Earlier this month, the Society of Professional Journalists' Colorado branch lauded the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News for "keeping alive the spirit of competition" after the papers entered into a money marriage via a joint operating agreement. In truth, the Rocky deserves more credit for fighting on, since the paper could easily have thrown in the towel upon losing its Sunday edition. However, the News lags well behind the Post in another prominent category: gossip production.
Indeed, the Post often generates more unexpected, quirky and downright startling stories behind the scenes than appear in the average issue. As the trio of tales below demonstrates, journalists at the Post could spice up their story lists merely by reporting on themselves.
Post Toast No. 1 -- The race is off: This year's Denver mayoral campaign, which comes to a close on June 3, has been a largely tedious affair, with skunk-haired, guitar-strumming auditor Don Mares failing thus far to knock goofy brewpub boy John Hickenlooper off his bar stool. The only thing that might stop the Hick at this juncture is if the observation one local television viewer shared with yours truly gets around. After realizing that Hickenlooper stares at himself in mirrors for extended stretches during two of his TV commercials, the caller concluded that he must be a narcissist. Love the city, love yourself.
The Rocky has missed this angle, but not many others. Aside from a few stumbles, like a too-prominent May 22 piece about an Aurora fifth-grader devoted to Hickenlooper (no wonder Big John's a narcissist), the Rocky has regularly offered up fresher, cheekier, more trenchant election-season coverage as a whole than has the Post. Consider that the Post's campaign-notes section, Spin Cycled, is essentially a graphically underwhelming, less amusing homage to a can't-miss News feature dubbed The Stump.
To make things worse, Cindy Brovsky, a veteran reporter who gave needed perspective and heft to the Post's reporting of mayoral matters, abruptly quit her job just as the runoff between Mares and Hickenlooper was getting under way. Also due to depart soon is Ryan Morgan, who's been on the campaign beat, too.
Rumormongers hint that Morgan, who didn't return a call on this topic, is being let go because of several recent errors. Post editor Greg Moore says this theory has no foundation. After disclosing that Morgan won a Colorado Press Association award in February for journalistic creativity (and not of the sort the New York Times's Jayson Blair practiced), Moore emphasized that "Ryan Morgan isn't a full-time staff member. He was an intern here, then filled in temporarily for a succession of people on maternity and book leave. Now that time is up, and we just don't have a full-time slot for him. The music stopped, and there was no seat."
Like Morgan, Brovsky failed to reply to Westword's interview requests, but Moore offers some tantalizing clues about her choice to split. "The retooling of our political team may have been a precipitating event," he reveals. "What we wanted to do was reorganize ourselves a little for the general election and have people with specific responsibilities, including designating a lead writer, Karen Crummy, and having Cindy and another reporter cover the trail -- what the candidates were doing and saying." Brovsky "seemed fine with" this assignment at first, Moore allows, yet shortly thereafter, "she turned in her ID card and her laptop and said she was resigning. And she did."
With Brovsky gone, is the Post now in an even weaker campaign-reporting position vis-à-vis the News? Moore isn't wasting his time worrying about the potential repercussions. "It's always tough to lose somebody right in the midst of coverage," he says, "but we've got a lot of good people at the Post, and we're pushing forward."
So, too, are the candidates -- although, luckily, not for much longer.
Post Toast No. 2 -- On the frontlines: Recently in this space ("Coming Attractions," May 15), Diane Eicher, who pens a bi-weekly media column for the Rocky, stated that she and her writing partner, Joe Bullard, shied away from printing the name of Claire Martin, a Post staffer whose obituary writing they had criticized, because they'd been asked by their editors to avoid getting unnecessarily personal. Apparently this recommendation didn't prevent them from specifically fingering the work of Martin's significant other, Post international-affairs scribe Bruce Finley, in a March 22 salvo. After picking apart a pair of articles penned by Finley in Syria and published just before the beginning of the war against Iraq, they concluded with a "reader alert: If you want one-sided views on the Middle East situation, Finley's stories are for you. If you seek a more balanced report, look elsewhere."
This opinion is substantially justified. Finley's writing in the pieces seized on by Eicher and Bullard slanted leftward, but it wasn't labeled as analysis; some observers of departed Rocky internationalist Holger Jensen had similar gripes. At the same time, the perspectives Finley sought out were being largely ignored by other media outlets in the heavy breathing lead-up to the Iraq attack. Viewed independently, the articles weren't especially evenhanded, but they went a ways toward offsetting the preponderance of reporting, especially on cable television, that listed in the opposite direction.
The dispatches Finley filed from Iraq after the shooting started might have sparked similar debate -- but within the Post, such nuances were overwhelmed by chatter about a far less academic question: Did Finley wig out under fire and assault a Post photographer?
Initial buzz suggested that a disagreement between Finley and shutterbug Hyoung Chang, who couldn't be reached for comment, escalated until one of two things happened: Either Finley's hands brushed against Chang's neck or they were entwined tightly around his throat. That Finley wasn't disciplined for the incident argues against the more extreme variations on this theme, but Finley, who spent fifty days overseas as a non-embedded reporter, concedes that something went down.
"I was under stress, he was under stress, we snapped at each other and I reacted," Finley says. "After that, we both apologized to each other and finished the day's work. But I regret it."
War reporting is hell.
Post Toast No. 3 -- Confusion on the hoof: The science beat at daily newspapers is a notoriously tricky one. Reporters must explore complicated subjects accessibly enough to interest non-brainiacs, but with the intricacy and attention to detail required by experts.
Earlier this year, Post science writer Diedtra Henderson learned about a case that promised to satisfy both these demands. Last October, Grays Starlight, an expensive stallion whose offspring have earned about $7 million, died of West Nile virus even after having been injected with an experimental vaccine that kept another prize stud alive. Grays Starlight's death, which was reported in February 23's "W. Nile Vaccine Tough Choice for Some," gave Henderson a way to write about an important story that has sometimes been difficult to tell effectively. Too bad the spot where Grays Starlight trotted his last was even harder to find, resulting in a figurative wild horse chase.
Henderson, who shared her adventure by e-mail, wanted to interview the manager of Polo Ranch, where Grays Starlight had been stabled, as well as the first veterinarian to examine the horse as soon as it became ill. After being told the ranch was in Wyoming, she "flew a puddle-jumper" there, then rented a car and attempted to locate the vet's office using directions she'd been given. When she came up dry, she called from her cell phone and received the directions again, but they didn't help. "I was still nowhere close and said I'd simply return to the hotel and do the interview by phone," she maintains.
While she was chatting with the vet, Henderson goes on, "he said Grays Starlight fell ill about the same time he began seeing Texas horses with West Nile, so he suspected West Nile from the start. I asked why a vet in Wyoming would be seeing horses from Texas, [and] he said his office is in Texas.... Polo has two ranches. The main ranch is in Wyoming. A second ranch is in Oklahoma, [and] the horse I wanted...was at Polo's Oklahoma ranch," across the border from the vet's practice.
In other words, Henderson was not only at the wrong ranch, but in the wrong state. She learned that a charter flight could deliver her to Oklahoma, but when she presented her Post supervisors with this option, they advised her to do the rest of the Grays Starlight reporting over the phone, just as she'd done with the vet. As she puts it, "We cut our losses and decided I'd take the next flight to Denver."
The losses nearly got worse: As Henderson was on the way back from dinner prior to returning the rental car, a deer ran onto the road in front of her. Thanks to a quick reaction, she was able to tap the brakes and smack Bambi's relative at an angle. "It ran off after I struck it," Henderson writes. "Had I killed the deer, who knows whether I'd be alive to type this e-mail."
Afterward, Henderson wisely got out of the state she was in -- and back to one with which she was a little more familiar. Talk about weird science.
The politics of mistakes: The idea behind corrections in newspapers seems straightforward -- when a slip-up slips in, the publication acknowledges it in print as soon as possible. In actual practice, things can get considerably more complicated. In its May 22 corrections box, for instance, the Rocky ran a hefty, 26-line apologia for a May 16 article by business writer David Milstead about Enron Corporation suing Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group, which owns the Post. Even so, a close reading of the article raises doubts that any errors were actually made.
According to the correction, the May 16 piece "said Enron alleged that the newspaper company had 'skipped out' on payments it owed. In fact, the legal dispute is over the calculation of the termination value of the contract, if any." Later, the anonymous correction maven adds, "This dispute is not unique in the newspaper industry. Other major newspaper companies also hedged the price of newsprint with Enron."
Sounds like a botch from that account -- but the article specifically mentioned the termination value issue and affirmed that "MediaNews was far from the only company to hedge newsprint with Enron." In the end, it appears that MediaNews was mainly unhappy with the colorful but accurate "skipped out" phrase and had the muscle as a JOA partner with the Rocky to get a rewrite more to its liking published as a correction. That's probably not the "spirit of competition" the Society of Professional Journalists had in mind.
By the way, the item that followed the MediaNews opus read like so: "A story on Page 6A Wednesday incorrectly reported the color of Ralston Valley High School student Becky Hipp's blue graduation gown." (The color was reported as "crimson.") Now, that's the kind of thing corrections are for.
Back with the Breese: "Paper Trail," an April 26, 2001, article about the eccentric history of the Colorado Daily, documented how the Boulder operation nearly perished due in part to the actions of Mark Breese, who allegedly sucked the paper dry while serving as its finance director. Breese settled a civil suit with the newspaper's owners, Front Range Publishing, for $252,000 but had paid just $29,000 made from the sale of a house in Lafayette before hitting the highway leading out of town.
He's finally returning, and betcha he's not thrilled about it. On May 19, U.S. Attorney John Suthers announced that a federal grand jury had indicted Breese, who was living in Dublin, Ohio, for wire fraud and making false statements in tax returns. Several days later, Breese, who was said in the indictment to have used part of his pilfered booty for offshore betting, surrendered to U.S. marshals in Columbus, Ohio. He's expected to appear this week in U.S. District Court in Denver, where he faces up to twenty years in the pokey and a $250,000 fine for the wire-fraud charge alone if convicted.
Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, says if Breese is found guilty, the government will likely seek a restitution order directing him to pay back his ill-gotten gains -- but in many ways, the Daily has moved on. Front Range Publishing no longer exists, and Randy Miller, who purchased the Daily out of bankruptcy, has put it on much firmer footing. "Our paper has doubled in the past two years," Miller says, "and as we continue to grow, we continue to add staff. We're probably a third bigger than we were, and when other papers are experiencing downturns, we're growing revenue-wise, too." In addition, he's instituted accounting procedures intended to prevent future Breeses from bilking the Daily -- "nothing unusual, just standard practices."
Like the kind that should have been in place all along.
A pirate changes course: On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission is likely to loosen regulations that currently prevent the heavily consolidated media industry from consolidating further. Firms should soon have more leeway to purchase TV stations, radio stations and newspapers in the same city -- just one of many alterations apt to result in fewer companies holding even greater power over what the average American sees, hears and reads.
Such rulings will present enormous challenges to Bass Ghost, but he's accustomed to battling the odds. Last year, the self-styled emcee and entrepreneur created Skyjack Radio, an illegal AM outlet that thrilled the local rap community for a few short weeks before the FCC shut it down ("Piracy, Hip-Hop Style," December 5, 2002). Since then, Bass Ghost has been trying to find a way to get back on the air legally, but doing so won't be cheap. He guesses it will cost him $1 million to nab a signal -- and that's an optimistic estimate.
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At present, Ghost is searching for simoleons with the assistance of Tom Calise, a former stuntman -- his credits include 1988's Silent Assassins, with Linda Blair -- who shares Ghost's vision, and finishing up Skyjack Radio: Birth 2 Da Airwaves, a compilation CD set for release in June. Bass Ghost appears on the disc alongside Skyjack Radio personalities such as Panda and associates like Cavalear and Blindcyde. "This all grew from the radio station," Bass Ghost says, "and it's a way to help it get back on." Proceeds will go in part to a radio-station fund.
Why is this mission important? "Because we want to get undiscovered artists heard," Bass Ghost says. "There's a lot of talent out there, but the big radio stations won't give the little guys a chance."
And that situation will almost certainly get worse before it gets better.