According to Wayne Laugesen, a columnist for the Boulder Weekly, there are times when members of the press need to stop observing and start participating.
"Let's say you have a child who's standing, panicked, frightened and crying, on railroad tracks," he allows. "There's a train coming down the tracks, and you're there with a camera and a notebook, watching a tragedy that's about to occur. I think most journalists would say a reporter in that position should run to the tracks and save the child."
He's right, of course -- but that doesn't mean Laugesen's behavior in a situation he sees as similar to this scenario, if considerably less dramatic, would win universal favor. Specifically, Laugesen believed that an order directing local homeowner Paul Wenig to reinstall antiquated windows he'd removed from his historic residence needlessly endangered two children who lived there. Rather than simply writing about this tale, however, Laugesen thrust himself into the middle of it. Without receiving a go-ahead from Wenig, he gathered up seventeen of the old windows and systematically smashed them, then arranged for a bulldozer to run them over. In "A Case for Theft," his September 9 column for the Weekly, Laugesen proclaimed that "every broken window was a score for fatherhood, husbandry and God-given liberty. It was my own Boston Tea Party and a smashing blow against the city's latest attack on family, children, property rights and prosperity."
Boulder officials haven't ruled out the possibility of striking back. Deputy City Attorney Jerry Gordon notes that "we're evaluating whether or not any enforcement action should be taken" against either Laugesen or Wenig. In the meantime, Bohdy Hedgecock, Boulder's historic-preservation planner, says the city had been willing to work with Wenig to resolve the dispute -- something Laugesen would have known had he bothered to phone officials. "It's disappointing when a journalist only talks to one side in an issue like this," Hedgecock maintains. "He obviously spent a long time with Mr. Wenig and his contractor, but he never dug any deeper. And he didn't call us."
Maybe not, but a couple of weeks removed from his commando mission, Laugesen remains entirely guilt-free. "I believe in what I did," he says.
For Laugesen, the window caper is only the latest twist in an idiosyncratic career. He attended Kansas's Fort Hays State University circa the mid-'80s, and, en route to a degree, he applied for and won an internship at Newsweek. For the six months he was there, he worked under Washington, D.C., bureau chief Morton Kondracke, who's now executive editor of Roll Call and a staple on Fox News. "Mort was definitely my mentor," Laugesen says. "He told me the role of the journalist was to act as a watchdog of government, and that's what I've done."
Upon graduation, Laugesen served stints at Kansas's Salina Journal, Arizona's Mesa Tribune, Consumers Research magazine and the States News Service before coming to Colorado. After working for publications as varied as the Longmont Times-Call and Soldier of Fortune magazine, he hooked up with the Weekly, eventually rising to the role of editor. He subsequently left this post to devote himself to Windhover Media, a multimedia company that encompasses the Rosary Project, whose signature product is Holy Baby!, a DVD for toddlers that teaches seven basic prayers in seven languages. Between his Windhover duties, he regularly contributes to the National Catholic Register and writes a column for the Weekly on a freelance basis -- yet he admits that he's less certain than ever that his words have the power to make a difference.
"Back in 1987 or so, the readership was very responsive," he says. "When you uncovered a government atrocity, there'd be phone calls and letters and a mob mentality regarding it, and city hall would back down. But you see less and less of that now. People have become more jaded and more willing to accept abusive government behavior. Simply pointing out a problem no longer fixes it the way it used to."
These thoughts surfaced in a big way after Laugesen found out about the troubles that Wenig and his wife, Leslie Rosenburg, encountered while remodeling a house in Boulder's Mapleton Historic District. Wenig says they tried to make the structure energy-efficient by insulating it and installing a new heating system, but they feared their efforts would be undermined by the original single-pane windows, many of which no longer opened. Safety was also a consideration. Two-year-old Charlie, the older of the couple's two daughters, previously suffered hip dysplasia, a condition in which the top of her femur wasn't in her hip's socket joint. To help her leg heal, Charlie was fitted with a hip brace, and although she's improved enough so that she only has to wear it at night, her gait remains more uncertain than that of the average toddler.
In his column, Laugesen described Charlie as "disabled" and wrote that the hip "throws the girl off-balance, causing her to collide with windows and walls" -- the implication being that if she hit a low-level pane too hard, the damn thing might bust loose and behead her. Wenig concedes that this characterization is "slightly exaggerated. She's still falling a little here and there, but she's doing better." Moreover, historic-preservation planner Hedgecock says Wenig never mentioned potential hazards to his children during the initial round of discussions about replacing the windows.
"Paul came in and talked to me in May, and I told him we'd take the matter to our landmarks design review committee -- and safety didn't come up in either of those instances," Hedgecock recalls.
In the end, the committee concluded that taking out the original windows would violate Boulder policy by adversely affecting "the special character or special historical, architectural or aesthetic interest or value" of the Wenig home. Members also concluded that "alternatives exist to significantly improve energy efficiency without negatively impacting historic materials or character." As a result, Hedgecock says, "the committee wanted to see Mr. Wenig work toward restoring the windows rather than replacing them."
That wasn't good enough for Wenig. His family had been staying in a rental property during restoration, and to expedite their move into the Mapleton house, he and Rosenburg chose to ignore the committee's decree and replace the windows anyway. They hired Eric Doub of Boulder's Ecofutures Building Company to put in double-paned windows that looked as close as possible to the originals but were more trustworthy and economical. In late June, Wenig contacted Hedgecock's staff for permission to paint the sashes and trim, and approval was quickly granted, as personnel assumed that the original windows were in place. They found out differently the next month, when one of Wenig's neighbors informed the city that the original windows had been removed. Upon confirming this tip, the city sent Wenig a letter telling him that he was in violation of local policy. The responses this correspondence received included a missive from Doub declaring that the edict compromised "health and safety."
Hedgecock says Doub's statement was the first time safety came up as a motive for swapping out the windows. The issue arose again at an August 4 hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, which determined that the concerns of Wenig and Rosenburg could have been mitigated without replacing the windows. Because this decision suggested that the city wanted the couple to extract the new windows, which cost them over $20,000, and put back old ones that would require expensive repairs, they asked the Boulder City Council on August 17 to overrule the board. The council declined, but passed a motion requesting staff to took a fresh look at the historic-preservation standards. City Attorney Ariel Calonne also sought middle ground. "Basically, he said that as a common sense approach, we need to decide what the policy is going to be before we make anybody rip anything out or put anything back," Hedgecock stresses. "And I think Mr. Wenig was aware of that."
Wenig confirms that he was. "The city attorney was supposed to begin a dialogue about what was going to happen," he says.
That conversation didn't get very far. After reading about the controversy from an August 22 piece in the Boulder Daily Camera, Laugesen phoned Wenig, who had never heard of him or his column. Upon being informed about Charlie's hip dysplasia and other details that didn't wind up in the Camera article, Laugesen was outraged. His first instinct was to write about this dilemma, "but I knew that a column wasn't going to change anything," he says. "The column would come out, people would read it, some of them would applaud, some would boo, and at the end of the day, this guy would still be faced with the order of putting the windows back, and it would haunt him until he did what they told him." The only solution he saw was for the original windows to disappear.
How could Laugesen make this miracle happen without getting Wenig in even hotter water? One option was to use his column to urge others to confiscate the windows and dispose of them. Unfortunately, Laugesen says, "the windows had unsafe glass in them, and they also had chipping pieces of lead-based paint all over them. It didn't seem responsible to encourage people to actively engage in something dangerous." The solution, he realized, was to personally take on the risk, and after doing some research, "I thought I could do it safely. I could put on gloves and a mask, and I had access to a dump truck. If I dropped them from up on the truck, it would be safer, and it would cause more destruction."
Laugesen picked up the windows while Wenig was at work. When Wenig returned, he says, he "heard that our contractor had taken them away." He discovered their actual fate only after reading Laugesen's column. "I was pretty surprised by it," he says. "We'd spoken the week before, I think. I gave him some background on the story, and he asked me kind of general questions about where the windows were and what we were going to do with them, and we left it at that. And then . . ."
Clearly, Wenig can no longer be compelled to put the old windows back in his house, but because he violated Boulder code by taking them out, he could face some kind of penalty. "The substantive issue isn't whether these windows or those windows are best," Deputy City Attorney Gordon attests, "but whether there's an excuse not to play by the rules this community has established." As for Laugesen, he, too, could be charged, even though Wenig has no intention of filing a complaint against him for taking the windows. Says Gordon, "A criminal violation is an offense against the community, not against a private individual."
The odds of indictment appear slim, but Laugesen doesn't dismiss them. "Politically, it wouldn't look good for the city," he says, "but they don't seem overly concerned with that. They only seem concerned with exerting their own power and control over the people of Boulder." Even so, ending up in the clink could be a positive for him: "A couple of years ago, I asked to do a journalistic stay in Boulder County Jail, because there are a lot of issues there, like overcrowding, but the whole thing fell apart due to liability concerns. So, journalistically, it would serve me well."
Colleagues at the Weekly have been universally supportive, Laugesen says, but letters to the Daily Camera following a September 10 account of his glass attack were decidedly mixed. One scribe commented, "You went Granby, man." For his part, Gil Million, who's restoring his own Boulder home and tried unsuccessfully to purchase Wenig's windows before they were bulldozed into oblivion, is entirely disapproving. "Those were some very valuable windows," Million says. "What he did was a crime."
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Even Laugesen admits that he may have crossed the line. "I expect there are people in our field who'll cry foul," he says. "That won't surprise me -- and they may have a point. But I think what I did was for a higher cause than whatever might transpire from a journalistic debate. If I found myself in a situation where there was an obvious and easy way that I could alter the outcome in such a way that it would reduce human suffering -- and particularly suffering pertaining to a child -- I'd do it again without a second thought."
Community values: The National Newspaper Association held its 118th annual convention and trade show September 15 through 18 at the Adam's Mark Hotel in Denver, but the event received scant attention in the mainstream press. No wonder: The venerable group represents community newspapers, the Rodney Dangerfields of print journalism. Nevertheless, MediaNews Group chieftain and Denver Post owner Dean Singleton poured on the respect during a speech to attendees at a September 16 breakfast. He cited a study showing that, from an economic standpoint, community weeklies have lately outperformed dailies "by a factor of 7 to 1." Dailies were more greatly impacted by the downturn in post 9/11 classified advertising, he told his audience, adding, "You didn't have it to lose, so you didn't lose it."
Later in his speech, which followed a lengthy parade of state flags that gave the gathering the air of a Rotary Club meeting, Singleton insisted that media consolidation, which he's boosted for years, isn't just for "the big boys." In fact, he said, the concept works best in smaller towns, since more affordable properties make it easier to corner the local information market. He's done just that in tiny Graham, Texas, his home town, where he owns three newspapers and two radio stations, along with two others in neighboring Breckenridge.
Singleton predicted that the current ban against cross-ownership -- one company holding the title to, say, a daily newspaper and a television station in the same place -- will be overturned "if the president gets re-elected." The reason conventioneers didn't cheer wildly after this remark, in all likelihood, is that most of them seemed focused on more down-to-earth issues, like high postal rates. Maybe media consolidation is only for the big boys after all.