There were no major train wrecks in Colorado over President's Day weekend -- unless you counted the transitions during late local TV newscasts. The juxtaposition of overblown NBA All-Star Game plugs with coverage of a statewide manhunt and, later, the suicide of Colorado-based counterculture figure Hunter S. Thompson left debris all over the airwaves.
To put it mildly, Denver's five major news stations were prepared for the basketball-oriented events, breathlessly pimping parties, fashion shows and so on for more than a week prior to the February 20 competition, a predictably anti-climactic display of matador defense and tedious hotdogging. But if some of the personalities who traveled here for the festivities were a little light on luminosity (the February 19 "Celebrity Skills Challenge" featured Blind Date host Roger Lodge and some guy from Big Brother), the presence of performers such as P. Diddy, Jay-Z and Cedric the Entertainer proved irresistible to the media. In a city where Adele Arakawa qualifies as famous, an extended visit from Vivica A. Fox was a big deal, pop-culturally speaking.
Judging by the swelling hype, news directors felt certain that most of their personnel would be spending a pleasant few days trailing after hip-hop icons and grazing from expensive buffets -- but they were wrong. After a series of terrifying rapes and assaults in the vicinity of Cheesman Park, the Denver Police Department publicly identified its prime suspect: Brent J. Brents, a convicted sex offender who'd evaded arrest for the molestation of a young boy in late 2004 thanks to a computer snafu and a slew of jaw-dropping errors made by authorities in Aurora. Given that the victims in the most recent crime spree included a sixty-something woman and her two granddaughters, the search for Brents was made for national television, so it was no surprise when DPD chief Gerry Whitman was given the opportunity to talk about the suspected perpetrator on the Friday, February 18, Today show. Then, that evening, another Cheesman-area attack prompted Denver cops to toss out a dragnet that was still expanding when the 10 p.m. reports began, forcing stations to pit Brents against ballers in a jarring bit of one-on-one.
Channel 9's broadcast was typical, offering several minutes' worth of footage from a neighborhood under siege before throwing to cherubic entertainment reporter Kirk Montgomery, who stood on a downtown street gushing about limousines, bling and hip-hop stars with whom he seemed to have only the most superficial familiarity. If Montgomery spends his off hours buying bejeweled dollar-sign pendants and cranking Ludacris and Fabolous from the bass-heavy sound system in his custom Hummer, he kept this side of himself well hidden. The same sort of clash took place the next night on Channel 4, when information about Brents's late-Friday capture in Glenwood Springs was closely trailed by a segment from Heritage Christian Center in which critic-at-large Greg Moody let loose a flood of praise about a gospel extravaganza with Kirk Franklin and American Idol winner Ruben Studdard. Behind-the-scenes folks tried to make this leap of subject matter as smooth as possible, but in the end, they didn't have a prayer.
Outlets were also caught off-guard by Thompson's death, since word that he had taken his life on February 20 didn't leak out until shortly before the late newscasts were about to start. That explains why Channel 4's extremely brief report was accompanied by 1990 footage of Thompson rolling on a lawn -- likely the only video minions could find on short notice. More clumsy Brents vs. Shaq and Kobe smash-ups followed, and viewers made up the majority of casualties.
Re-Buffed: The triumvirate of stories detailed above stole some of the spotlight from Ward Churchill, but not for long. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the embattled professor, whose description of September 11 victims as "little Eichmanns" has won him numerous enemies on both sides of the political aisle, is passionately supported by many students, with the significant exception of those who write for the Flatirons Review. As the only student-run conservative journal at an inveterately liberal institution, the Review takes two direct shots at the would-be Native American in its twelve-page-long February edition. Near the beginning of an essay called "Crossing the Line," Isaiah Lechowit, president of the CU College Republicans, deploys plenty of throwback verbiage, denouncing Churchill for displaying "the left-leaning, communist-oozing, socialist-spewing and intolerant ravings of CU's faculty once again." Later, in "Churchill Causes Campus Controversy," scribe Allison Sands contrasts "Churchill supporters walking around with duct tape over their mouths and the chanting hippie Churchill cheerleaders" at a February 1 rally with a blond girl who signed a 'Fire Churchill' petition after tearfully confiding, "My dad was in 9/11." Sands also notes that TV reporter Kim Posey was verbally attacked by attendees of an ethnic-studies department meeting the previous day for the sin of working at the local Fox affiliate.
Spreading this kind of information isn't easy, since the Review faces peculiar distribution challenges. Editor Andrew Mountain says his staff can't leave piles of papers in strategic locations, as do representatives of virtually every other CU publication, because "we're concerned that if we put out large stacks, people who don't like what we're saying will just toss them."
For that reason, Review contributors generally dole out the 1,000 or so copies they print up three times a semester by hand -- an approach that can lead to immediate feedback. "Sometimes people will tell you, 'I'm not reading that crap,'" admits Review treasurer Matt Schuldt, "or they'll pick one up and then come back a few minutes later to scream at you. But we also get people who tell us how much they like to read our stuff, because it's different."
"It's not the best-known paper here," Mountain concedes. "We're still making a name for ourselves. But there are a lot of kids who seem apathetic or apolitical, and yet they have beliefs like ours. They need to be shown that other people exist who are like them."
This idea isn't new, as Kirk Hamm understands. Along with fellow students Jordan Andrews and Mike Sandoval, Hamm, who's in his final year of law school at CU, conceived the Review six years ago. "From the beginning, we called it a conservative journal, but we wanted to provide a balanced perspective," he says. "Our staff had conservatives, liberals, straights, gays." Hamm added plenty of diversity all by himself, given that he identifies himself as a "bisexual and a pagan," and he says he found greater acceptance for his lifestyle from those on the right than people on the left. In his view, "CU liberalism doesn't recognize individuality. You're a member of a group, and you must adhere to what your group supposedly believes in. But in my opinion, civil rights, tolerance and freedom were never advanced by forcing adherence to group ideology. It's only forwarded by giving individuals the freedom to do and believe what they will, and the conservatives at CU were the only people who seemed to realize that."
Using resources from the Collegiate Network, an organization founded by former treasury secretary William Simon and neo-con thinker Irving Kristol to spread conservatism on U.S. campuses, the Review debuted in the fall of 1999 with a critique of CU's women's-studies department that caused a stir among students and faculty, to Hamm's delight. Afterward, he says, "a few businesses around town who enjoyed the idea of something conservative in Boulder bought ads. It almost made them laugh, so they were willing to give us money as a pity gesture." Still, cash alone wasn't enough to keep the Review running. At the end of its first year, Hamm recalls, "most of the editorial staff either graduated or went into positions at the student union and didn't have time to keep putting out the paper. There wasn't much institutional memory left to carry it on."
For that reason, the Review fell into dormancy in 2000. During the next few years, Hamm says, "I went to many meetings with students anxious to restart it. But even though they all had passion, none of them actually did it."
That changed in 2004 thanks largely to another outside organization: the Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Virginia, organization that helped start over twenty conservative publications at American colleges last year. Mountain and fellow student Ben Meininger, who's no longer with the Review, attended an Institute conference designed to help journalism novices learn the do's and don'ts of putting together a newspaper. Jim Eltringham, the Institute's director of campus services, believes that staying local is key. "If somebody wants to hear about national issues from a conservative angle, they can look at anyone from George Will to Ann Coulter," he says. "So that op-ed you wrote about missile defense or lower taxes won't mean as much to people as if you write about your area of expertise, which is your own campus." Eltringham also recommends that fledgling papers steer clear of advertising in the beginning and focus on grants from parties interested in their cause. The Review crew listened. The only ad in their latest issue is a plug for (surprise) the Leadership Institute, which provides the paper with modest financial support. It reads, "GET PAID TO FIGHT THE LEFT!"
Mountain and Schuldt haven't reaped many rewards for their efforts thus far. Indeed, both have donated some of their own dough to keep the Review alive -- and when they graduate in a year or so, there's no guarantee that others at CU will invite the sort of abuse that frequently greets them when they're disseminating the journal. That's why Mountain is actively looking for kindred spirits who can see the positive side of even the most negative reactions.
"When you hand people a paper, sometimes you can see them turn up their nose in disgust at it," he says. "But doing that means they had to think critically about what we're doing, at least for a few seconds -- and that's something."
Not going quietly: For the better part of fourteen years, Christopher Brauchli wrote a regular column for the Boulder Daily Camera -- but his soapbox was abruptly taken away in mid-December. At first Brauchli assumed that he'd been disappeared for his consistent condemnation of George W. Bush's policies, but he was told differently in a January 13 letter from Camera editorial-page editor Steve Millard. His devastating critique declared, "Your writing has become chained to a formula. You tended to rely on the same techniques, the same sources, the same narrow range of topics and the same stock responses, week after week. More and more, you also tended to make your points by looking down your nose rather than arguing."
To put it mildly, Brauchli doesn't agree. He's upset at the Camera because it's published only a couple of letters from readers decrying his absence (he provides copies of nearly a dozen that haven't seen ink) and believes that by not giving an explanation for his removal in print or to those who've called or written to complain, the paper is violating standards of openness and transparency. "To my way of thinking, sharing their reasons is preferable to saying 'We're not telling you what they are,'" Brauchli maintains. "That makes it look as if they figured out I'm a shoplifter or who knows what -- a hint of dark things."
Speaking for the Camera, editor Sue Deans says about Brauchli's column, "It was time for a change. It had nothing to do with politics." Meanwhile, more than sixty Boulderites, including well-heeled politico Jared Polis, have signed an advertisement calling for Brauchli's column to be reinstated. Brauchli hopes the Camera will print the ad the last weekend of February. It may be the only way his name will be published in his old paper again.
Losing its Edge: If "The Edge," the name of a much ballyhooed new recreation section the Denver Post introduced on February 15, struck you as familiar, it should have. Westword has been using the same moniker for a ski guide that's been both an annual insert and an online staple for, oh, a decade or so. Lawyers for NT Media, Westword's owner, sent a stern letter stressing this fact, and the Post responded by changing the feature's handle to "Outdoor Extremes" in time for its second try, on February 22. The note explaining the switcheroo to readers was headlined "What's With the Name?" Perhaps someone should have asked that question earlier.