Back in the era when information traveled at a rather leisurely pace, news sources could usually afford to wait for publications to correct errors -- but not anymore.
"Today we have a situation where media outlets are monitoring each other's coverage," says Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office. "In broadcast news, when you work the morning shift, you often write stories out of the papers, and the Associated Press utilizes both morning papers for much of their early information. The danger is that misinformation is widely distributed just by the nature of the business."
Indeed, the Internet, 24-hour cable-news channels and other modern-media venues disseminate gaffes just as quickly as they transmit the more reliable stuff. The increase in speed means that folks like Kimbrough, a former journalist with KOA radio who's been at her current job since September 1999, have to accelerate as well, especially when things go wrong. To do so, Kimbrough employs such old-fashioned communication devices as the telephone, as well as higher-tech tools like e-mail. But arguably the biggest gun in her rapid-response arsenal is "Setting the Record Straight," a page on the DA's website, www.denverda.org, that lets DA Bill Ritter and his minions clarify press accounts directly, without having to wait for the media outlets themselves to do it.
The introduction to the page states its purpose plainly: "The Denver District Attorney's Office strives to provide accurate information and proper context to the public through the media on cases and issues of public interest. Occasionally, a story may misrepresent or misinterpret the facts. In those cases, we can 'set the record straight' by making original information available directly to the public."
Far from claiming to have invented this concept, Kimbrough concedes that she borrowed everything about it, including its name, from the Xcel Energy website, www.xcelenergy.com. Mark Stutz, a Denver-based Xcel spokesman, says the company came up with its version of "Setting the Record Straight" in response to a series of pieces by "a former Denver Post columnist" he doesn't name, but which turns out to be Chuck Green. In 2000, "he wrote a scathing column about how Xcel never files for rate decreases," Stutz recalls. "Well, we looked at our records and discovered that of our previous sixty filings, something like 37 of them were for decreases. The cumulative effect may have been a wash, since we flow with the marketplace, but we do sometimes file for decreases, and we told him that. And he turned around and wrote another column saying the same thing the first one had."
Stutz, a former business editor for the Greeley Tribune, could have demanded a correction but wasn't sure that an admission of error would justify the effort. "Even if you win the argument with the print media, you worry that if it was originally a negative story, the correction will just bring everything up again -- or you might tick off the reporter," he says. "But when there's something we really do feel is wrong, we wanted to come up with a way for people who are proactively seeking more information to hear our side. And now they can go to our website and get it."
When Kimbrough discovered Xcel's page, she realized that "Setting the Record Straight" could also work for the DA's office. She's used the site twice in recent months, first in response to "Prisoner of Denver," an article by veteran gonzo scribe Hunter S. Thompson that ran in the June edition of Vanity Fair. The piece centered on Lisl Auman, a young woman who was sentenced to life in prison because of her brief association with Matthaeus Jaenig, a skinhead who murdered Denver police officer Bruce VanderJagt in 1997. Thompson has championed Auman's cause for years, even appearing on the steps of the State Capitol in 2001 for a pro-Lisl rally that co-starred the late Warren Zevon, and his latest broadside directed caustic verbiage at virtually everyone who helped put her behind bars. He called members of the Denver Police Department "a dangerous gang of vengeful, half-bright cowboys with a vicious reputation for brutality" and suggested that, figuratively speaking, Auman was "being brutally raped right in front of my eyes" due to an unjust law and officials who applied it with no regard for common sense.
DA Ritter responded to these accusations with a letter to Vanity Fair's editor, dated May 27, in which he argued that "contrary to the author's many mistaken assertions, Auman was anything but 'provably innocent.'" In truth, Auman was the "catalyst" to a burglary that preceded VanderJagt's slaying, Ritter declared, and that made her "directly and unequivocally responsible, as a matter of law, for the death of a man, because she set into motion the criminal events that led to his death."
Vanity Fair readers have yet to see these remarks. According to Kimbrough, the magazine intends to publish the letter, but not until its September edition. In the meantime, interested parties can read it on "Setting the Record Straight." Under a paragraph that says Thompson's salvo contained "many false statements and misrepresentations," the page provides access to a "statement of facts" and a summary of the Auman case based upon a submission by the Colorado Attorney General's Office to the Colorado Supreme Court, as well as a copy of Ritter's letter.
"Setting the Record Straight" got another workout earlier this month because of "City Cops Could Face Oversight," a report by Jim Hughes published in the Friday, July 16, Denver Post. The page-one story dealt with repercussions from the death of Frank Lobato, who was shot by Denver police officer Ranjan Ford Jr. after he mistook a pop can held by the bedridden Lobato for a weapon. "After a spate of fatal police shootings that has led critics to question the integrity of the entire department," Hughes wrote, "the federal government now is threatening to sue to force policy changes, said Lynn Kimbrough." Later in the piece, Hughes credited Kimbrough with revealing that the subject of "patterns or practices" had come up during a conversation between Ritter and U.S. Attorney John Suthers, pointing out that the phrase can be found in "a 10-year-old law that the Justice Department invokes to sue police departments it considers incapable of operating safely without close oversight."
The rub? Kimbrough insists that she neither confirmed the feds' alleged threat to sue nor provided details of the Ritter-Suthers dialogue. "The attribution to me was wrong," she says.
Because Hughes's account ran on a Friday, Kimbrough knew that at least two days would elapse before any correction appeared; the Post doesn't publish on Saturdays because of the joint operating agreement that ties it to the Rocky Mountain News. So she immediately flew into action. "I called all the TV stations and said, 'If you're writing from the newspaper this morning, I would avoid the Jim Hughes article in the Post, because it's not accurate,'" she says. "In some cases, they weren't using the story. In other cases, they wanted to know what wasn't right. I tried to minimize the impact that misinformation had so that it wouldn't gain legs by other people using the paper as their source."
Meanwhile, Kimbrough went to the "Setting the Record Straight" page and placed three bullet points about the Hughes piece under the heading "The following articles need clarification," including one that maintains that "the federal government is not 'threatening to sue to force policy changes.'" She then sent e-mails, complete with the site's address, to a plethora of media organizations. Within hours, news that the DA's office was disputing portions of the Post account was all over town. Getting the word out was especially important, Kimbrough says, because she and Hughes remember the interview for the July 16 article quite differently.
"After several discussions on Friday, it was pretty clear that Jim and I had a disagreement about what I said in regard to the call between John Suthers and Bill Ritter," she allows. "My position was that I never relayed any information about the content of the talk, because I never knew what the two of them talked about. I'm pretty firm about that. And Jim's recollection was that a comment that included 'patterns or practices' was made in reference to that conversation." She couldn't offer definitive proof of her contention because "I didn't record my end of the conversation, and I don't know that Jim did, either. I guess we just have to agree to disagree."
When asked about their exchange, Hughes demurs. "I don't think I want to get into this in Westword," he says. Nonetheless, the correction printed in the July 18 Post implies that the memory disparity between Kimbrough and Hughes was never resolved. It began by acknowledging that "because of a reporting error," Hughes's story "wrongly said that Lynn Kimbrough...said the federal government is threatening to sue to force policy changes in the Police Department." But the next sentence maintained that Kimbrough had told Hughes that Ritter understood from his discussion with Suthers that "federal prosecutors could be looking at 'patterns or practices' in the Police Department." Since Kimbrough continues to deny this last assertion, it's no wonder she calls the correction "less than satisfactory. I would have been happier had they just used the first sentence, because that is correct."
According to Gary Clark, the Post's managing editor, Hughes's July 16 article was basically on the mark. Post metro editor Lee Ann Colacioppo looked over Hughes's notes and concluded that "this was a case where Jim talked to some people on the record and some people off the record, and perhaps he misattributed some information to Kimbrough," he says. But in "Police Vow Cooperation," a July 19 follow-up article also penned by Hughes, Ritter confirmed that "patterns or practices" came up in his talk with Suthers. "Both stories were accurate," Clark stresses.
Maybe so. But whereas the first piece said that "the federal government now is threatening to sue," the second one included this caveat from the DA: "Ritter said that raising the specter of a lawsuit is 'different than saying there is one or that there will be one.'"
As a result, Kimbrough was pleased by the second Hughes article. "It was more helpful and accurate than the technical correction," she says. Yet she's glad the Post authorized the correction, too, because it will be affixed to archival copies of the piece, thereby preventing the wrong information from sneaking out in the future. The correction is also supposed to turn up at www.denverpost.com, and while the blurb didn't surface online for several days, Clark calls that an oversight. "We take claims of errors in stories very seriously," he says. "We investigate them thoroughly, and we think we do the right thing."
For the most part, they do, Kimbrough says: "I think reporters strive to be very accurate, and I've found that most of them are easy to work with in making sure they get it right, either with a correction or another story that's got the correct information." Unfortunately, this process takes time, and the lag makes "Setting the Record Straight" necessary. "Otherwise," she says, "we'd run the risk of a story with bad information in it traveling around the world before people realize that it's wrong."
Frequency check: A cancer-rate study of people who live near an antenna farm on Lookout Mountain arrived on July 22, and, as with an earlier survey, its findings can be perceived in diametrically opposing ways. A press release from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversaw the research, emphasizes that "there is no conclusive evidence of any linkage of adverse health effects among Lookout Mountain residents to the high-powered broadcast antennas and transmitter towers located in the area west of Denver." In contrast, a release from the City of Golden, which was a party in a 2003 lawsuit filed against the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners to stop the erection of a new tower, proclaimed that the report "shows increased levels of brain and central nervous system cancers in residents living adjacent to broadcast towers on Lookout Mountain."
Neither take is totally off base. As in the 1999 study that this inquiry updates, the health department detected elevated cancer rates in two areas near the towers. Even so, the variety of ailments was such that technicians couldn't say with certainty that the illnesses were caused by radio frequency (RF) exposure. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, something's happening there, but they don't know what it is.
Opponents in the debate over whether a new tower should be built are due to face off again during an August 12 hearing before Jeffco commissioners. (The same officials who rejected construction in 1999 approved it four years later -- something that was misstated in this space last week.) That helps explain the divergent reactions to the recent study's results. Former Channel 4 head honcho Marv Rockford, who serves as spokesman for a consortium of broadcasters dubbed the Lake Cedar Group, released a statement focusing on the absence of a causal link and referring to the report as "a useful and reassuring contribution to the discussion of RF and health." Meanwhile, Deb Carney, an attorney for Canyon Area Residents for the Environment, a homeowners' collective that has spent years fighting the tower, sees the statistics as "another red flag of warning.
"If you go back and read old tobacco studies, you'd see one after another saying, 'There's an elevated rate of lung cancer, but we can't say smoking causes it,'" she says. "That's how science works. They wait until they have absolute proof until they say something. But that's not the way we should decide public-policy health questions."
Clearly, Rockford and Carney share little common ground. Even cancer can't bring them together.
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Quiet zone: On July 27, in a move that surprised absolutely no one, Tim Brown, the CEO of NRC Broadcasting, put out a press release declaring that KNRC, a news-talk outlet at 1150 AM, would immediately pull the plug, and he wasn't joking. The signal vanished after 10 a.m., smack-dab in the middle of Bill O'Reilly's show. Talk about stopping the spin.
Brown's announcement ended a two-year odyssey that began with high hopes and ended in flames. Only weeks after KNRC launched, in July 2002, Brown acknowledged that news talk is an expensive format and predicted that it would take "three to five years to get to where we want to be." Since Brown is the son-in-law of lucre magnet Phil Anschutz, the station seemed likelier than most to receive such a grace period. Unfortunately, KNRC never generated decent numbers with its original approach. Left-leaning hosts Greg Dobbs, who left the station in part over health concerns, and Enid Goldstein subsequently ceded their shifts to conservative yakkers Doug Kellett and Jimmy Lakey. The moves pissed off most of the station's small audience and failed to attract a new one, since KNRC became all but indistinguishable from the rest of the conservative operations on the dial.
Hours after the shutdown, Brown was in a state of shock. "We had full boards all the time and our promotions were always well attended, but it never showed up in Arbitron diaries," he said. Competition didn't help matters; as he put it, "everyone and his dog has a news-talk or sports station on the AM dial."
Beginning on July 30, a music format Brown's keeping under wraps for now makes its bow at 1150 AM, but it may not be heard for long, since the station is currently on the market. Until then, the silence speaks volumes.