The Message
Mark Poutenis

The Message

How incestuous is the relationship between the Denver business community and the local media? Recent events in the life of one Eugene Dilbeck provide plenty of clues. On November 4, Dilbeck was sacked as president and CEO of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, following a Channel 7 package that, among other things, purported to show employees of the organization attending a mixer at the Diamond Cabaret, whose menu offers drinks, appetizers and a fulsome supply of bare breasts. In a November 6 Rocky Mountain News article co-written by business editor Rob Reuteman, Dilbeck bemoaned his dismissal and made disdainful remarks about Denver Business Journal publisher Scott Bemis, who's slated to become the bureau's next board chairman. Then, that same day, the bureau staged its annual membership meeting, emceed by none other than...Rob Reuteman.

In some ways, the meeting felt like a variation on Big Brother, with all of the principals assembled in a confined space (the Continental Ballroom at the Westin Tabor Center) after voting out one of their cohorts. Concern lurked beneath the surface, but smiles were on prominent display. So, too, was the bash's slogan, "The New Vision for Denver," which, given the role a strip club played in Dilbeck's downfall, took on a meaning that city boosters probably didn't anticipate.

Nonetheless, Tony Kovaleski, the Channel 7 investigator whose piece on the bureau set events in motion, and Byron Grandy, the station's news director, contend that their story wasn't really about naked flesh. "A lot of people are losing focus as to what the true story is," says Kovaleski. "It's about public accountability." Adds Grandy, "We had discussions about making sure we didn't overplay the strip-club portion or make that element of the story any longer than it needed to be to make the point. It was merely an example of why we felt any organization receiving the amount of public funds they do ought to be more accountable."

Perhaps, but the offering in question, which aired October 30 on the cusp of the sweeps ratings period, frequently referred to establishments specializing in naughty bits. In their introduction, anchors Mike Landess and Anne Trujillo briefly mentioned the mission of the visitors bureau before raising issues about how the organization was spending its money. In tossing to Kovaleski, Landess said, "Accountability and a strip club -- explain that, Tony."

Instead of doing so directly, Kovaleski emphasized that the bureau "refuses our requests to open its books, to explain how it's spending your tax dollars" in advance of the taped presentation, which kicked off with the reporter sitting across from current bureau board chairman Walter Isenberg. He asked Isenberg if it would be acceptable for the bureau to buy sporting-event tickets, trips to Europe or cases of wine -- luxuries purchased by agencies in Cleveland and Dallas that were highlighted by local TV exposés in those cities. He next inquired about the propriety of "spending money in strip clubs," but before Isenberg could reply, the image froze and Kovaleski said, "Wait. First a little background."

Tourism-oriented footage followed, as did more talk about suspect expenditures in Cleveland and Dallas and comments by Denver City Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie. Afterward, the screen projected images of people with electronically distorted faces entering the Diamond Cabaret for what was described as an officially sanctioned bureau event; also seen were black-and-white, hidden-camera shots taken inside the venue. Then it was back to Isenberg, who decried the idea of staging a bureau event at a strip club. Finally, Kovaleski asked Isenberg if he was aware of the bureau visit to the Diamond. He capped an exceedingly uncomfortable performance with an especially embarrassing line: "I'm not aware of anything."

How shocking any of this was is debatable. The Diamond Cabaret is a member of the bureau; it reportedly paid for the party, meaning public funds weren't used (Kovaleski acknowledged in his report that he had no evidence tax dollars had wound up in any G-strings); and the gathering itself took place in a private room that no dancers visited. Finally, Dilbeck didn't even attend the controversial festivities, nor was he so much as mentioned in Kovaleski's initial salvo. "It wasn't about him," Kovaleski says.

Hence, Channel 7 can't be held responsible for Isenberg and company using the report as an excuse to hurry Dilbeck out the door, or for creating the impression that the Diamond Cabaret episode motivated his ejection -- a botch that might give the ousted chief fertile grounds for a wrongful-termination lawsuit. Grandy also notes that City Auditor Dennis Gallagher is conducting an audit of the bureau. "That's been more under-reported than anything else," Grandy says of the investigation, which actually began well before Kovaleski's piece ran. For Kovaleski's part, he's displeased that most articles in the Rocky and the Denver Post about the Dilbeck situation have characterized the Channel 7 story as being about strip clubs, not the public's right to know how its cash is being spent.

Acting as if the strip club was parenthetical to the report is awfully disingenuous. In a literal sense, exotic dancers sexed up what could have been a dry story in much the same way that a recent Westword feature about a proposed peel-joint ordinance in Sheridan was more interesting than the typical account of city-government doings ("Skin City," October 30). Pixilating the shots taken outside the Cabaret was grabby as well, although it may have created the perception that attendees were doing something criminal, when they were going to a perfectly legal business that's mainstream enough to rate regular blurbs in the daily papers' gossip columns. At least one insider wondered if the video was distorted because Channel 7 couldn't be sure everyone pictured worked for the bureau, but Kovaleski calls that "a moot point. It wasn't about the individuals who were there. It was about an organized event Walter Isenberg said was not acceptable."

To Grandy, criticism that Kovaleski's story lacked substance is unfounded -- and he uses a Channel 9 sweeps series by Paula Woodward about loafing workers to bolster his argument. "So one Parks employee is screwing off during work? Is that a story? Are you indicting all the people at Parks and Rec because one person is screwing off -- in the summer? Our story is much larger than that."

Neil Westergaard, editor of the Denver Business Journal, begs to differ; he describes the Channel 7 disclosures as having "no there there." He feels otherwise about the November 4 Rocky exclusive with Dilbeck, and for a very good reason. His boss, the aforementioned Scott Bemis, is a central player. According to the article, Dilbeck and his wife "had just spent three days at Bemis' second home in Cuchara in southwest Colorado. 'And now I know that the decision had already been made to fire me,' Dilbeck said. 'We spent the whole weekend together, and I didn't get so much of a peep that something is wrong.'" To that, Bemis said telling Dilbeck the guillotine was about to fall "would have been a total violation of my responsibilities to the bureau's executive committee."

Bemis was just as closemouthed with his own publication. He knew for days, or possibly even a couple of weeks, that Dilbeck was on the road to Unemploymentville and didn't share anything with Westergaard. The scoop went elsewhere, but Westergaard says he understands: "When Scott serves on a board in the community, he tells those people that decisions made in the rooms are confidential. He gives them his word that he's not going to share with me, and I'm okay with that."

The visitors bureau board is hardly the only one on which Bemis sits. He's involved in the same manner with the United Way, Junior Achievement and the DIA Partnership. Moreover, other heavy media hitters have chaired the bureau board in the past, including former Rocky publisher Larry Strutton and ex-Channel 7 general manager John Proffitt -- and Channel 4 general manager Walt DeHaven is just one of the broadcasters on the board at present. Bemis thinks that assisting the bureau is his civic responsibility. "Our business is reporting on our business community," he says, "and I strongly believe we need to give back to that community."

Times when Bemis is privy to information he can't give to Westergaard's minions are rare, he insists, with the Dilbeck case being the most extreme situation he can recall. "But 95 percent of the things we talk about at meetings can be discussed with them," he maintains. "I often can chat with someone before a meeting and say, 'Can you talk about that yet? Can I have a reporter talk to you?' We've gotten a lot of great stories from my being out there and being involved with the community.

"I've never asked our editor to either do a story or to kill a story because I'm on a board," Bemis goes on. "And when I'm on a board, I set the ground rules right away. I tell them if things are talked about that are strictly confidential, I am not going to run back to the office to reveal what we just discussed. They have to realize that we pay reporters to get the news, and if by any chance something were to show up that had been covered in a meeting, then it does. But I give them my word that it didn't come from me."

In regard to Dilbeck, Bemis certainly kept mum. Westergaard is philosophical about the result. "When I saw the story in the Rocky," he says, "I probably had the same reaction [editor] Greg Moore had over at the Post. I thought the Rocky had a helluva story."

Rocky business editor Reuteman, who co-wrote the Dilbeck piece with reporter John Rebchook, didn't have to look hard for his subject. "Eugene called me and said he wanted to come over and talk," Reuteman allows. "And I thought: Oh my God. My name is going to be on a story tomorrow morning, and then I'm going to co-host this lunch." Whether the timing of the membership meeting had anything to do with Dilbeck's decision to speak with Reuteman is unclear, but he certainly knew about the emceeing gig. He personally asked Reuteman to handle microphone duties nearly three months ago.

Reuteman's efforts on behalf of the visitors bureau raise issues that aren't so obvious when it comes to Bemis. The Journal publisher doesn't have editorial control, but Reuteman often oversees coverage of the bureau -- and on the day of the meeting, he even wrote about the group. Still, he says he has "marching orders to do a lot of public speaking, a lot of moderating panels, going to a lot of charity events. Whenever people in the business community want a representative of the News, I often act as that."

Such invites seldom cause awkwardness, Reuteman says, but he concedes that when the bureau started making headlines, "I wondered, 'Are there any basic conflicts of interest'" in respect to emceeing the meeting. "I asked [Rocky editor/publisher/president] John Temple about it several times, and he said, 'I don't really see a conflict,' and I said, 'I don't see one, either,' but it felt weird. It had some of the trappings of a conflict, but I didn't feel that way, and I don't think the coverage reflects that."

Indeed, the Reuteman-Rebchook article couldn't have made bureau big shots very happy. Yet the meeting gig still required some ethical navigation. Reuteman told planners that he couldn't appear unless Dilbeck's axing was addressed -- Isenberg did the dirty work -- and he had to tinker with the script to make it plain he was independent from the bureau. "They used the collective 'we,' so that it seemed like I was an employee," he says. "I rewrote that stuff so I wouldn't seem like anything other than a detached observer, I hope successfully."

Not always. During his introduction of Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, Reuteman touted Hick accomplishments such as luring two future conventions to the city and described him as "the man who's going to help Denver be a great city." While these words directly echoed a line from a bureau video that played before Hickenlooper came to the stage, making for a nice transition, it still sounded as if Reuteman was personally endorsing the new mayor. But for the most part, Reuteman says, "I tried to walk the line."

Which, in this town, ain't easy.

Loose lips: On November 5, KNRC talk-show host Enid Goldstein dived headfirst into l'affaire Dilbeck, slapping Channel 7 so vigorously that Tony Kovaleski phoned in to offer a defense. To her, the station's actions showed how the media blows insubstantial stories out of proportion even as things of genuine interest are ignored. To illustrate this theory, she read an e-mail whose unnamed author said that Governor Bill Owens, who's currently separated from his wife, Frances, is involved in extramarital shenanigans. The e-mail went on to cite buzz that Westword was working on a story that would catch the guv with his pants down.

Radio scenesters joke that KNRC is listener-free, but obviously someone's out there, because by the end of last week, Westword's purported blockbuster was the talk of the Capitol. However, there's a little problem: No such article exists at the present time.

Goldstein isn't interested in being quoted on this topic, saying, "The show speaks for itself." In that forum, she hinted that the local media may be exhibiting either gutlessness or favoritism by not reporting about alleged Owens trysts -- but the journalistic requirement for facts likely has a lot more to do with it. Whispers about why the Owens marriage is on the rocks (some entirely benign, others less so) have sounded for months, and probably a half-dozen alleged explanations continue to circulate. Sources reveal that staffers at both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post have done some digging into this speculation without unearthing anything publishable.

As for Westword, the paper certainly wouldn't shy away from printing the equivalent of the famous photo showing Gary Hart and Donna Rice cuddling in front of a boat called the Monkey Business. But something that incontrovertible would be necessary. In June 1990, Westword published a story by reporter Bryan Abas headlined "The Rumor About Romer," which argued that an alleged love match between Governor Roy Romer and aide B.J. Thornberry was affecting how the administration operated. Shortly after the issue came out, Romer held a press conference in which he denied any infidelity and painted Westword as an irresponsible slime purveyor. The backlash was immediate; the Denver Film Festival dumped the paper as a sponsor. The black mark wasn't entirely erased until 1998, when Washington, D.C.-based Insight magazine published a report on the Romer-Thornberry pairing backed up by photos of a six-minute smooch in a car parked at Dulles Airport. Romer's subsequent confession, which confirmed the verity of Westword's original story, was satisfying -- but nearly eight years too late.

Truth is terrific, but proof is even better. And without that, no responsible media figure will move forward. Irresponsible media figures have the field to themselves.


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