On October 7, separate stories on the same topic that ran in the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News prompted plenty of head-scratching, but for very different reasons.
A day earlier, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch had decreed that the woman accusing Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant of rape must use her real name in the civil action she's registered against him. In its front-page article on the ruling, the Post neglected to mention that the Rocky had filed a motion with Matsch asking that he strip away the woman's Jane Doe status -- an omission that shortchanged readers for the most petty of reasons. (The Post did mention the Rocky the next day, in a less prominent piece that ran sans byline.) Meanwhile, the Rocky reported that editor/publisher/president John Temple has decided not to print the woman's name "for now," even though Matsch agreed with arguments made by the paper and by Bryant's defense team, which submitted a similar motion.
The "for now" part of this passage is key. Temple states that while the Rocky hasn't printed the woman's name to date, he will "continue to talk to people here and see what the right thing to do is at the right time." Even so, he says he won't be swayed by the likely avalanche of media organizations that will begin naming the woman once Matsch's order becomes official. (That will happen on October 20 unless the plaintiffs appeal or the parties reach a settlement, as has long been anticipated.) "It's not a concern for me to be out of step with other news organizations," Temple maintains.
So if printing the name isn't that big a deal to the Rocky, why rev up the company lawyers in the first place? "It's really a legal issue we're dealing with here," Temple says. "I think such high-profile cases can tend to set the tone for how people think the courts should operate. I don't want to see anything happen that encourages the idea of using the courts anonymously, and that's what's occurring."
True enough -- but the messiness of the Bryant matter makes it an unlikely test case for determining whether the names of alleged rape victims should wind up in the mainstream press. Ever since July 2003, when the woman told Eagle County authorities that Bryant had forced her to have sex at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, pro-Kobe factions have zealously circulated her appellation over the Internet. Googling the phrase "Kobe Bryant accuser" after Matsch's ruling turned up a document containing her handle on just the fifth hit. In addition, entire websites are devoted to dissing her by name. Among the most extensive of these Internet destinations is www.fratpack.com, which brims with photos and articles written from the viewpoint of Laie Weatherwax, who's described as an "ex-college friend." In a piece that also appeared in the Globe, a supermarket tabloid, Weatherwax claims that the woman is a celebrity obsessive who once schemed to score with Eminem during his late 2002 visit to Vail.
Given the prevalence of such poison, the discussion about formally identifying her might seem purely academic. Nevertheless, major newspapers and broadcast stations across the country have resisted the urge to do so even though the criminal charges against Bryant were dropped last month, leaving only a civil complaint.
If any local paper would seem likely to swim against the tide, it's the Boulder Daily Camera, whose policy during recent years has called for the publication of all names in civil complaints. This philosophy sparked ire in 2002 when the Camera, under former editor Colleen Conant, named Lisa Simpson, one of three young women currently suing the University of Colorado at Boulder over a December 2001 party attended by football recruits at which she says she was raped. Simpson subsequently chose to publicly ID herself, but earlier this year, she told the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee that seeing her name for the first time in the Camera "was like being raped all over again."
The woman in the Bryant case hasn't received such treatment because Sue Deans, who's edited the Camera since September 2003, has a less cut-and-dried approach to civil cases than her predecessor. "To me, a policy is something that may need to be amended, depending on the circumstances," Deans allows. She, like Temple, will hold a newsroom discussion before determining whether to identify Bryant's accuser.
As for the Rocky, it's previously played the name game in ultra-conservative fashion. In February the paper published the moniker of a woman who joined Lisa Simpson's suit against CU. A few days later, however, the Rocky reversed course following complaints from the woman's lawyer. An item explaining the flip-flop declared, "The News does not print the names of women who say they are sexual-assault victims without their permission."
The Rocky's entreaty to Matsch seemingly contradicted this statement, since the woman issuing allegations against Bryant has repeatedly fought to keep her name under wraps, but Temple doesn't see it that way. The CU conflict differs from the Bryant case because, he says, "Lisa Simpson and these women are making an allegation about the conduct of a public institution, so there's a larger societal question at stake. In a sense, the university is on trial, not a single individual."
Some observers may see this distinction as hair-splitting. Temple, though, feels the Rocky's challenge in l'affaire Bryant is very much in line with its appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court over sexually explicit e-mails that former Arapahoe county clerk Tracy Baker sent to Leesa Sale, his chief deputy assistant. In his words, "We hope to win a ruling that, in this new world of e-mail and text messaging, those documents are public records, just like print documents.
"I feel it's important for the Rocky Mountain News to be a voice for free speech and openness in government," Temple goes on. "That has a tremendous value to our society, and it's why we took this legal action."
Table talk: In his October 9 column, Temple wrote about his belief that journalists shouldn't publicly support political candidates -- a stance that prompted a memo from the Denver Newspaper Guild charging the Rocky with trying to solve non-existent problems. For his part, Temple argued that "anything beyond voting risks damage to our credibility because it makes it look like we're taking sides."
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Clearly, Temple is wary of journalists getting cozy with politicos on the eve of an election -- but oodles of them will be doing just that at the Denver Press Club's 2004 Gridiron Show, slated for Sunday, October 17, at the Donald Seawell Ballroom. The production will find the likes of state senator John Andrews and congressional candidate Stan Matsunaka sharing the stage with the Rocky's Sam Adams, Channel 4's Jim Benemann and many of their peers. Moreover, the Press Club and co-sponsor Channel 12 are selling "reserved sponsor tables" for the event that cost up to $2,000. Purchasers of tables this year include a lobbyist and representatives of corporations and law firms -- the sort of people very capable of making headlines.
Of course, there's a long tradition of newsmakers and news professionals making sport of each other at charity bashes like this one; Channel 12 and the Press Club will split the proceeds, with the latter pouring the revenues into preservation of its historic headquarters. Still, it's easy to assume that big shots shelling out green to attend the production may be doing so to curry favor with the media, and not because they're eager to see the comedy stylings of KOA's April Zesbaugh.
Press Club president John Ensslin, a Rocky scribe, says his organization does all it can to make sure reporters aren't selling tickets to past or future sources. He notes that only about 30 percent of the club's membership consists of current journalists, and with Channel 12 also in the mix, that leaves plenty of people who can peddle ducats without precipitating an ethical quandary. The Denver Business Journal's Bruce Goldberg, who's in charge of selling the tables, adds that because he's associate editor of his publication's "Strategies" section, he rarely winds up speaking with folks he has covered or might cover down the road. "I'm very careful to avoid those conflicts," Goldberg says. "Have I been 100 percent successful through the seven years I've done this? I'm not going to claim that, but I think I've been pretty good."
Which means the show will go on.