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The Message

The August 31 announcement that Colorado Governor Bill Owens and his wife, Frances, had separated after 28 years of marriage was news, plain and simple. After all, the Owenses are probably the state's most prominent couple, particularly given the split last year of John and Janet Elway. Besides, Owens's frequently stated reverence for the sanctity of the family unit has long informed his persona, and he's often used Frances and the offspring they share for symbolic purposes in vote-soliciting spots and public appearances. In a sense, then, it was Owens himself who made his marital status worthy of coverage.

Nonetheless, reporting about personal issues outside the realm of the celebrity press (where circumspection died an ugly death ages ago) is like going on a blind date with one of Saddam Hussein's daughters: a no-win situation. News organizations that aggressively pursue details of the story open themselves up to charges of wallowing in someone's personal misery, while ones that present the bare minimum of info may be accused of doing political favors. And even staking out the middle ground isn't easy, as Denver Post editor Greg Moore and Post columnist Diane Carman discovered in the wake of the Owens disclosure.

The Post and the Rocky Mountain News ran pieces about the separation on September 1, laying out the basic facts, getting reactions from elected officials such as state senator John Andrews and gingerly touching upon attendant issues. Take Julia C. Martinez, writing in the Post, who asked folks like Democratic political consultant Eric Sondermann if a divorce might undermine the guv's ability to run for higher office. (Some observers see Owens as presidential material, although he's never publicly expressed a desire to move from Colorado to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.) Sondermann said he felt it was ³premature and slightly inappropriate² to speculate on the subject.

Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple doesn't encourage uneducated guesses about the Owens fissure, either. But because, in Temple's view, even the governor sees it as a legitimate news item -- "Otherwise, why would he have issued a statement?" Temple asks -- he doesn't feel that different standards should be applied to the story. His paper's approach is the "same as everything: We ask questions and then determine what we think is newsworthy and publishable." Along those lines, he thinks his columnists should feel free to write about it if the spirit moves them, and says he has "not given any guidance" to those who've decided to do so.

Thus far, the main Rocky columnist to take advantage of this opportunity is Mike Littwin. His September 2 submission, "A 'Family-Values' Governor's Marriage Falls Apart," began with an expression of compassion for the gubernatorial couple. Yet he filled the majority of his space with negative critiques of "Owens and [Congresswoman] Marilyn Musgrave and [state representative] Dave Schultheis and other so-called champions of marriage and family" for their desire to legislate certain wedlock-oriented notions.

In 2001, Schultheis sponsored legislation that critics dubbed the "Dr. Laura Bill"; it would have required any parents seeking a divorce to undergo mandatory marital counseling. Littwin wrote that the measure "apparently came directly out of the governor's office" and suggested that Owens decided to keep it at arm's length only after "the bill was held up to national ridicule." He added, "Now that Owens is going through the pain of this himself, I wonder if he might have second thoughts about the prospect of bringing the government, or Dr. Laura, into his private world." Likewise, Littwin argued that the Musgrave-sponsored "Defense of Marriage Act," a decree essentially banning gay marriage in Colorado that Owens signed into law, turned relationships that should be every bit as private as the governor's current circumstances into matters of public policy. "It's one thing to promote values," Littwin maintained. "It's another to say your values must be accepted by everyone."

Defensible points all, but Littwin's eagerness to make ideological hay out of a potential Owens breakup felt a bit unseemly. The timing, not to mention the finger-wagging tone (which was only partially mitigated by Littwin's assertion that it was "no one's business" what went on behind closed doors), provided ammo for any conservative eager to decry the excesses of the "liberal media."

Even the Post's Moore, whom plenty of local observers see as tilting markedly to the left, wasn't thrilled by Littwin's effort. He says "'dislike' is too strong a word" to describe his reaction, but notes that during a visit to the Post newsroom on the day the column was published, he told projects editor Dan Meyers, "I don't want us to do that."

"Half the people in this country get divorced, and it's something intensely personal," Moore elaborates. "We've got to be careful in how we deal with it," particularly in an opinion-laden context. He emphasizes that he had no intention of banning his columnists -- Carman, Jim Spencer and Cindy Rodriguez -- from taking on the theme. He just wanted to make sure that it would be done in a responsible way. "If we get a nugget of news, an interview with his wife, something about how this trial separation affects how he does his job, that's fair game," he says. "I just didn't want anyone going off half-cocked."

 

After Moore conveyed these thoughts to Meyers, who edits the columnists, the latter sent out an e-mail relating them to his charges. Rodriguez declines to verify that she received this message or to comment on it if she did; corresponding by e-mail, she says only, "Greg has never told me what to write or what not to write.... I wasn't planning to write about Owens's separation." (Rodriguez must have copied this message to Moore, because a few seconds after it arrived on my computer, I received a misdirected reply the editor evidently meant for Rodriguez that read "I love you." My response? "Thanks for the kind words -- but I'm married.")

For their part, Spencer and Carman say that Meyers's missive was delivered to them, and Spencer didn't find it confusing. What came across to him was a philosophy he shares with Moore: "If you've got reportable, verifiable news that has an impact on the public's interest, that's where the column is. It's not about opining on what may or may not have happened."

To Carman, though, the e-mail seemed quite restrictive. In retrospect, she realizes that "the editors, as they are inclined to do when it comes to the big boss, overreacted" -- but at the time, she immediately began to worry about how this philosophy would apply to a column she was writing. Owens, Carman learned, had canceled a pair of speeches he was scheduled to make in October to members of individual religious organizations: Colorado Springs's Focus on the Family and the Pennsylvania Family Institute. Moreover, the governor had pulled the plug specifically because of what was happening in his marriage.

These details had the makings of a fine story that Carman was already putting together, but she was suddenly uncertain if she'd be allowed to pursue it further. So, she says, "I had an exchange of e-mails with Greg. I told him, 'I'm working on a column about the impact this could have on [Owens] politically. Does that mean you don't want me to do that?' And he wrote back, not knowing what I had, and said, 'I'd look for another topic.'"

Despite looming deadline pressure, Carman did so. After letting Moore know that she was passing along the information about the aborted Owens speeches to Post political editor Rebecca Cantwell, she cranked out "Visa Process Frustrates Kin, U.S. Outreach," a column about a Denver couple whose Salvadoran relatives won't be allowed to attend their September 20 wedding because of post-9/11 red tape and paranoia. The narrative turned up on September 3 in Carman's usual slot, the cover of the Post's Denver & the West section -- a nice setting, but not nearly as prominent as the page-one placement of "Governor Cancels Speeches After Split: Talks to 2 Family-Oriented Groups Dropped." In a tag, Carman was listed as a contributor to the article, but it was credited to political scribe Susan Greene and reporter Joey Bunch.

The Greene-Bunch collaboration unquestionably fit within the parameters Moore drew; it was a newsworthy scoop that only the least objective, most partisan readers could call exploitative. Nonetheless, Carman had a tough time enjoying her part in the accomplishment: "I've got to admit -- and I said this to Greg -- that when I saw the paper and saw my reporting on page one, I was furious. I share a lot of my reporting with people, and I don't have any problem with that. But to be pulled off the story and then somebody else have it on page one was upsetting to me."

Shortly thereafter, Carman asked for, and was granted, an audience with Moore, whom she's known since her time at the Cleveland Plain Dealer; back in the day, Moore says, Carman used to edit him. It didn't take long to sort things out. "It was a misunderstanding -- one of those major miscommunications that took place too late in the day," Carman says. "I'm now very clear on what he wants and am in complete agreement with him. He wants us to adhere to standards of good reporting and not take easy potshots or ridicule the governor for a tragic family situation, and I would never do that. I've been divorced, and I understand how these things feel."

Since then, musings about Bill and Frances have found their way to the Post's opinion pages, over which Moore has no content control. On September 5, Reggie Rivers checked in with an offering that explored "the anger that many Coloradans, particularly gays, feel toward elected officials who trot out 'family values' as the reason the government should discriminate against homosexuals, while those same politicians demand privacy for themselves in the conduct of their personal lives." Veteran political scribe Fred Brown, meanwhile, tendered a September 5 column that pretty much limited itself to an examination of political repercussions.

 

The Rocky has spilled more ink as well, even going so far as to put a jumbo photo of Frances on its September 4 cover after she made her first public appearance since reports of her relationship troubles surfaced, reading to children at the Parker Library the day before. She kept mostly mum about her marriage, as did her husband during a September 8 visit to the studio of KOA gabber Mike Rosen, an extremely sympathetic inquisitor who said he's known the Owenses for years. After Rosen informed listeners that calls about marital difficulties wouldn't be accepted, Owens referred briefly to having had a "tough week," stated that he and Frances are "trying to work through" their problems, and concluded with, "I've said all I'm going to say about it. It's something between Frances and me." Elapsed time: about thirty seconds.

Owens is known for dealing deftly with the media. For instance, he just happened to release news of the separation in the middle of Labor Day weekend, guaranteeing that it would appear in the Denver dailies when readership is lower than nearly any other day of the year. Whether Owens also phoned Post owner Dean Singleton and the Rocky's Temple around the time his marital woes were reaching the public is less clear. "The governor did make personal calls on Sunday afternoon," says Owens spokesman Dan Hopkins. "He wanted some of his friends to know what had happened before the news coverage began, but he's not going to disclose to whom he made those personal calls." Owens considers Singleton and Temple friends, Hopkins concedes, "but that doesn't mean he called them."

Temple follows Hopkins's lead. "I don't discuss any private conversations I have," he says, "so I'm not going to discuss whether or not I did have a conversation with anybody in my office or in my capacity as editor." Singleton feels the same: "I'm not going to comment on any conversations that are personal in nature, but I can assure you that I get involved in no news coverage at the Denver Post. I don't think owners should get involved in news coverage."

For his part, Moore says he met with Singleton on September 1, and "we talked about this as well as a lot of things. But this is something I feel strongly about. We talked about this with Elway's situation, too. This is different, of course, but some of the decisions are the same. We just don't want to take cheap shots."

Everybody's doin' it: Journalists in the 49 other states only wish campaigns in their neighborhood were as wacky as the one under way in California. The race to (maybe) replace Governor Gray Davis has attracted a cast of characters straight out of director Tod Browning's carny cult flick Freaks, with candidates running the gamut from near-midgets (diminutive sitcom pro Gary Coleman, whose entry fee was paid by the East Bay Express, an Oakland-based sister paper of Westword) to bulgy cinematic giant Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As the current Republican frontrunner, Schwarzenegger has attracted plenty of attention and drawn fire from the likes of www.thesmokinggun.com, an inquisitive Web site that recently uncovered a saucy interview the former Mr. Universe gave to Oui, a defunct skin mag, back in 1977. Not only did Schwarzenegger say he'd participated in a "gang bang" with a "black girl" who "came out naked" at a Venice, California, gym, but he provided details on the mindset of those willing to join in; participants were "just the guys who can fuck in front of other guys. Not everybody can do that. Some think that they don't have a big-enough cock, so they can't get a hard-on." Arnold admitted to no such difficulty with his equipment: "Women have told me they're curious about its size -- you know, outgoing chicks who're just trying to be outrageous or horny. I hear all kinds of lines, including, 'Oh, you're hurting me; you're so big.'"

Remind me: Do steroids pump up that area, too? Or do they make it shrivel?

In public statements made after his Oui declarations rose again, Schwarzenegger said he had "no memory" of the article in question -- but his candor during the '70s seemingly inspired Clear Channel radio personalities Peter Boyles and Reggie McDaniels. On Boyles's August 29 KHOW chat show, while discussing the possible fallout from the Schwarzenegger bombshell, the two men revealed that they'd lost their virginity in group-sex situations. "It was when I was 13, and I'd been playing baseball with older guys; I think the girl was about 17," Boyles says. "And much the same thing happened with Reggie as a young kid in St. Louis."

 

Boyles wondered if such an indoctrination to the ways of the flesh was a relative rarity or a commonplace "blue-collar, working-class-poor experience," so he tossed out the subject to listeners. According to him, "Some people called the show and were upset that we'd even brought it up. But others said they'd had similar experiences. I would imagine that a lot of guys had experiences like that."

As for me, the only woman I've had sex with is my wife, and we don't like crowds. As a youngster, however, I reserved a special place in my heart, and elsewhere, for virtually every model in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Does it count as group sex if I flipped through the pages?


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