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The Message

Post columnist David Harsanyi is no conservative wolf in liberal sheep's clothing.
Tony Gallagher

David Harsanyi, the new, officially designated conservative metro columnist for the Denver Post, thought he was being funny.

"They Want Wolves in Colorado?," Harsanyi's June 14 offering, dealt with gray wolves, an endangered species that's recently been reintroduced to the environment in states such as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The possibility that the creatures will start migrating to Colorado in ever greater numbers makes him decidedly uncomfortable. "Beyond the confines of a zoo, I'm not prepared for an unanticipated encounter with a ferocious carnivore," he wrote, adding, "As a native New Yorker, I've had a tough enough time adjusting to those feral prairie dogs." No wonder he responded to news that the carcass of a Yellowstone wolf was discovered near I-70 west of Denver with the quip "That suits me just fine."

Although he says the column was at least partly tongue-in-cheek, Harsanyi, 33, says many of the reactions it generated were anything but. He doesn't mind hearing from folks who disagree with him, declaring, "If it's about the issues, I love to debate." Yet he's considerably less comfortable when criticism leads to personal attacks, as was the case when a reader raised the prospect of Harsanyi's own family winding up dead in a ditch by the interstate. He stirred related thoughts in at least one Montanan. "The guy said if I ever got to Montana, he was going to take my head off and put it on his wall," Harsanyi reports.

Taxidermic threats are new for Harsanyi, whose pre-Post columns generally ran in publications that tilted to the right. "When I was writing for the National Review, I had solely conservatives reading me," he says, "so I didn't get any nasty letters." At the Post, however, he's been positively bombarded with negative missives during his first few weeks on the job, with many correspondents making sweeping generalizations about him based on perceptions of his politics. After the publication of his first column, which endorsed the concept of private-school vouchers, "I had someone write, 'Come on. You don't care about kids. You're a conservative.'" As the married father of two daughters under age three, he says, "that stuff makes me sick."

The vitriolic nature of the assaults on Harsanyi's character is especially surprising given the hysteria-free tone of his columns to date. He's certainly no Ann Coulter, who even kindred spirit Bill O'Reilly implied was unnecessarily shrill during her recent appearance on his Fox News show. (When O'Reilly asked if she thought her effectiveness might be enhanced by turning down the stridency a notch or two, Coulter brusquely told him to check the bestseller list.) Indeed, June 7's "Court Could Give Kids Better Choice," the aforementioned voucher piece, went easy on the splenetic rhetoric, relying on quotes from parents and their attorney rather than overt chest-thumping by Harsanyi. He followed this formula again throughout June 17's "Hispanics Wield Key Vote in State." Harsanyi sided with a Republican spokesman over a de facto Democratic counterpart but gave them roughly equal time.

As for "Reagan's Unheeded Lessons," Harsanyi's June 10 column, it didn't settle for the hagiographic bluster that dominated the media in the days following Ronald Reagan's June 5 death. Again, Harsanyi relied heavily on interviews, quizzing Governor Bill Owens, Independence Institute frontman Jon Caldara, and George Stillings, who leads Colorado's chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay conservative group. Along the way, he contrasted what he saw as Reagan's decisiveness, disdain for polling and disinterest in legislating morality with George W. Bush's track record in these areas -- a comparison that implicitly disparaged the current president.

Such distinctions evidently escaped many left-leaning Post subscribers, who lashed out at Harsanyi as if he'd proposed that the country be renamed the United States of Gipper. Then again, Denver-area readers have had little recent experience with local columnists on the conservative side of the continuum. The Post has long published the musings of Al Knight and Ken Hamblin, whose beliefs are reliably Republican, but their work appears deep within the editorial pages, not in the higher-profile Denver & the West section. That makes Chuck Green, who left the Post under a cloud in early 2002, the closest thing to a conservative metro columnist the Post has had in years -- and while Green was a dog lover, he wasn't a dogmatist. Since then, liberals Diane Carman, Jim Spencer and, until recently, Cindy Rodriguez haven't had to share space with ideological opposites. Rocky Mountain News metro columnists Mike Littwin, Bill Johnson and Tina Griego are in a similar situation. They're stylistically different enough to provide readers with some variety, but none of them come within a country mile of conservatism.

According to data made public last month by the Pew Research Center, this disparity extends well beyond the ranks of columnists. The organization polled 547 media pros and discovered that of those employed by national organizations, 34 percent call themselves liberal, as opposed to just 7 percent who say they're conservative. The remainder prefer to be called "moderate," but Harsanyi isn't so sure that all of them truly are. He thinks that "'liberal' has become a word many liberals shy away from. They use words like 'progressive,' which is a genius word, because how can you be against progressing? But conservatives have embraced the word 'conservative.'"

At the same time, Harsanyi notes that these dividing lines are seldom as impenetrable as surveys make them seem. "I don't think all liberals are monolithic in their views, or conservatives, either," he says. For instance, he has no problem with gay marriage, and he opposes the constitutional amendment banning such matches that's being pushed by Representative Marilyn Musgrave, "which shows that it's more complicated than only being liberal or only being conservative. I don't think people are so one-dimensional. Plenty of people walk in lockstep, but I don't think most do."

Harsanyi's Hungarian parents had the biggest impact on his own beliefs. His father was a chemist by trade and an ardent anti-Communist by choice, and during a vacation to Italy in 1969, he and his wife defected from their native land, aided by organizations that specialized in helping members of the Jewish faith, like them, escape totalitarian rule. After living in Rome for a year, they relocated to the New York City borough of Queens, where David, the first of three sons, was born; later, the clan put down roots on Long Island. Unable to work as a chemist because of the language barrier, David's father supported his growing family by working as a diamond-setter. His mother subsequently went back to school and became an accountant, which helped keep the Harsanyis "in the middle of the middle class," David says.

During his teenage years, Harsanyi flirted with libertarianism before deciding that the system is "unworkable in this country." Strands of libertarian thought survived this conclusion, but he says he eventually embraced "Reagan conservatism: lower taxes, strong national defense, letting people make their own choices." He didn't immediately become a public proselytizer for these values, however. After graduating from Long Island University, where he focused on communications, he landed in the sports-journalism field, covering baseball and the like for SportsIllustrated.com and the Associated Press. But he says his political convictions made him an odd man out, anyhow.

"Because I worked in sports, it wasn't a main topic -- but people were extremely surprised any time they found out I wasn't a Democrat or a liberal," he allows. "I've lost friends over those kinds of things."

Nonetheless, Harsanyi didn't shy away from sharing his opinions. At the AP, he branched out into book reviewing, and his success in this arena inspired him to write some political columns on his own time. Papers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard began picking up his efforts, and before long, he'd earned a reputation as a young conservative journalist on the rise. Meanwhile, his pro-Israel salvos brought him to the attention of the Jewish Republican Coalition, where he was hired to work as a press secretary. He'd only been in this role for a few months when the Post came calling at the behest of editor Greg Moore, who determined that a conservative columnist would make the daily more diverse.

"I feel very comfortable around liberals," Harsanyi contends, and that's fortunate, because he's been knee-deep in them for as long as he can remember. In lieu of quantifying the ratio of lefties to righties in New York newsrooms, he relates an anecdote shared with him by someone who worked at the New York Times in 2000: "Every time Al Gore won a state, the place exploded with applause." He maintains that bias of this sort often affects articles intended to be entirely objective. "I read stories by some reporters and I can't tell where they stand, and that's great," he says. "But most journalists are intelligent, and it's hard for intelligent people not to have an opinion on big issues -- and when they do, it's hard for their feelings not to bleed over."

In an impressive display of restraint, Harsanyi avoids accusing scribes at the Post of partisan hemophilia. He's read the paper since he was first approached about a job, but says too little time has passed to render a balanced judgment. Whatever the case, he's pleased about how welcoming everyone on staff has been -- among them Carman and Spencer, who've seen the placement of their columns switch on occasion since his arrival, and Rodriguez, whose move to features prevented a worse logjam. Neither is he bothered by the random co-worker who acts as if he's never had a Republican colleague before. "There's been a little bit of that," Harsanyi concedes. "Like, ŒYou're the conservative columnist?'"

Despite this label, Harsanyi hopes that readers with a multitude of perspectives will give his columns a try. Even wolf lovers are welcome. "I don't want to eradicate a species of animal," he stresses. "It's just that I don't want to meet a wolf in my back yard. I'm scared of any kind of predator."

Including the kind who write letters to the editor.

Obscene and not heard: When University of Colorado president Elizabeth "Betsy" Hoffman sat down to testify in a lawsuit alleging that CU used sex and alcohol to entice football recruits, she probably didn't know how much trouble she'd be making for the mainstream media.

A lawyer asked Hoffman about former CU placekicker Katie Hnida's allegation that a fellow player called her a "cunt." In reply, Hoffman insisted that she'd heard the vulgarism used as a "term of endearment." (She subsequently argued that she was thinking of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, not hard-core porn.) Of course, the Denver Post's Jim Hughes and Adam Schrager of the Post's TV partner, Channel 9, who first revealed this wacky exchange on June 15, couldn't use the word in question because of their status as family-friendly operations. They wound up calling it "a certain derisive term for women...often described as the 'c-word.'"

Other news operations played variations on this theme. On June 16, the Rocky's Kevin Vaughan doubled readers' pleasure, using both "c-word" and "c---." The next day, Vaughan's colleagues mixed things up even more, with John Ensslin mentioning "a pejorative word referring to the female anatomy" and columnist Mike Littwin noting that CU is halfway to "CU**." Still, Channel 31 earned top marks. During its June 16 newscast, the station cited a profane c-word that pertained to a woman's genitalia, thereby eliminating the possibility that the foul-mouthed footballer had momentarily gotten confused and called Hnida a "cock."

One thing's for sure: "C" isn't for "cookie."


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