rocky handled the Sand Creek Massacre," he says. "I don't think people are ever willing to start with a clean slate.... But we don't want different perceptions to get in the way of us moving forward."

That's precisely what NAHJ head Gonzalez hopes to do, by attacking inequities in staffing and coverage at the Rocky strategically, not haphazardly. His plan, which is part of a larger campaign the NAHJ calls the Parity Project, has much in common with "the Rudy Giuliani approach to crime fighting," Gonzalez says. "Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, didn't fight crime in specific. They developed a computer database in every precinct in the city, so they could have a real sense of where the high-crime areas were, and then they mobilized their resources in those high-crime areas under the theory that if you lower the crime rate in the worst areas, you'll lower it in the whole city.

"We took the same approach to diversity," Gonzalez continues. "We didn't want to try to immediately diversify the industry in general. We wanted to diversify in those specific areas where there's the greatest gap between the growing Latino population and the Latino proportion of the news staff."

Because the NAHJ's statistics showed that MediaNews and Scripps had more papers that fit this description than other media conglomerates (they're the equivalent of bad neighborhoods), Gonzalez targeted the two companies at a January diversity conference in Tennessee that was sponsored by ASNE. "[MediaNews head] Dean Singleton and Mike Phillips from Scripps were there," Gonzalez recalls. "We told them, 'We have a plan that we think will help your papers improve, but we need your cooperation to join us, so that we can figure out how we can do better.' And Phillips came forward eagerly and said, 'We know we have a problem, and we want to partner.' Singleton said the same thing, but Scripps was a lot more aggressive, so we decided to start with them."

To Phillips, the NAHJ's methodology represented a step forward. "Juan was arguing that instead of sitting around singing 'Kumbaya,' we should focus on the markets where diversity really matters most. It was a refreshing thought, because I've been sitting in this-is-so-hard, hand-wringing kinds of meetings for years. I was looking for ideas, and Juan had a good one."

Over the next few months, Phillips and the NAHJ chose the Rocky as the first newspaper at which to introduce Si Se Puede, with Scripps papers such as California's Ventura County Star and Florida's Naples Daily News earmarked to follow. Next the parties established an ambitious agenda highlighted by multiple presentations about Hispanic life and issues for Rocky staffers, with the NAHJ offering a national perspective and Polly Baca, executive director of Denver's LARASA (Latin American Research and Service Agency), speaking about the metro area's unique concerns. Editor Temple, whom Gonzalez praises for his lack of defensiveness and willingness to keep an open mind, says approximately half of those in the Rocky's editorial department made it to one of the NAHJ/Baca talks.

Still, the main event was the community forum, at which a wide variety of gripes were aired. Locals were miffed at Rocky types for expecting Hispanic news to come to them, maintaining that they should be more active in seeking it out, and they grumbled that the preponderance of stories writers do cover fall into predictable categories -- either crime narratives or superficial looks at Cinco de Mayo and the like. News columnist Tina Griego, who was at the meeting, has heard the latter observation many times.

"What tends to get covered are the extremes -- the festivals or the gang members, the cruising or that extra-stellar student," Griego says. "There's very little day-to-day middle ground reflected in the newspaper, in part because it's very difficult to do. Newspapers are drawn to extremes. So it's not really a matter of whether we're writing about good news or bad news; it's a matter of accuracy. And we often write minorities as caricatures."

Community members and journalists apparently disagree about how often such stereotyping occurs. The NAHJ handed out surveys to journalists and community members that asked them to rate the quality of coverage as it applies to Hispanic issues. A preliminary tally shows that Rocky staffers generally felt they were doing an average job, with minority reporters within that group rating the paper slightly higher. In contrast, invited guests usually gave the Rocky below-average grades across the board, and were likelier to believe that the easiest way for a Hispanic to get some ink was to break the law.

To broaden the range of subjects, some locals suggested that the Rocky generate a special Hispanic-news section -- a scheme the paper tried once before, with little success. In the early '90s, the Rocky created "Las Noticias," an eight-page weekly feature assembled by folks such as Sherri Vasquez, now host of the Channel 12 public-affairs show Latin View. Las Noticias didn't last long, Temple says, because of two problems: "One, it had no advertising support, and two, when we did readership surveys, it had the lowest rating of any section. It might have been ahead of its time, it might have been the wrong product, but we were in a newspaper war, and eight pages of newsprint is a serious financial commitment." Temple isn't sure that reviving this concept would serve anyone's purpose: "I don't want us to write about Hispanics only for Hispanics."

The shortage of Hispanic journalists who can do this writing was equally worrisome to meeting attendees, despite the Rocky's recent hiring of minority-affairs reporter Javier Erik Olvera, previously of the Fresno Bee. They were just as troubled by the lack of Latinos in managerial positions at the Rocky; the most senior decision-maker there is Gerry Valerio, who oversees prep-sports coverage -- an important beat, but one that's extremely low-profile. Temple is confident that minority-internship programs like one the Rocky sponsors at Metropolitan State College will help matters, and the NAHJ is trying to expand the reach of journalism courses in largely Hispanic high schools in Denver with the assistance of ASNE and the Knight Foundation.

Of course, these are long-term tactics, and the scarcity of Hispanics in newsrooms has been obvious for ages. In 1978, ASNE set a goal of achieving racial parity at the nation's newspapers by 2000, and when, in 1998, it became apparent that this wouldn't be possible, the organization extended its deadline all the way to 2025. Since asking Latinos to wait patiently for another quarter-century is unrealistic, Temple will try to speed things up by attending the NAHJ's national convention in June. Gonzalez adds that his association will be working to convince experienced Hispanic journalists from across the country to consider jumping to the Rocky. Meanwhile, the NAHJ and the Rocky are putting together a community advisory panel to make recommendations and monitor progress at the paper, and another forum scheduled in six months will do likewise.

Professor Luis Torres, who chairs the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at Metro State, would love to see substantial progress by then, but the signals he saw the week after the April 22 meeting were decidedly mixed. He passed out a dozen press releases at the session regarding an April 24 rally at Metro protesting potential cuts in financial aid, and although Rocky reporter Nancy Mitchell wrote about the demonstration, her account filled less than 400 words, featured no art and wasn't played prominently. (Channel 4, whose personnel also received releases, aired nothing about it, Torres says.) The day after Mitchell's story ran, Metro hosted a leadership conference for Hispanic youth that drew over 1,200 students. For this feel-good event, the Rocky was a no-show.

Torres says oversights like this help explain why he turns to local Hispanic publications such as El Semanario and La Voz for community news and often skips the mainstream dailies. While the forum at the Rocky gave him reason to believe this won't always be the case, he's not ready to declare the policy dead quite yet.

"I think the meeting was very beneficial, and I'm glad the NAHJ decided to do it here," Torres says. "If the people at the Rocky are serious, I think they'll find that our community is fascinating -- but they've got to make the commitment. We've asked them and cajoled them to cover us, but we're not going to beg. I'm the one who gets to decide if I'm going to put my fifty cents in the newspaper box, and if I don't want to, I won't."

Up in the airwaves: Because Monday, May 5, was the day before Denver's mayoral election, most of those who tuned into Channel 9's late newscast probably expected that a report about the candidates' final campaign pushes would be first on deck. Instead, viewers were updated about John Hickenlooper and company only after hearing the tale of a fictional kitten named Richard whose imaginary flight over greater Lakewood sent Alice radio listeners into a panic. The next morning, the Rocky Mountain News gave prominent play to the same incident, pairing it with an article focusing upon classic-rocker Ted Nugent, who used racial slurs on the Fox A.M. program overseen by Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax.

Who says radio is a dying medium?

Lewis suggests that the Rocky's Nuge piece, penned by Mark Brown, may have been "a bit sensationalized," but the version of events he and Floorwax provide is awfully close to Brown's. After tossing out the words "Japs" and "gooks" in reference to guitars manufactured in Japan, Nugent "told us a story where he used the N-word probably three or four times," Lewis says. "He was trying to prove a point."

"About semantics, apparently," Floorwax interjects. "I don't know where he was going with it."

"The story he told was about someone telling him he played guitar like a black guy -- except he used the N-word," Lewis goes on. "It was uncomfortable, and we had to cut him off." Indeed, the duo tried on a couple of occasions to steer Nugent into safer waters, and when he stubbornly plunged into even choppier seas, they brought the conversation to a quick conclusion.

An ardent hunter who eats what he kills (and he kills plenty), Nugent has had political correctness in his sites for ages. In "Ted's World," a July 27, 1994, interview with Westword, he referred to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton as a "toxic cunt," adding, "The bitch is nothing but a two-bit whore for Fidel Castro." Later, in discussing his views about drug laws, he said, "Should a kid going to a Grateful Dead concert who's caught with sugar-cube-encrusted LSD go to prison for life with no parole? Of course not. But should that guy get caned? Yeah. And should he go to prison in an overcrowded cell where a huge, unclean black man will fuck him in the ass every night? Yeah."

Nonetheless, Lewis and Floorwax say Nugent has never unleashed such extreme opinions when guesting on their show, as he's done several times annually for the past ten years or so. "We usually just talk about rock and roll," Floorwax maintains.

They'll have more to discuss on July 27, when the DJs' band, the Groove Hawgs, is set to share the bill with Nugent on the second day of Hawgfest, a concert in Winter Park. Since a photo of the guitarist remains on a portion of the Fox's Web site promoting the gig, the lineup appears solid for now. Even so, Floorwax isn't relishing his next conversation with the Motor City Madman: "I'm not too interested in talking to him right now. I'm still taken aback by what happened. I feel emotional about it."

Given that Lewis and Floorwax were once widely considered to be shock jocks, such sensitivity may seem surprising -- although Floorwax doesn't think it should be. "We're not interested in shocking anybody. There's enough shock in the world already. We're just trying to make people laugh, so it's too bad that we get lumped in with this other stuff -- with people who don't have earned opinions and who don't think."

Which brings us back to Alice, whose interim program director, Mark Edwards, swears that no one involved in the station's kitten hoax anticipated the reaction they received. "We didn't have a clue that the volume of calls and the outpouring from people would be the way it was," he says.

At least Edwards, whose main gig is as program director for Alice's sister station, KOSI, has an excuse for this unrealistic expectation; he's only been on the job since this past November. For those with more experience in the market, like Greg Thunder and Bo Reynolds, whose morning show played host to the stunt, the experiences of KBPI personality Willie B. (real name: Stephen Meade) should have served as a warning. He was brought up on animal-cruelty charges in 2000 for instructing a station intern to drop a live chicken out of a three-story window -- a gag that upset many listeners, including some who might have casually eaten such a bird under other circumstances. This marked the second time Willie had come to the attention of animal-control officers: Three years before, he was investigated after purportedly broadcasting the sounds made by a cat in a dishwasher.

Willie skated out of trouble related to the dishwasher matter because the cat didn't exist, and Alice is using the same defense. "That's our mantra," Edwards says. "There was no kitten. There was no kitten." On the other hand, the Alice routine was infinitely more elaborate than was Willie's -- four actors were involved -- and it kept unamused authorities much busier.

The prank revolved around a contest in which listeners were encouraged to attach helium balloons to assorted objects in order to see how many it would take to lift items off the ground. After a Lakewood couple supposedly discovered that it took 21 orbs to get Richard the kitten aloft, a gust of wind bore the feline away. A recording of this key scene provided by Edwards features a woman screaming as Greg and Bo feign disbelief.

Edwards boasts about how much planning went into what he calls "an experiment in the theater of the mind," down to "figuring out wind direction, so we could guess where the kitten might have floated." So convincing was the followup that some listeners called claiming to have seen Richard sailing past. Another phone call came from a 911 dispatcher, who left word about the sudden rash of kitten-related emergency calls on Edwards's voice mail. But even after getting this message, members of the Alice team didn't break character. Rather, they simply instructed listeners to stop dialing 911, "because they're aware of this," Edwards says.

Were they ever. Afterward, Lakewood spokeswoman Stacie Oulton voiced her displeasure on various media outlets, and Edwards received complaints from just plain folks who were still steaming a day later about what many saw as a violation of trust. In response, Edwards posted an apology on the Alice Web site, and Greg and Bo offered sorries all around.

Most of these expressions of regret make William Bennett's recent comments about gambling seem believable by comparison, but Edwards insists they're sincere -- and he expresses his willingness to sponsor future events to compensate Lakewood representatives for the unnecessary kitten-chasing they had to do. At the same time, he feels that plenty of good came out of the episode.

"I think it showed the power of radio," Edwards says. "We made up a story about a fake cat, and it got people talking in their offices, sending e-mails, calling TV stations, calling public-service agencies. It really was a huge reaction, which shows how many people pay attention to what we do. And that's a real positive."


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