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The Message

Jay Bevenour

For several years spanning the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, Colorado was arguably the country's leading producer of long-running, attention-grabbing news stories. Between the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the Oklahoma City bombing trial and the assault on Columbine High School, national newscasts could often be mistaken for local ones. Hell, Geraldo Rivera was practically a full-time resident -- and do we ever miss him.

After 9/11, this situation changed dramatically. Colorado's wildfires flickered for a time in the network spotlight during 2002, and Aron Ralston, an Aspen outdoorsman who lopped off half his arm earlier this year, was briefly fingered by the media; he was David Letterman's guest on July 21. But for the most part, the country's focus has been on matters that didn't arise in the Rocky Mountain region: the battle against international terrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Britney Spears's virginity -- or lack thereof.

Suddenly, however, Colorado is making a comeback. A recent rash of cat mutilations in the Denver area stirred the curiosity of newspaper readers and cable viewers well beyond the state line, and the killing of Paul Childs, a disabled fifteen-year-old, by Denver police officer James Turney, took on the patina of celebrity thanks to the participation of onetime O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran. Moreover, the July 18 move to charge Los Angeles Lakers basketballer Kobe Bryant with alleged sexual assault on an employee at an Edwards resort guarantees many months of full-scale media insanity. If you think you're sick of this topic now, after just a few days spent soaking in saturation coverage, imagine how nauseated you'll be when the Katie Courics of the world are nattering about it next year.

Genuine developments in the Kobe case will be slow in coming, but that won't stop the national press from keeping the pot boiling even on those days when there isn't anything to cook. Many representatives of major outlets firmly believe that no news is still news if the subject is stimulating enough for talking heads to speculate upon -- and speculate they will. Wasn't Kobe in the state when all those cats were dying? Could there be a connection? Hmmm...

As witnessed by the predictably voluminous coverage presented since the charges came down, area news organizations aren't immune from these temptations -- and while some may take a comparatively high road in their future Kobe reporting, others could head straight for the gutter. In an attempt to assess who's likely to head where, I conducted a pair of informal pre-indictment surveys. First I studied copies of the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News published from July 1 to July 16, with an eye toward gauging how histrionically the aforementioned topics and others like them were handled. Then I analyzed eight news programs broadcast by Denver's five largest stations -- channels 2, 4, 7, 9 and 31 -- on July 15, a date chosen because the Bryant matter remained in limbo. It turned out to be the calm before the storm.

For the most part, the results were cheering. The dailies generally kept events in perspective, and most of the TV-news operations did, as well. There were some notable exceptions, though, and the way the various operations dealt with the splashiest items that came their way revealed plenty about how they're likely to report about Kobe and other potential blockbusters that crop up. Here's a breakdown:

Rocky Mountain News: The Rocky may be a tabloid, but it's no New York Post. Instead of unapologetically aiming for the lowest common denominator, the Rocky goes about appealing to the masses in a quirkier, more old-fashioned way. For one thing, its editors seem to believe that everyone is fascinated by stories about animals -- especially animals gone bad -- and do their best to get as many of them into print as possible. Consider the July 2 edition, which included the headlines "OSHA to Inspect Refuge Where Tigers Mauled Man," "Big Daddy Bulls Way Free, With Buffalo Herd at Heels," "Thousands of Lions Converge on Denver," which was about a parade of folks in the Lions Club but sounded more ominous, and "Dead Cats Draw World Attention," an article by Brian Crecente that said more about Denver's insecurities than many of us would care to admit. The piece noted that an Aurora spokeswoman had received cat-mutilation-related inquiries from MSNBC, CNN and so on, as if being noticed by important outsiders was a measure of compensation for having to pick up all of those dissected felines.

Even so, the Rocky only went hog wild about cats in its July 3 issue, via a huge spread led by two stories placed near the top of the news section beneath the portentous banner "'Somebody Knows.'" One of the reports stated that police had linked 37 of 45 mutilations to humans; the other featured an expert who argued that wildlife was "the likely culprit." Naturally, a blurb on the cover mentioned only the former possibility.  

As for the Bryant and Childs stories, the Rocky produced blowouts about both on July 8 after more modest presentations the previous day. The cover sported a Bryant plug over a photo of bereft Childs relatives and another, more melodramatic headline about the gunning down of the teen: "'He Trusted Them.'" Inside, "Bryant Is Accused by Spa Employee" was accompanied by two photos, a map, a "sequence of events" sidebar and a reference to a column by Mike Littwin. On the opposite page, "Slain Teen 'Loved' Cops" came complete with multiple snapshots and excerpts from a 911 call that could be heard by logging on to www.rockymountainnews.com.

To some degree, the Rocky was playing catch-up with these packages; the Denver Post seemed to have understood the potential repercussions of the Childs shooting, in particular, before the Rocky did. But the journalism was solid, and it got better on July 12 with "50 Calls to Police," perhaps the best bit of enterprise reporting about Childs to date. ("Calls" was written by Crecente, who was apparently pulled off the cat-mutilation beat when bigger news popped up. Betcha he was heartsick.) When it came to Bryant, the Rocky published a few pieces that did little more than keep the story in the paper -- but on July 14 and 16, when nothing was happening, the Rocky didn't print a thing about it. A refreshing concept, and a promising one.

Denver Post: The Post is far less obsessed with flying fur than is the Rocky, as its coverage of the cat mutilations demonstrated. A July 3 Jim Spencer column declared "Cat Killings Worth a Hard Look," and a July 8 editorial, "Take Cat Crimes Seriously," made the same point in a dopier way. Nevertheless, the coverage was a far cry from the way departed Post pet fetishist Chuck Green would have handled things. By and large, the Post was measured and straightforward, consistently avoiding the theatricality in which the Rocky often engages.

Of course, this approach has its drawbacks, too. The Post's dryness can make it awfully dull to read at times -- a problem prior to the arrival last year of editor Greg Moore that continues to linger despite his efforts to liven things up. Compare the page-one headlines on July 4 about the failure of an escalator at Coors Field, which resulted in numerous injuries. The Rocky went with the provocative "Unsolved Mystery"; the Post opted for the infinitely blander "Overloading Suspected." On this occasion, a little sensationalism would have been appreciated.

A better balance was achieved when covering Kobe. Initial Post articles steered clear of hysteria, and on days when the story was static, the paper alternated between low-key update blurbs and tie-ins outside the news section, like a July 10 business story about the incident's possible impact on Bryant's endorsement deals. Even more so than the Rocky, the Post didn't overdo Kobe until there was something to overdo.

Regarding the coverage of Childs's death, the Post had a built-in advantage; as Denver's only Sunday paper, it wound up with a print exclusive because the boy was shot on a Saturday, July 5. The paper followed up with some outstanding reporting exemplified by July 11's "How a 'Calm but Aggravated' Teenager Died on East Thrill Place," a perfectly paced account by Jason Felch that examined the moments leading up to Childs's death. Also deserving praise was "Turney Low-Key, Barely Noticed," a July 11 David Migoya article about the lethal officer that helped lend some ambiguity to an extremely complex story in danger of being painted in overly simplistic tones. The starstruck coverage afforded Cochran didn't add many new dimensions, and neither did the paper's three columnists, Spencer, Diane Carman and Cindy Rodriguez, whose ideological and philosophical similarities become more obvious when they're writing about the same thing. The handful of columns this trio penned about Childs were deeply felt but practically interchangeable -- the journalistic equivalent of Groundhog Day.

Not that the Post was entirely surprise-free. A July 9 article about Gregory Smith, a deaf teenager killed by Turney in January 2002, mentioned that Turney and another cop, Sergeant Robert Silvas, had been cleared of criminal wrongdoing by "District Attorney John Ritter." Strangely, there was no mention of Suzanne Somers or Joyce DeWitt. After all, three's company.

Channel 2: The Denver station whose newscast once had the 9 p.m. slot to itself has lately embraced the "If it bleeds, it leads" concept, and its July 15 effort was no exception. The first five stories -- about a police chase on Martin Luther King Boulevard, a hit-and-run at 25th and Eliot, the impending trial of a man accused of sexually assaulting a girl at Elitch's, a cop suspended for felony menacing, and a resident who was shot in the face at his home -- explored Denver's seamy side at breakneck speed. The outlet waited a while to get to the equally gory story of a black bear that attacked two campers at Rocky Mountain National Park and was subsequently videotaped trying to open a food container. (True to form, the Rocky put a battered survivor of the bear affair on its front page that morning, as did the Post.) Later, correspondent Tamara Banks cobbled together an extended valentine to Johnnie Cochran, but no mention was made of Bryant -- an entirely defensible, even bold choice. Then again, he wasn't bleeding.  

Channel 4: At present, Channel 4 is emphasizing breaking news, so the decision to lead its 6 p.m. newscast on July 15 with an on-the-scene report of the police chase on Martin Luther King Boulevard was to be expected. So was use of the not-very-scary bear footage -- but the exclusion of a Kobe Bryant update was less conventional, and more commendable. The same couldn't be said about the Bryant item aired several minutes into Channel 4's 10 p.m. newscast, which linked mention that Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert wasn't saying when he would make an announcement about charges with interview snippets from a young woman who'd written "KOBE IS INNOCENT" on her car window. That the woman's vehicle was surrounded by reporters was a vivid example of how little was happening in the case and how exceedingly needy the press corps had become, but anchor Bill Stuart, who served as the piece's narrator, didn't put the incident into this context. In the absence of a legitimate development, apparently a feeding frenzy over someone desperate to get on TV was viewed as the next best thing.

Channel 7: Despite innumerable ploys to recapture its ratings glory of decades past, Channel 7 is still just limping along, so it makes sense that the station would see Bryant's predicament as a powerful lure to channel surfers presumably heading for other dial destinations. Hence the station presented lengthy Bryant reports at both 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. on July 15, helmed by investigator Tony Kovaleski live from Eagle. Every conceivable element was used to pad out these productions, from interviews with legal experts to footage of Bryant embarrassing the Denver Nuggets. Unfortunately, the dearth of anything that might advance the story left Kovaleski little choice but to admit the obvious, albeit at great length. At one juncture, he stated, "It is a different day, but the message has not changed." At another, he conceded, "Clearly, it's a waiting game." In 2003, that constitutes news.

Channel 9: The Bryant question was raised on Channel 9's 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts on July 15 at roughly the same time. It was the fifth item during the first show, the sixth in the second, running after many of the stories that also appeared in rival newscasts: the police chase, arrests of undocumented workers at the Air Force Academy, Mr. Bear. The key was that, in each instance, the lack of progress was cited briefly in items read by the anchors, Ed Sardella and Adele Arakawa. Nothing more was made of the updates than was actually there. What a novel idea.

Channel 31: On July 15, Channel 31's 9 p.m. newscast started at 9:37 p.m., because the Major League Baseball All-Star game ran late -- but those who wanted to get their nightly dose of Kobe didn't have to wait very long for a supersized fix. The Bryant report was fourth on the roster -- the closest it got to the top of a newscast during the programs monitored that night. Reporter Phil Keating, who'd just returned from two days in Eagle, introduced the package, which went out of its way to boost the drama quotient. The primary ingredients were a script that highlighted "swabs, slides and DNA samples," an interview with Valerie Sievers of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and Lakers game highlights shown in slow motion, in order to make Bryant's playing seem as creepy as his mug shot, seen in several extreme close-ups.

But that wasn't all. Immediately after Keating's submission had finally wound down, colleague Heidi Hemmat launched into a thinly veiled extension of it. Hemmat interviewed Allyn Atadero, the father of Jaryd Atadero, a three-year-old who vanished in 1999 near Fort Collins. Last month, hikers found torn portions of the clothing the boy had been wearing when he disappeared; several days later, a tooth and skull fragment were located in the vicinity. Allyn told the Post on June 16 that he'd come to accept that these remains were from Jaryd, who was probably killed by a mountain lion, but a spokesman from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation said it might take "three to four months" to make a positive identification.  

What's any of that got to do with Bryant? Atadero feels that the CBI might have been able to ID the tooth and skull sooner if it hadn't expedited the examination of evidence related to Bryant. Channel 31 used this dubious claim, which the CBI refutes, as an excuse to roll out more basketball highlights and other Bryant tie-ins. This lucky break meant that around seven of the first ten minutes of that night's newscast exploited Bryant -- but the fact that some of it also exploited a grief-stricken father was infinitely worse.

Geraldo couldn't have done it better himself. Wonder when he'll hit town?


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