At 10 a.m. on August 6, the western half of Chambers Road, one of Eagle's main thoroughfares, looks like a dusty set from The Last Picture Show. The county fairgrounds that parallel I-70 are deserted, and the undeveloped landscape beyond is too forbidding to provide many taste treats for the hawks lazily circling the sky overhead. Were they to fly a few miles in the opposite direction, however, these aerial predators would find a much more varied menu. How about a hunk of flesh from CNN's Jeffrey Toobin? Or the eyeball of ESPN correspondent Shelley Smith? Now, that's good eatin'.
Toobin, Smith and dozens upon dozens of their journalistic brethren, including yours truly, are in Eagle to watch Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant visit the county courthouse on the east side of Chambers. At 4 p.m., Bryant is to be formally advised of his sexual-assault charge -- a near-formality that's unlikely to last much longer than the average NBA time-out.
In the days leading up to Bryant's arrival, a few of the high-rent yappers from national cable channels suggested that a surprise or two might arise, but they displayed precious little conviction. And no wonder, since everyone here in Eagle County is confident that nothing of real substance will take place today. The media will be making the news as much as reporting it.
To that end, the commanders of the press have deployed regiment-sized forces to cover whatever does, or doesn't, happen. Makeshift broadcasting platforms draped in plastic sheeting line an entire block, with more than a score of satellite trucks and the like parked directly behind them. The courthouse is across the street, next to a media tent intended to shelter the invading horde from the blazing sun, which is rapidly pushing the temperature toward the 90s.
Inside the tent, Vail's Michael Cacioppo asks a photographer, "Ready for some action?"
"I don't know that there's going to be any action," the photog replies.
"Ready for some inaction, then?"
"They pay me to be ready."
Cacioppo is being compensated, too. He runs Captain Video, an audio-visual equipment supply company, and Eagle County has hired him to pipe pictures and sound of Bryant's brief time before Judge Frederick Gannett into the tent for those reporters who don't have reserved seats in the courtroom. Yet even without this gig, Cacioppo would be here. A Kansas City native who moved to Colorado in the mid-'70s, he's made his views known over the airwaves as a talk-show host and in public meetings across Eagle County as a particularly voluble citizen, often frustrating and sometimes amusing politicians of every stripe along the way. But his best soapbox is his current one: Speakout!, a newspaper and Web site (at www.speakoutvail.com) that offers "News Reports and Opinions on Political Issues of the Day."
Although this slogan is accurate, it gives only the slightest indication of Cacioppo's unconventional approach. He doesn't think journalists should distance themselves from the stories on which they report in an effort to reach the mythical goal of objectivity. Far from it: He believes in speaking his piece and does so every chance he gets. As president, publisher, lead writer and jack-of-all-trades for Speakout!, he editorializes regularly in its pages and gives himself license to disagree in print with his two contributing columnists. Kimberly Blaker, whom Cacioppo describes as "far left," receives this treatment more often than does Joseph Prescia, a religious conservative whom, he says, "I mostly agree with."
Even more telling is Cacioppo's willingness to take public agencies to court over matters that may have nothing to do with gaining access to information -- the usual reason newspapers and government reps get into judicial faceoffs. He recently made headlines by suing the Eagle County School District over a ballot issue that increased its funding by just over $3 million per annum; in his view, the proposal violated specific language in the Douglas Bruce-authored Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, amendment. Doing so didn't endear him to the district's employees, whose raises were held up by the suit, but Cacioppo offers no apologies.
"I've sued the school district three times, and I may sue them for a fourth," he says. He began filing such suits long before founding Speakout! four years ago but maintains that "the press provides the checks and balances on power in this country, and if newspapers just go along and continue to take advertising dollars from government as a payoff to keep their damn mouths shut when the government is violating the law, then, in my view, the press is willingly complicit in the wrongdoing."
That's one burden Cacioppo refuses to bear. "I'm the watchdog; I'm the whistleblower," he says. And lately, there's been plenty to watch -- and plenty to blow.
When it comes to the Kobe Bryant case, Cacioppo has no shortage of professed wisdom. He's written that the "media circus" (as he and everyone else refers to it) was induced by Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert and Eagle Sheriff Joseph Hoy; he wants all Bryant's court files opened immediately; and he contends that the trial should eventually be moved to, of all places, Leadville. (Maybe director John Sayles, who'll be shooting part of an upcoming movie tentatively called Silver City in Leadville during the coming months, should bring along some extra film.)
Meanwhile, Cacioppo is taking hits for his singular brand of Bryant reporting. In his July 25 issue, he wrote about an e-mail he received from a person who claimed to have occupied the room over Bryant's suite at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in nearby Edwards on June 30, when the alleged incident took place: "I was upstairs of Kobe and I heard him shout, among other things over 23 minutes, '...white bitch...'"
If true, this would be an enormous scoop -- but Cacioppo concedes that he has no proof the e-mailer is telling the truth. As a result, Speakout! has received a torrent of nasty missives epitomized by an item signed "Nobody uknow": "You freaking half-witted asshole. Your reporting of the 'white bitch' story is a complete crock of shit -- just as is the majority of crap you put out."
Vitriol like this doesn't bother Cacioppo, whose Web-site traffic has experienced a tenfold increase -- to 3.9 million page views per month -- since Bryant's arrest. He's just as dismissive of journalists who consider the story's publication to have been premature at best and hugely irresponsible at worst.
"I don't need to sit here and listen to rookie newspeople from various news organizations, such as Jeff Kass of the Rocky Mountain News, call up and criticize me," he says. (Kass, by the way, has been a reporter for eleven years, and characterizes his conversation with Cacioppo as one in which he asked "critical questions.") "They don't know what I know, and I'm not about to tell them all the little details until I'm good and ready. Every lead, no matter how bogus it might be, needs to be followed up. And even if this person wasn't there, what she wrote in the e-mails could be used to trap various people and help determine whether they're lying or not. So it could still be helpful to law enforcement.
"If I can crack this case and get to the truth before we go to trial, I'm going to do it," he declares. "And if I take heat along the way, fine."
The bravado of this statement carries over to Cacioppo's demeanor; he walks around the media zone like the most important man in town. At one point, he strides past an acquaintance from the Vail Daily, who hails him with a jaunty "See you, Mr. President."
"I told you," Cacioppo says, without slowing down. "It's 'King' or nothing."
:At 11 a.m., Karen Salaz, a spokeswoman for the state courts, begins a briefing for journalists in the tent by announcing that, thanks to the way Court TV set up its equipment in Judge Gannett's courtroom, four extra media seats have opened up. To pick the lucky quartet who'll sit in them, Salaz reaches into a confetti-like pile made of e-mail address printouts from reporters who'd unsuccessfully requested courtroom admission. The first person chosen isn't there, and since the assembled throng concurs that "you must be present to win," she tries again. "'Laura Price-Brown,'" she reads from a sliver of paper. "I think she's from Sports Illustrated [actually, she's with Newsday]. Is Laura here?"
"I'm Laura," says a thirty-something man.
Amid chuckling, Salaz asks, "Do you have some I.D.?"
Once the passes are distributed to the rightful parties, Eagle County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Kim Andre insists that the bottled water available in the media tent "isn't provided as a gratuity, but as a health issue. Some of you people aren't from here, and you're not used to the altitude." Also, she says, an ambulance will be on hand for precautionary reasons, "so don't draw any conclusions."
"Have arrangements been made to drive Kobe into an underground parking garage?" a Fox News reporter wonders.
"We don't have an underground parking garage," Andre replies, to more guffaws. "What you see is what you get." Bryant will be coming through the front door, she says, and "there's only one front door, so that's not a trick question."
Neither is the one Cacioppo poses to me once the meeting breaks up. As a local media representative, he was given a courtroom seat -- "I can't believe they didn't discriminate against us," he says. Unfortunately, this coup means he won't be able to take photos of Bryant arriving and leaving the courthouse, and none of his other cohorts is available. Could I do it for him?
As one of those objectivity aspirants Cacioppo views with such suspicion, I hesitate. But I'm in Eagle, and I quickly decide to do as the Eaglets do.
My photographic cooperation secured, Cacioppo zooms into the courthouse and, after dropping copies of Speakout! on all the benches along the long central corridor, barges into Judge Gannett's modest courtroom -- the very one Bryant will enter in mere hours. Local lawyer Jim Fahrenholtz, who once served as Eagle County's deputy district attorney, is in the midst of what's obviously a private negotiating session between a client and an officer with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Still, he doesn't ask Cacioppo or me to leave, and no one else does, either. Cacioppo flops down in the courtroom's front row (the seats are like chairs in a movie theater that hasn't been upgraded in a couple of decades) and eavesdrops for a while. When the meeting breaks up, Fahrenholtz, who's been interviewed by Channel 7 and many other news organizations, checks his cell phone and sighs. "I've got so many calls from the media that my clients can't get through," he says.
Next, Cacioppo shows me the tiny tent that serves as the nexus for all the network feeds, and goads a Court TV crew into letting me enter the trailer where the broadcast will be switched. The techs seem caught off guard by the request, but Cacioppo is too insistent to refuse. After we purchase box lunches from an enterprising restaurateur, Cacioppo heads back to the media tent, where, in a half hour or so, he's supposed to do an online chat with the Washington Post -- just one of many major organizations that have featured him of late. The previous day, he defended Eagle against charges of racism on CBS's The Early Show, and he's also appeared on "CNN, Fox, CBS Radio, Oklahoma City radio, Portland, Oregon, radio, Los Angeles and San Diego radio, Celebrity Justice, Inside Edition . . ."
His contacts go well beyond these outlets. Cacioppo's constantly being tugged at by journalists such as a producer from the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, a city where Bryant once lived. The producer mentions a racial-profiling case that the Eagle County Sheriff's Department settled in 1995, and wants to know if profiling is still occurring. Cacioppo says it is, offering as evidence his conviction that he's been profiled several times simply because of the van he drives -- "but that kind of thing is happening everywhere, because we're all afraid of being bombed by one of the greatest generals in the history of the world, Osama bin Laden. And I don't say that because I like the guy; I think he's a jackass. But he's brilliant."
Strangely, the CBS producer doesn't return with a cameraman so that Cacioppo can repeat these comments on videotape, and the online chat falls through, too. Cacioppo's not upset, since "they wanted me to type in everything myself." Gabbing with CNN's Deborah Feyerick, who soon sidles up to him with camera crew in tow, is easier. As Feyerick quizzes him on the courthouse lawn, a photographer asks me who he is. After I tell him, the photographer grumbles, "When reporters start interviewing each other, the story's over."
While speaking with Feyerick, Cacioppo makes the identical observation. Watching her leave to find her next conquest, he says, "They'll never use that -- guaranteed."
He's half right. Feyerick doesn't air Cacioppo's observation about the media, but she quotes him commenting on the positive and negative sides of the press onslaught: "The bad is that if the alleged victim is in fact a victim, it's bad for her. The good is that it has driven Eagle County -- and the publicity surrounding Eagle County and Vail, Colorado, is publicity we can't buy."
True enough. Over the years, winter resort communities have built many attractions to lure people during the summer -- but Kobe Bryant is a helluva lot more effective than an alpine slide.
Even so, the number of spectators drawn to the courthouse isn't as large as subsequent coverage implies. By the middle of the afternoon, the total has grown to around a hundred people, some of them apparently tourists who were passing through the state when they decided to exit at Eagle on a whim. Most seem content to hang out rather than fight for a spot in the courtroom. According to spokeswoman Salaz, fewer than ten people who wanted one of the twenty-plus seats designated for the public had to be turned away.
The showiest members of the outdoor contingent are teenagers who understand that they'll get on TV or have their photo snapped if they dress in Lakers garb and act like Kobe groupies. One perpetually grinning pair of dudes, clad in matching jerseys, announce that they drove out from Castle Rock for the fun. Another holds a sign reading "IF THE CONDOM DOESN'T FIT, YOU MUST ACQUIT" -- a strained witticism of which he seems inordinately proud. Later, a fella holding an ancient basketball on which he's written "KOBE BRYANT -- NOT GUILTY!" in Magic Marker proves to be better at posing than he is at explaining how Bryant has been damaged by the present controversy. The strongest argument he can muster is, "They've taken his bobbleheads off the shelf."
These self-esteem-challenged attention-seekers walk back and forth in front of the assembled cameramen like hookers trolling for customers, and they find loads of takers; the photogs swarm around each new arrival in a way that brings paparazzi stereotypes to life. It's as symbiotic a relationship as anything on the Discovery Channel.
To accommodate both of these groups, local officials have set aside a patch of lawn to the left of the courthouse door using signs reading "Public Viewing Area" and "Bullpen -- No Video"; the only video equipment allowed in the press area is a pool camera. These sectors are separated by silky ropes looped through movable brass poles, and once cameramen start setting up stools and ladders intended to give them an unobstructed view of Bryant, it becomes plain the bullpen needs expanding. Andre recruits Cacioppo to hold one end of a rope, while the other is tied to a nearby tree. Several other workers debate about where to place a lectern. They spend five minutes shifting it from side to side before finally settling on a locale across from the pool camera, which is adjacent to a tripod Cacioppo has set up. A short time later, the lectern winds up flat on the grass, where it stays for over an hour.
Once Cacioppo is relieved of rope-holding duties, he declares that he has to "use the head" and disappears inside the courthouse, giving me an opportunity to further explore the satellite-truck area. The activity level is low, with most of the technicians on duty collapsed on folding chairs, marinating in their own sweat; the sole vendor -- a paper-hatted man peddling "Amadeus Fresh Roasted Nuts" -- has no customers. The busiest person in the vicinity is KOA reporter Alex Stone, who gives update after update for assorted Denver-based Clear Channel stations from beneath a canopy that's surrounded by enormous vehicles, affording him a view of little more than oversized tires. Stone first reported from Eagle about the Bryant matter weeks earlier, and he's seen his share of changes.
"When I first came up here, my hotel room was $45," Stone says. "Now it's $180 -- for the same room."
Channel 31 reporter Phil Keating has an even sadder tale of woe. Fox has been provided with a seat in the courtroom, and Keating figured he'd get it. Too bad the network was under the assumption that the chair would go to an imported anchor, Rita Cosby. Local reporters are often big-footed when national personalities parachute into town to cover breaking news, but Keating wasn't about to take a squashing without complaint. "Damn it, I broke this story," he says. "I deserved a seat." In the end, he and Cosby agreed to a parking-lot coin flip to determine who went to the chair.
"Tails never fails," Keating says. "But it did this time."
Upon my return to the courthouse around 3 p.m., I join Cacioppo as he checks his stack of papers in the lobby; he's disgusted to discover that someone has buried them beneath a pile from another local publication, the Vail Trail. Back outside, he hands me his Nikon Coolpix 2500, a digital camera about the size of a wallet, and repeats instructions for its use.
"You've got to hold down this button for about three seconds," he says shortly before heading into the courtroom. "If you don't do that, you won't get anything."
Once Cacioppo and the others with designated seats have been admitted to the courthouse, the wait for Kobe begins in earnest. The bullpen begins to fill with the likes of the Denver Post's Woody Paige, broiling in an expensive suit of the sort he dons for appearances on ESPN's Around the Horn ("Woody Rises," July 31), and KHOW host Scott Redmond, in hipster-wannabe threads that leave him resembling a more than typically befuddled member of Spinal Tap. It's a motley enough collection of humanity to induce CNN legal analyst Roger Cossack to amble over from his broadcasting platform and take a picture for his scrapbook.
A few feet away, the real photographers step onto their ladders, checking their giant telephoto attachments -- I definitely have lens envy -- and cracking jokes to pass the time. When a helicopter does several sweeps over the area, one cameraman asks, "Is that the president?"
"Maybe Jerry Ford," one of his cohorts volunteers.
"Maybe George Bush," speculates another.
A bundle of purple-and-gold balloons -- Lakers colors -- is carried along by a breeze that does little to dissipate the stench of journalists ripening in the sun. The scent mingles unpleasantly with the perfume worn by a pair of stylishly dressed women who, inexplicably, spend their time in the bullpen discussing a Victoria's Secret catalogue: "I want, like, five things in it. There's a sweater that looks like a regular sweater, but the sleeves open...."
This conversation is interrupted by a rising murmur of voices topped by a shout of "Here they come!" And they do -- a trio of sport-utility vehicles pulls up to the curb in front of the courthouse, and Bryant, sans his wife, is disgorged. I have him directly in my sights, a perfect shot considering that I'm on the ground and not three or four steps above it, but getting him and everyone else around me to stay still for the several seconds it takes for the Coolpix 2500 to do its thing proves to be impossible. I hold down the button -- one, two, three -- and wind up with an excellent image of a cameraman's elbow. I get one more picture off as Bryant enters the door; he's actually in the frame, yet so far away that he could be mistaken for any well-dressed adult male over 5' 8" in height.
Before my failure can sink in, I hurry over to the media tent, which has been overrun by members of the public -- crying children, people calling friends on their cell phones to tell them where they are, and so on. Videographers quickly turn their cameras on the throng to catch their response to what's broadcast on the two screens furnished by Cacioppo, but there's nothing much to see in the tent or in the courtroom. The hearing is every bit as routine as advertised; it's undoubtedly the least significant legal proceeding to ever be broadcast so widely. Seconds after Bryant emits the only words that pass his lips in the courtroom ("No, sir"), a man edges toward the tent's exit, muttering, "I'm outta here. I'll see this on TV a thousand times."
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No disputing that. I scoot back to the bullpen, determined to make up for my disastrous camera performance by digitally capturing Bryant as he leaves, but I'm done in again by the three-second delay. He's in one shot, but because I accidentally zoom out instead of zoom in, he seems several hundred yards away -- and my attempt to photograph him in the SUV as he rides off results in a great image of a wheel well and rear bumper.
Having emerged from the courtroom, Cacioppo cursors through the shots and says, "They're better than nothing," but he doesn't sound too sure. He takes his rightful place as Speakout! photographer, affixing his camera to the tripod across from the lectern, which has been righted again. But the only person who speaks is Jill McFadden, executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and the press in the bullpen can't hear her; the microphone on the lectern goes directly to the network feed and isn't amplified in any way. Reporters and cameramen start wandering away by her second sentence.
As he heads back to the media tent to begin packing up his gear, Cacioppo renders his verdict on the main event. "I'm glad they didn't waste our time going into motions," he says -- plus, the town and the county wound up with more publicity. In that sense, it may have been a silly day, but it certainly wasn't a bad one.
At that moment, a woman of Cacioppo's acquaintance sneaks up behind him and takes his arm. "I thought you might want to interview me," she says. They look at each other and laugh.