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The Message

Patrick Merewether

On July 8, confessed serial rapist Brent J. Brents, who'd received an epic 1,319-year sentence in Denver two days earlier, appeared in Arapahoe County Court to learn how many more theoretical decades he would be ordered to serve for his heinous behavior in that jurisdiction. While there, according to observers, Brents didn't look at or acknowledge any of his victims or their relatives, on hand to watch his prison term lengthen by another 190 years. Instead, he focused on Denver Post reporter Amy Herdy, to whom he'd granted exclusive access following his February arrest. Brents mouthed a greeting and the words "I'm okay with it" to her, in apparent reference to Herdy's writings about him.

Eyebrows that shot skyward over this incident had been in the same position on July 6, when the Post put extracts from Brents's journal and numerous letters he'd written to Herdy in recent months on its website. His tone in assorted spelling-challenged passages was often very personal. On June 8, he asked Herdy to sit at a hearing in a place "where I can see you without too much trouble" and declared, "[It] realy was good to hear your voice today.... I know you trust me and won't give up on me." In a note dated the next day, he concluded a description of his return to stir in Denver County with the line "I'm tired and thought I'd let the only person who might care know I am back in Denver." And his June 13 missive ended on an even more flirtatious note that, considering the person who penned it, came across as undeniably creepy: "Amy I will always be fiercely loyal to you.... I look forward to a visit from a long cool woman in a black dress."

This material provides a greater understanding of Brents, whose attempts to come across like a regular guy only underscore how dangerous and disturbed he is. Yet it also makes implications about Herdy's conduct that may very well be inaccurate. She's the most unlikely person imaginable to treat a rapist coyly due to her co-authorship (with colleague Miles Moffeit) of powerful, compassionate articles about sexual assaults on military bases, which made up what was arguably the strongest series the Post has published during the past few years. Just because Brents affected a beyond-friendly tone in his correspondence to her and was overtly solicitous toward her in public doesn't mean she led him on in any way.

Unfortunately, the Post figuratively hung Herdy out to dry because of the way it presented the letters. Had the paper included Herdy's own dispatches, Brents's hints of a personal relationship would probably have been revealed to be mere delusions. An introduction describing the aspects of Brents's character that led him to assume a false intimacy might have worked as an alternative -- or the portions of the letters addressed directly to Herdy could have been excised. Instead, the Post included a brief "discretion advised" warning and ran Brents's cozy comments sans additional context, thereby inviting speculation that Herdy crossed the line in search of a scoop.

When contacted about these topics, Herdy declined to discuss them, because she feels that the story is still ongoing. That left Jeff Taylor, the Post's assistant managing editor/local news, who worked with Herdy on the Brents coverage, to fill in some of the gaps. He says Herdy sent Brents an extremely straightforward letter after his arrest, pointing out along the way that she'd traveled to Arkansas to interview his mother and sister; Brents subsequently told her that this trip convinced him to speak with her rather than the multitude of other reporters who contacted him. The fruit of their first interview was published on March 4 and immediately stirred controversy because Brents claimed he went on his final rampage after an Aurora police officer trying to negotiate his surrender via phone deemed him a "punk." In the article, Herdy quoted a police department spokeswoman promising to investigate this charge, and the next day, the cops denied that any such thing had taken place. Despite this dust-up, Taylor insists that "we were always incredibly vigilant" when it came to examining Brents's assertions. "We never took his word as the gospel truth. We always did our own checks."

As for the letters, Taylor says Post staffers decided to present "a representative sample of his writings. We wanted to do it to give readers a better idea of how he presents himself, and maybe a greater understanding of how a mind like that works." Astonishingly, Herdy hadn't kept copies of the prose she sent, and no attempt was made to get it back from Brents because, in Taylor's view, "I just don't think her letters are news. His letters are." Still, he maintains that Herdy "never played him along. She was clear at every juncture to say that they weren't friends, and they would never be friends. It was a strict reporter-subject interaction." He adds that she "properly respected journalistic boundaries in this case, and in every case I'm familiar with."

Taylor describes the response to the letters as "very intriguing and very mixed." Some readers felt "we shouldn't be giving air to the writings of a convicted criminal," he allows, while others "thanked us for shedding light on the mindsets of both Brents and his victims." As shown by his quiet exchange to Herdy at the July 8 hearing, Brents is among those tendering a thumbs-up -- "not that she'd sought his approval," Taylor adds.

His affection wasn't wanted, either, Taylor stresses. For whatever reason, though, Herdy appears to have wound up with that, too.

Catching flacks: The print version of YourHub.com, the Internet meeting place being given a heavy marketing push by the Rocky Mountain News, is rolling out in more locations, and the editions are fairly substantial in terms of size. Whether there's much of substance in them is another question. The July 7 Denver edition, which stretched to twenty pages, was larded with hefty house ads, jumbo photo spreads and press releases disguised as stories, submitted by the likes of the Denver Zoo, the Kempe Children's Foundation and Evan Dreyer, who left his job as the Post's city editor in 2003 to open his own PR firm. Dreyer's article, about a Denver Public School Board candidate, identifies him only as a "YourHub.com user," and it's easy to understand why folks in his position would want such a designation. Rather than having to pitch reporters about covering subjects they're being paid to promote, they can write something up themselves and get it into the paper anyhow, without hassling with any middlemen. Maybe they should rechristen it YourPlug.com.

George Douglas, a former Rocky editor now working as the media-relations manager for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, recently had a less positive experience with the paper. On July 4, Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple, who'd urged readers of a recent column about bats to send their wacky animal stories to YourHub.com (can't wait), defended the use of an open-casket photo in his weblog. To that, an ex-Rocky employee dubbed "George" accused Temple of "exaggeration and ridiculous overstatements" in his posted reply. On July 10, Temple struck back with an item labeled "NREL Spokesman Questions Corpse Comments," needling Douglas by name. The problem? Douglas didn't write the first message, and had no idea that Temple had stated otherwise until he was informed by yours truly. "He never talked to me about it, and obviously, he should have," Douglas said -- and he was also unhappy that NREL was mentioned, since it had nothing to do with the blurb. Shortly thereafter, Douglas and Temple finally communicated, and the chastened blogger took down the NREL head and replaced it with one that read "Apology to George Douglas." Below it, Temple wrote, "It's a fundamental of journalism that you shouldn't assume anything. I did. I regret doing so."

Maybe Temple can make amends by publishing some NREL press releases.

On top of the trends: Several months ago, I was interviewed for a 5280 piece about Colorado Public Radio host Dan Drayer. Last week, someone from the mag called to fact-check a quote. The remark was accurate, but when I mentioned that Drayer made a heavily publicized departure from CPR way back in May, the fact-checker was surprised. "That could change the story," she said.

You think?


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