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The Message

Ethan Wenberg

Around 5 a.m. the morning after another wacky election, 9News's Gary Shapiro expressed delight at being rid of political ads for the season. Smiling co-anchor Gregg Moss added that viewers should expect a lot more station promos in the days ahead.

Ordinarily, this prospect would have struck me as singularly unappealing. But although station executives were undoubtedly bummed at the thought of having to fill time with self-produced freebies, I couldn't have been happier. Bring on the promos!, I thought. Screen one after the other! They can be serious efforts or humorous ones featuring on-screen talent cavorting behind the scenes: I don't care! Anything but another screed ripping the character of Marilyn Musgrave or Dave Thomas, or the supposed "one-man suing machine" backing failed Amendment 34. Anything!

I got my wish -- and more. Not only did I start seeing extra promos on 9News and other outlets, but I was also greeted by familiar faces I hadn't seen much of for months. Dealin' Doug. Big Mike Naughton. Jake Jabs. Leslie Fishbein of Kacey Fine Furniture. Bonnie Murray, the woman from the O'Meara Ford commercials, whose voice sounds like sandpaper being dragged across a fender. Even the Shagman. Admittedly, I'd never been a real aficionado of their work before then. It pains me to confess that whenever they'd pop up on my screen, I'd blast them into oblivion. Suddenly, though, I had a newfound appreciation for their oeuvres. Sure, their pitches can be irritating -- but the content is usually more concerned with the wonderful services they provide than how their competitors are "wrong for Colorado." In other words, they espouse a positive message, just like Pete Coors used to before he had a political agenda. Get back to pimping suds, Pete, and all will be forgiven.

In the short run, the election's conclusion has improved my life immeasurably. For example, I no longer find my newspapers encased in "Pete Coors for Senate" bags, and neither am I subjected to rush-hour updates on KOA that end with the traffic reporter delivering slogans for campaigns that bought sponsorship time -- a practice that turns journalistic ethics on its head for a few extra bucks. Likewise, I'm relieved that the danger of hearing KHOW's Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman pretending to be George W. Bush and John Kerry has finally passed -- Ralph Nader's entire Colorado vote total can probably be traced to their November 1 mock debate -- and so has the motivation for Channel 4's Jim Benneman and Larry Green to transition into weather segments with banter along the lines of "I'd vote for this forecast." Finally, I'm thrilled that the most over-reported story of the year -- the theft of campaign signs from people's yards -- means about as much today as predictions that Bruce Springsteen could swing the election. Being the Boss ain't all it's cracked up to be.

This afterglow will wear off before long. Until then, I'm enjoying a post-election bounce.

The numbers game: Covering an election is a thankless task, in part because observers are constantly probing the media for evidence of prejudice. Overall, the Rocky Mountain News did a fine job tackling campaign 2004, but that didn't prevent critics from twice floating bias accusations leading up to the vote.

In late October, Gary Watson, the Denver Newspaper Guild's unit chair at the Rocky, circulated a note about Public Opinion Strategies, the polling organization used by the paper and its broadcasting partner, Channel 4. Specifically, Watson noted that POS's website, www.pos.org, identified it as "the largest Republican polling firm in the country." To Watson, this was particularly troubling given that the Rocky had urged employees not to make donations to political candidates to avoid the appearance of a conflict. Failing to identify POS's political affiliation in stories about polls, Watson stated, "is hypocritical and shows a lack of...good judgment."

Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple responded to these charges with a brisk e-mail defending Lori Weigel, the POS representative with whom he'd contracted. After declaring that such accusations had never arisen in years when the paper had used canvassers Paul Talmey, Buie Seawell and Floyd Ciruli, all of whom have connections to the Democratic Party, Temple wrote, "Our condition for pollsters is that they not be working for a candidate or campaign in an election. That has not changed over the twelve years I've been here."

As for Weigel's accuracy in presidential prognostication, she estimated that President Bush had a 51-42 percent lead over John Kerry in Colorado the weekend before the election. That's two points wider than the margin posited during the same period by the Denver Post's firm, Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which describes itself as independent. The final tally, approximately 53-46 percent, matched Mason-Dixon's seven-point spread, but POS had the general idea. That's more than can be said about many exit-pollers across the nation, who appear to have sucked on a bipartisan basis.

Other tabulations at the Rocky came in for a more amusing form of abuse. On November 1, techies at the paper were testing the portion of its website devoted to tracking the vote without realizing that their fiddlings were accessible to surfers. Rawstory.com took pleasure in reporting that the Rocky had Bush beating Kerry 41-34 percent long before the polls opened. In a note later placed on its site, the Rocky sheepishly described the page as "test data from an Associated Press feed."

The paper should have taken credit for its foresight. Imagine the marketing slogan: "Read the Rocky, for tomorrow's news today!"

Gimme shelter: During the years when he toiled as a columnist for the Denver Post, Chuck Green was nicknamed "the Dogfather" because of his fondness for writing about his four-pawed friends in the most sentimental manner conceivable. So it's not exactly a shock to discover that Green recently crossed the line between opinion-sharing and active campaigning in order to tout a couple of canine-oriented ballot issues. The first concerned the building of a new animal shelter in his adopted home town of Pueblo, while the second dealt with funding the project after its completion. Despite the eventual passage of the construction measure, Green says, "I never want to be involved in politics."

Green, who syndicates a column in fourteen newspapers across the state, including Pueblo's principal newspaper, the Chieftain, describes the city's current shelter in Dickensian terms. "It's basically a concrete bunker with no drainage system, no ventilation and cast-iron cages covered with rust," he says. Appalled, he joined a group of about a dozen Pueblans dedicated to putting up a $3.7 million facility in another location. Green wasn't officially the organization's spokesman, but he played this part on a number of occasions, and even went door-to-door throughout town. He doesn't see this as breaking a journalistic taboo because, he says, "I never wrote about the subject."

The Chieftain twice editorialized against both propositions but eventually backed the erecting of the shelter, though not the long-term funding. Green says this shift was astonishing, because when he was the Post's editorial-page editor, the paper "usually only reversed positions if we found out a candidate we'd endorsed had a felony conviction."

The Chieftain's switcheroo helped propel the construction plan to victory by about 3 percent of the vote. Now Green's involved in fundraising to equip and run the shelter, which should open in early 2006, and promises that he won't hit up any possible sources for donations. Just don't count on him to get involved in other campaigns. "We didn't have any polling, so we didn't know where the hell we were -- and it was nerve-racking wondering if Pueblo would do the right thing," he allows. "I don't know how guys like Dick Wadhams have the brass to do it. I wouldn't want to go through life like that."

In other words, he wouldn't wish it on a dog.


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