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The Message

Mark Andresen

On November 18, George Gatchis, a Denver County Sheriff's Department deputy, happened upon an Aurora home-daycare center that was engulfed in flame. He'd just completed his shift, but that didn't stop him from risking his own life in an ultimately futile attempt to save Reginald Donovan King, a three-month-old trapped inside.

Shortly thereafter, the press sought out Gatchis, for reasons he could barely comprehend. He thought reports should have focused upon Reginald's bereaved family, as well as center owner Laresha King, who lost her home in the tragedy, and the brave men and women who responded to the alarm.

Nevertheless, journalists quickly identified Gatchis as the "get" of the story -- the drama's most newsworthy player. Over the next day or so, the competition to land the first sit-down, on-camera interview with him degenerated into a morass of claims and counterclaims over an agreement to pool coverage, with Gatchis caught in the middle. He's reluctant to criticize the media, because "they have been completely supportive and helpful to me" -- particularly after word got out that his supervisors told him to use private insurance, rather than file for workers' compensation, in regard to physical and emotional injuries sustained in the rescue effort. Yet he believes the press "kind of lost track about what the real situation was."

As the fire was being mopped up on the 18th, folks in suits started quizzing Gatchis; he assumed they were fire inspectors, but subsequently figured out that several of them were reporters. Then, within half an hour of his return home, more journalists began phoning and knocking on his door. "I was a little shocked at first," he concedes. "I was like, ';How did my information get out?'" Since he was in no condition to palaver, friends ran interference for him -- but when the barrage continued, he realized something had to be done. Sergeant Darryle Brown and Detective Larry Martinez, public-information officers for the Denver sheriff's department and the Aurora PD, respectively, told him the best way to stem the tide was to set up a pool, in which he could do an interview that would be shared among news outlets. "I'd never heard of that before," Gatchis says, "but I thought, if I talk to one of them, they'd give me some privacy."

Channel 7 reporter Dayle Cedars was chosen to speak with Gatchis, through a process that remains fuzzy. Gatchis maintains that Brown and Martinez set everything up; Brown points to Martinez, who insists that he only agreed to provide a location for the conversation -- Aurora's police headquarters; Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy says his personnel arranged an interview on the evening of November 18 via intermediaries he doesn't identify; and Cedars didn't return calls. The confusion continued on November 19. That morning, Brown sent an e-mail asking the media to respect the deputy's privacy -- but hours later, he met with Gatchis, Martinez and Cedars at the police station.

According to Channel 7's Grandy, the concept of a pool was first broached at this rendezvous. Because his station had done the heavy lifting to get the interview in the first place, he says, a window of exclusivity was arranged: "We agreed that we'd get to run it at five and six, and we'd share it with everybody at 6:30."

Despite what he describes as Cedars's professionalism, Gatchis says the interview was difficult. At its end, he was pleased to be out of the spotlight -- but 45 minutes later, reporters were on his property again. "I felt like a prisoner in my own home," he says.

What happened? Around 2:30 p.m., Sergeant Brown informed representatives of the other local stations that they could get the Gatchis tape from Channel 7 -- and when they found out it wouldn't be available for four hours, they were peeved. "Pools typically work best when the material is collected and then distributed unilaterally to other stations, at the same time," says Patti Dennis, news director at Channel 9. Tim Wieland, her counterpart at Channel 4, concurs: "In my opinion, what happened was against what a pool is supposed to be." Dennis didn't dispatch a staffer to Gatchis's house to try to counter Channel 7, but Wieland had a reporter nearby. Gatchis did his best to ignore her entreaties, and those of her colleagues from other news organizations who showed up after learning of the delay. "I wouldn't answer the door," he says.

Grandy, whose station ran the Gatchis interview with an "exclusive" icon, sympathizes with the deputy's situation, but not with the reactions of his rivals. "In twenty-plus years in this business, I've never heard more whining from other stations, ever," he allows. "They're just complaining because they got beat on a story."

Not necessarily, says Channel 4's Wieland. He cites a recent interview his crew conducted with the family of a soldier who died in Iraq. The video was in the can but had not yet run when the relatives, who'd been inundated with other interview requests, asked that the material be shared with other stations. "Was I disappointed by that? Yeah," he notes. "But did I understand it? Absolutely. So we immediately made arrangements to feed it to the other TV stations, and everybody ran it at the same time." The whole idea of a pool is "to put a person in this situation first," he emphasizes. "You simply have to respect their wishes."

Adds Channel 9's Dennis, "We have to remember while we're covering the news, and particularly when it involves people who've gone through what Deputy Gatchis went through, that we shouldn't act the way we're stereotyped -- as being far too aggressive."

Gatchis holds no grudges. Still, he's relieved that everyone's out of the pool. "I wasn't raised to be rude, which is why I feel bad about not talking to all the reporters," he says. "But I just wanted to be left alone."

Satisfied customers: The Columbine story seems never-ending, as demonstrated by the recent resolution of a conflict between onetime Arapahoe County sheriff's deputy James D. Taylor and Brian Rohrbough, whose son Daniel died in the 1999 massacre; on November 29, the parties settled a lawsuit out of court. As a result, individuals touched by the events have gotten to know more about how the press operates than most journalism students. For Judy Brown, whose son Brooks was threatened by killer Eric Harris long before the assault, going through this process has given her a new respect for the media -- and she uses an article that angered her to explain why.

In a September 17 Denver Post piece by reporter Mike McPhee, who declined comment, John Dunaway, once a higher-up in the Jeffco sheriff's department, alleged that Brooks had known about the Columbine shootings in advance but didn't warn anyone -- a theory that was debunked ages ago. Brown and her husband, Randy, were upset that McPhee didn't phone anyone in her family to get a comment about this claim. When a subsequent conversation with McPhee failed to fully address their concerns, they called Post editor Greg Moore and were pleasantly surprised when he invited the three Browns to meet with him. "He was wonderful, very responsive," Judy says. She adds that when the Rocky Mountain News, whose reporting she praises, made an error of its own in years past, Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple took the same kind of hands-on approach and immediately fixed the problem.

"People tell us that's unusual," Judy concedes, "but we've had incredible relationships with the press and have great respect for them."

That Columbine story seldom gets told.

Brute force: Last week's column focused on the fight to prevent Denver Post reporter Miles Moffeit's notes from being subpoenaed in an Air Force court martial of a soldier who allegedly raped fellow enlistee Leah Kaelin. On December 3, the issue became moot when officials dropped charges against the accused, Matthew Monroe, in favor of handling the matter administratively -- the same dubious approach exposed by Moffeit in previous articles on sexual assault in the military. While Moffeit is relieved to not be headed for the hoosegow, he acknowledges feeling sick about the process as a whole. Regarding the subpoena, he says, "We have to continually press the system to provide justification for these frivolous actions," because with judicial victories, "awareness grows that you can't do this stuff."

To date, such cognizance is sorely lacking.


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