When attorney Dani Newsum tackles current events during appearances on KBDI-TV/Channel 12 programs such as Colorado Inside Out, she does so at full speed, with her shoulders squared. So it's no surprise that she hits just as hard once the topic turns to her removal from Head On, a series of regularly televised mini-debates that paired her with Colorado Senate President John Andrews.
"To have an individual who's calling the shots in the state senate with a good degree of controversy to also be able to call the shots at a PBS station is absolutely unseemly," Newsum says. "It's a really ugly intersection of governmental power and both public and private dollars."
Counters Andrews, "I feel like no good deed goes unpunished. It's been through my initiative that, five days a week for over five years, she's had the opportunity to share her opinions with the viewers of Channel 12 -- but now I get spit on, because I'm supposedly the bad guy."
For Newsum, who'll continue to be a CIO panelist, the issue isn't Andrews's qualities as an individual or even his conservative beliefs, many of which turn her stomach: In an angry May e-mail about congressional redistricting that convinced Andrews to sever their professional relationship, she called him "a contemptible fraud and a disgrace." More important to her is whether someone as politically influential as Andrews -- who recently served as acting governor when main man Bill Owens and Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton were out of town -- should be allowed to own a public-TV show that promotes his policies while in office and be able to replace on-camera personnel at his discretion. "If the president of the state senate was my dream progressive, Channel 12 would still have a problem if they were hopping to that person's tune," she says.
Denver Post columnist Diane Carman raised similar concerns. In "Don't Like Foe," a June 18 column that followed a June 14 Rocky Mountain News article by John Sanko that broke the story, she wrote that Head On was Andrews's "baby, his show. Taxpayer-supported KBDI merely enables it." Later, Carman quoted Todd Gray, a Washington, D.C., media lawyer who concluded that while this arrangement may not break FCC directives, it could weaken viewers' trust because of the appearance that the station is running programs for financial reasons or to curry favor with an elected official. "Another reason to tune out," Carman concluded.
Predictably, the picture is more complicated than Carman paints it. Although she wrote that Andrews "selects" his onscreen partner, Newsum and her successor, outgoing Denver City Council member Susan Barnes-Gelt, were suggested by Channel 12; Andrews probably could have asked to consider other candidates but didn't. In addition, Carman indicated that Head On might be subject to "equal time" complaints from candidates running against Andrews. Too bad she didn't note that during Andrews's 2000 campaign, he temporarily stepped out of the hot seat for precisely this reason; the Independence Institute's Jon Caldara faced off against Newsum until the race was won. Finally, the column implies that Head On was little more than an "infomercial" or "partisan propaganda" for Andrews, when it was actually a fair-minded cage match. Andrews and Newsum kept track to make sure the subjects were split equally; the time allotted to each of them was the same, and the opportunity to have the last word was evenly shared among the five ninety-second face-offs taped monthly since 1997. Moreover, Newsum never shied away from blistering Andrews when she felt like it, which she almost always did. After all, she was employed as spokeswoman for the Colorado Democratic Party for a fair part of her Head On tenure.
At the same time, Carman brings up intriguing points about the funding of Channel 12 programming -- a theme also explored by the Rocky Mountain News's Dusty Saunders on June 18. General manager Wick Rowland doesn't want anyone to think Channel 12 is selling its airtime, but he confirms that the outlet's monetary participation differs from program to program. The station covers most or all of the production costs of, for instance, Drawing the Line, hosted by Reggie Rivers, but independent producers like Aaron Harber, the man behind The Aaron Harber Show, handle such chores themselves and otherwise make creative decisions under Channel 12 supervision. Deals with funding producers vary, too, as Caldara knows. He's the emcee of Independent Thinking, and he says, "We offset some of the production costs with help from foundations and underwriters who sponsor our program. But we don't pay for all the costs, and I think some of the shows pay a lot more than others."
This system makes Channel 12 susceptible to finger-wagging that's either direct, like Carman's, or veiled, as it is in radio commercials that Channel 6, Denver's senior public-broadcast outlet, just happened to start running on stations like KHOW this week. Rowland, in contrast, insists that everything is on the up-and-up. The best way to understand the concept, he says, "is to think about a university. The university pays for faculty, staff and so on. But if you want to do an experiment, you need a grant to pay the research assistants and whatever. That's the structure. Our membership donations open the doors and turn on the lights, but the additional costs of running the studio come from underwriting support."
Regarding Head On, Andrews started fishing for financing before he was in the senate; the series debuted under the auspices of Synthesis Communications, a media firm he owns, when he was doing political programming for TCI. He didn't see the need to step away from the program after he became a senator. "In Colorado, we have a citizen legislature. All of us have another job, and my job happens to be in communication and idea entrepreneurship. Before I was in the legislature, Channel 12 agreed that I would provide this to them, and every month since then they've had the opportunity to pull the plug -- and they still could. The idea that I dictate anything to them is silly." He adds that his decision to part company with Newsum was personal, not ideological: "When someone calls you 'a contemptible fraud,' you think, 'I'm not sure I want to keep working with her.'"
Newsum, whose association with Channel 12 stretches back to 1988, says she knew Andrews was rounding up donors to pay for Head On, but she didn't understand that meant he owned the show, especially since the $100 checks she received for her participation each month came from a station account, not his. She believes Rowland, who signed on with Channel 12 after Head On began airing, was initially in the dark, too. Newsum recounts a chat with the general manager after her dismissal, in which he expressed surprise that Andrews owned the series, and she says he put the program on hiatus in May to investigate. For his part, Rowland declines to comment on what he considered to be a private conversation, but he emphasizes that Channel 12 personnel oversee Head On and can reject any segment that doesn't meet its standards. "We retain the right of refusal," he says.
What that means to the future of Head On is as clear as fog. Rowland says he received about five dozen e-mails or calls in the days immediately following the first mention of the Andrews-Newsum divorce, with about half of the respondents griping and the rest supporting the change. (Also chiming in were politico Penfield Tate and Maggie Fox, wife of Congressman Mark Udall, who wrote a letter decrying the situation.) Nonetheless, Rowland is standing behind the show, which should return in early July with new cast member Barnes-Gelt, who shone during Channel 12 election coverage. Barnes-Gelt is enthusiastic about crossing swords with Andrews. "I didn't feel I had stepped into anything," she says. "What happened between Dani and John was between Dani and John. To me, this sounds like a fun thing to do."
That isn't how Newsum would describe it. "I would not have been involved," she says, "if I knew someone with whom I disagree so strenuously on almost everything under the sun had the ability to literally veto me off the show."
Back to the barnyard: If nothing else, Denver Post editor Greg Moore is a straight shooter -- the rare executive who doesn't squeeze the juice from his words before uttering them. In the case of former Post assistant city editor Arnie Rosenberg, however, Moore may wish that he'd been more circumspect. Rosenberg, a veteran of over three decades in journalism, is suing Moore and the Post because the editor said "the way to clean up a place is not to move manure around the barnyard" following an observation about Rosenberg's firing made at a well-attended staff meeting last year.
"I was hurt very badly," notes Rosenberg, currently an assistant city editor at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "It was a horrible thing to say. How can you say that about somebody in front of five people, much less a hundred people?"
Moore, whose paper has not yet written about the Rosenberg suit, leaves this question unanswered. In an e-mail replying to an interview request, he writes, "I do not comment on discipline or legal matters." As for Holme Roberts & Owen's Mary Stuart, the attorney representing the Post in to the suit, she says, "We really can't comment on existing litigation."
Westword and yours truly are mentioned in the suit, filed on March 21 in Denver District Court, because the incident in question was first reported in "Internet Interruption," the November 7, 2002, edition of this column. During the question-and-answer portion of the October 28 Post editorial meeting, the suit says an employee (identified in Westword as transportation reporter Jeff Leib) called the dismissal of Rosenberg, who was present, "'the most callous thing' he had seen in eighteen years at the Denver Post." When the employee asked why Rosenberg had been fired, the suit continues, "Moore first stated that he was not at liberty to discuss personnel issues. Moore then proceeded to respond to the direct question about Mr. Rosenberg's termination by" using the barnyard colloquialism.
This comment prompted "an audible gasp from those present and numerous people looked directly at Mr. Rosenberg upon hearing Moore's statement," the suit allows. "Mr. Rosenberg felt like he wanted the earth to 'swallow him up.'" These feelings were amplified, the suit says, after the episode was recapped in the Message and subsequently linked on the nation's most popular Web site for journalists, a page at www.Poynter.org overseen by longtime press observer Jim Romenesko. The Moore quote was also referenced in a November 18 item in the trade journal Editor & Publisher, and the suit maintains that as a result of this unwanted attention, "Mr. Rosenberg has been placed in the position of rebuilding the reputation that he worked 31 years to develop and defending himself against pre-conceived ideas about his business reputation created directly by Defendant Moore's slanderous statement."
As it turns out, the Westword item didn't mention Rosenberg by name, and it paraphrased Moore as saying the manure line "'had nothing to do with' the ACE, or anyone in particular. Instead, it was simply [Moore's] way of stressing that 'change is part of this process.'" To Rosenberg's attorney, Julie Trent, this distinction doesn't undermine the suit, because those at the meeting knew who was the target of the comment, causing the news to spread quickly through the journalism community. For instance, Rosenberg says that when he spoke on the telephone with Rocky Mountain News managing editor Deb Goeken in the wake of the meeting, she told him, "We all feel so bad for what happened to you."
Trent adds that when Moore was asked by E&P about likening some staffers to manure, he replied, "I probably shouldn't have said it." In her view, this shows that Moore had changed his story since speaking with Westword.
Fortunately, Rosenberg found a new home at the Sun-Sentinel. Yet he can't simply shrug off the months of unpleasantness that preceded his hiring. An Ohio native, Rosenberg served in various reporting and editing functions at several newspapers and magazines before hooking up with the Akron Beacon Journal in the early '90s. When Beacon Journal managing editor Glenn Guzzo was named Post editor in 1999, he had positions to fill, and before long, Rosenberg was chosen to oversee suburban coverage.
Guzzo departed in 2002, with Moore taking his place in June of that year. Rosenberg says he and Moore had a private chat shortly thereafter during which the editor expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of reporting coming out of the suburbs. Attempts to improve things apparently didn't change his view enough. On October 21, Moore let Rosenberg go -- and a week later, the manure hit the fan.
The suit hasn't gotten far; Trent says Post lawyers initially agreed to mediation but then changed their minds and filed a motion to dismiss the complaint that has not yet been ruled upon. Rosenberg hopes things get moving soon.
"Is it cockiness on his part that he thinks he can say what he pleases and kick somebody like that when they're down?" Rosenberg asks. "That's not right -- and I think a judge or a jury needs to hear him up on the stand repeat that comment and see what they think."
Job search: Denver Post editorials aren't signed, so readers can't tell who writes particular items. As such, they didn't know that three pieces published over the span of a week were penned by James Shelledy, who recently stepped down under pressure as editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, a paper owned by MediaNews Group, the Dean Singleton-headed parent company of the Post.
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Shelledy left the Tribune in early May amid one of the messiest controversies in the paper's long history. The previous month, he learned that two Tribune reporters, Kevin Cantera and Michael Vigh, had been paid $10,000 each by the National Enquirer for providing information about Elizabeth Smart nine days after the Utah girl was allegedly kidnapped last year by a pair of drifters; as anyone with cable television knows, Smart was found in March 2003 and returned safely to her family. Cantera and Vigh offered their resignations, but Shelledy put them on probation instead and wrote a column about their lapse in judgment. Predictably, these moves didn't quell criticism. The two reporters were eventually axed, and after Singleton was quoted in the Tribune saying that learning about the entire debacle made him "feel like I was going to vomit," Shelledy tendered his resignation, ending a twelve-year stint as editor.
What, then, was Shelledy doing at the Post? "Essentially, he's applying for numerous positions," Singleton says, adding that Shelledy is well acquainted with Sue O'Brien, the Post's editorial-page editor. According to O'Brien, Shelledy visited on May 22, when the editorial department was shorthanded. While there, he produced editorials about a Colorado Springs speech by ex-CIA director James Woolsey, a CIA review of intelligence reports in Iraq, and the diet theories of the late Dr. Robert Atkins not as a tryout, but simply as a way of being helpful. All three items appeared in the Post over the days that followed.
Singleton says these efforts shouldn't be interpreted as proof that Shelledy is being groomed for a spot at the Post -- but he has nice things to say about a man whose actions had so recently failed to settle his stomach. In his words, "I think he's a very good journalist, very solid."
Interpret that as you will.