The Wrong Stuff
Jay Vollmar

The Wrong Stuff

Although approval of the joint operating agreement linking the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News hasn't been finalized, no one at the Post doubts it'll happen. As proof, note that on October 24 the paper announced it was doubling the newsstand price of its product, from 25 cents to 50 cents on weekdays and 50 cents to a buck on weekends -- the first of many hikes to come. Bet your purse feels lighter already.

What'll these extra coins buy you? A nap, according to the News's Lynn Bartels, who in an October 1 column described the writing in "a how-to tome for incoming lawmakers" by the Office of Legislative Legal Services as "so technical and boring it reads like the Denver Post."

In truth, though, the Post has been far from dull of late -- but often for reasons having more to do with screwups than with excellence.

Its showiest recent blunder took place on October 12, when the paper identified a front-page photo of Al Gore and George W. Bush taken at their first presidential debate on October 3 as a shot from their second faceoff, held on October 11. The Post tried to make amends the next day with an extraordinary article detailing how this howler happened: The Associated Press accidentally sent clients the outdated image followed by numerous warnings against using it, all of which Post staffers managed to miss. So it's hardly a shock that they also failed to notice that the blue tie Gore wore during debate number two had managed to turn red. Betcha their faces did, too, after readers spotted the gaffe.

Running a close second in the boo-boo department was an October 18 column by the Post's Chuck Green, long a reliable source of yuks. His salvo, titled "Bini Trial a Betrayal of Truth," was an attack on the justice system over the "just-completed trial" of Joe Bini, the Denver cop who was largely responsible for incorrectly sending a SWAT team to the home of Ismael Mena in September 1999, thereby directly contributing to Mena's fatal shooting. Green wrote, "Bini's jury was not allowed to know that his carelessness caused the death of a father. They were not told -- because the judge wouldn't allow it as evidence -- that Ismael Mena died as a result of Bini's malfeasance. Jurors were not told that Mena was killed by mistake. They were not told that Mena is dead."

Actually, there was another reason they didn't receive this information: The jury didn't exist, and the trial didn't happen. Sure, Bini had been scheduled to go to trial, but on October 5, five days before the proceedings were to begin, he cut a deal, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor -- official misconduct -- in exchange for the dropping of three felony counts against him. And while Judge Shelley Gilman, during a September 1 hearing, had indeed forbidden prosecutors from presenting evidence at trial about the shooting of Mena, jurors weren't privy to that information because no jury had been seated -- except, I suppose, in Green's imagination. He was in such high dudgeon when he wrote the sentence "Truth is the first casualty of war" that he italicized it. But in this case, truth was seemingly the first casualty of too much time spent at the Denver Press Club.

The sad task of telling Green that his column sported more than its fair share of fiction fell to yours truly. I got in touch with him via his cell phone on October 18 as he was driving to a funeral, which only added to the guilt I was already feeling. After all, my previous profile of him ("The Dogfather Speaks," July 7) apparently had made him so self-conscious about chronicling the cuddliest or most tragic members of the animal kingdom -- as he's done so memorably in the past -- that he'd shied away from the subject for months. Nonetheless, I forged ahead, asking if he'd received any calls from folks revealing that the Bini trial had taken place only in his own private world. Green mumbled that he hadn't yet checked his messages and said he'd get back to me. After perusing the correction the Post printed the following morning, I phoned him again to ask if he would be addressing the issue in his column. "Frank Scandale, the metro editor [actually, Scandale is the assistant managing editor -- but we know what you mean, Chuck], said the correction would take care of it," revealed Green, who insisted that he couldn't recall "more than four or five" such faux pas in "fifteen or twenty years" of writing a column. "But I prefer to do something in my own column so I can be sure my readership sees it."

Green didn't give me a preview of his mea culpa then, but it was worth the wait: In his October 20 column, he asked "for a renewal of faith from readers" after his little stumble, adding a request to "renew that handshake deal we've enjoyed for more than 30 years -- I'll do my darndest to make sure you can trust what you read in this corner of the Post." Hope that means a return to the pet parade. Who let the dogs out? Woof! Woof!

By contrast with Green's column, October 7's "The Columbus Conundrum," penned by Post reporter William Porter, didn't include anything false -- just old. The article, an attempt to wrestle with Christopher Columbus's legacy on the morn of a much-discussed parade in his honor, was based largely on remarks by Patricia Limerick, a professor of American history at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and probably the most cited local on historical topics; her page in the Golden Rolodex is mighty dog-eared. But a sharp-eyed reader who requests anonymity was made suspicious by the writerly quality of Limerick comments such as "Let Columbus be Columbus: Full of human frailties, and also full of courage and enterprise and a sense of injury and denied reward," and decided to do some investigating. It didn't take him long to discover that the quotes in "Conundrum" were lifted directly from a speech Limerick gave on ol' Chris way back in 1991.

Porter wasn't pulling a fast one on Limerick: In fact, she was the one who sent him the speech, which she said effectively encapsulated her views. But instead of letting readers know about the origins of her statements, Porter neglected to mention the speech and repeatedly used the word "says," implying that her observations were poppin' fresh.

Such omissions happen all too often in newspapering, especially in the field of entertainment writing, which overflows with moral temptations; publicists often send out pre-recorded interviews with stars that scribes are more than welcome to pretend they conducted themselves -- and some do. Also common is the recycling of quotations without informing readers when they were collected, as happened mere weeks prior to the Porter piece in a Brian Wilson preview by Mark Brown, the News's pop-music writer: Among other things, Brown failed to mention that ancillary quotes from onetime Wilson collaborator Don Was dated to a conversation Brown had had with him in the mid-'90s, when he was working for the Orange County Register. Brown, who in August wrote "Rock Critics Need a Mirror," an essay that chided his peers for their occasional ethical lapses, concedes that "I probably should have noted in there that I had been researching this article for a number of years in various forms."

It's hard to say how Porter feels about the attribution issues his article raises. Reached last week, he called an item about "The Columbus Conundrum" printed in the corrections section of the October 12 Post "a clarification," but declined to go into more detail because he was on deadline -- and he chose not to return three more phone messages left on successive days. CU's Limerick doesn't have a problem with Porter, either, yet she chose not to be directly interviewed on the subject. Instead, in an irony she recognized, she e-mailed her reaction to the matter in general. "If I had to choose a top-ten list of reporters whose journalistic skills I trust, and to whom I would speak freely and with confidence that I would be accurately quoted, I'd put Bill Porter on that list," she wrote.

Post editor Glenn Guzzo may feel the same way, but he believes the October 12 "clarification" (that's what he calls it, too) was wholly justified. "What we have here is no distortion of the facts," he says, "but when it was brought to our attention that the attribution could have been clearer, we agreed." He's considerably more disapproving of the manner with which the Green column made it into print, checking off the various parties who dropped the ball in much the same way as did the anonymous author of the article about the debate photo. "The layers that this went through would have included Chuck and the person on the assigning desk who edited the copy before it went to the copy desk. Then it would have included one or two reads on the copy desk -- and there's an additional chance it would have been caught when the pages got proofed. So a minimum of three people, and under ordinary circumstances as many as four or five, could have caught this. But they didn't."

Oh, yeah: Guzzo also says that because of a greater focus on preventing bungles, the overall number of mistakes in the Post has been on the decline -- which theoretically will make newsstand buyers happy to part with those additional quarters. But the errors still slipping by have been doozies.

Stopping the violins: Since the announcement that Colorado Public Radio purchased KKYD-AM with an eye toward turning it into a full-time classical outlet ("The Missing Linc," October 12), speculation about the future of classical music on the Denver dial has been rife among aficionados of the style and radio observers in general. Take Post media writer Joanne Ostrow, who in an October 11 column titled "Classical Sounds Triumph" trumpeted the deal because of her assumption that CPR will eventually move the all-classical format to 90.1 FM, the frequency of mother signal KCFR, even though the network's head, Max Wycisk, has not yet promised to do anything of the sort.

The rest of Ostrow's sunny analysis seems based on the premise that one classical station is pretty much the same as another. But area buffs have long bellyached that CPR's approach to the genre is far less provocative than the one utilized by KVOD, which had been Denver's FM-based commercial-classical purveyor up until last year, when it was hijacked to the sonically suspect AM band. Moreover, these critics have also knocked CPR for an alleged lack of commitment to Denver's arts community -- a sin that KVOD never committed. And the manner with which CPR's musical programming is being assembled doesn't exactly scream "local," either. Last month the final phase of a classical-music satellite service jointly developed by CPR and Los Angeles' KUSC went online; its components include pre-recorded announcer bites that are electronically inserted into the musical flow at a studio in Boise, Idaho. Is that the kind of triumph you had in mind, Ms. Ostrow?

Meanwhile, nothing much has been heard publicly from the folks at today's KVOD, who continue to play music at 1280 AM even as they struggle to combat misinformation. According to Jim Conder, the station's program director, one widely held false impression involves the current ownership of the outlet. You see, KVOD had been part of Texas's AMFM until that firm was swallowed up by another Texas conglomerate, Clear Channel -- but because Clear Channel already held the maximum number of Denver-area signals allowable under Federal Communications Commission regulations, it was placed into a trust. Then, a few weeks back, KVOD was purchased by Latino Communications. However, that transaction won't be official until the FCC signs off on it, which could take a couple of months, thereby leaving the station with no real overseer at present. Not that Latino Communications' Zee Ferrufino doesn't already sound like the man in charge. He's pledged to transfer KVOD's call letters to CPR and to donate the station's catalogue of recordings as well -- actions that may run counter to FCC regulations requiring new owners to keep their distance until a sale is officially approved.

"It seems like a violation of the prior interference rule to me," Conder says. "And I don't know why they would need our library anyway, since the only things they wouldn't already have are things they wouldn't play anyway. So to me, the only reason they'd need our library is to keep anyone else from owning it -- and for a public radio station, that doesn't seem really fair."

At this point, Conder says many of the listeners with whom he's spoken are looking forward to Denver's classical-radio future because of Ostrow's column, not realizing that much of it was pure conjecture. But Christopher Marshall, an afternoon host at KVOD, has been hearing a different tune. "The listeners who've been calling are aware that we're going away, so I'm hearing a lot of remorse," he says. As for the ownership confusion, he says that not having a boss is fun for now, but the enjoyment won't last much longer. "Since no one's in charge, we're like rats with the cheese -- except we're in cages on a conveyor belt on the way to the crusher."

Power to the people: When CPR staffers take over KKYD, they'll have 1,000 watts with which to play. That's one-fifth the amount available at the current KVOD, and even less by comparison with KVCU, the invaluable University of Colorado at Boulder station that can be found at 1190 AM -- by day, at least. Although KVCU remains rated at what general manager John Quigley refers to as "a pathetic 110 watts" at night, the FCC recently allowed the crew to boost its daytime intensity from 5,000 to 6,800. This increase, which went into effect mid-month, may not sound earth-shattering, but Quigley says "it really solidifies our coverage in Denver, which is great, and will allow us to be heard solidly from Castle Rock to the south and to Fort Collins and Greeley to the north."

This power shift was made easier by the purchase during the summer of a new, adjustable transmitter. Approximately $20,000 of its $50,000 pricetag was covered by the take from an April pledge drive, and Quigley is confident the station will raise even more during its upcoming fund-collection frenzy, which runs from November 1 through 10. He adds that recent Arbitron ratings show KVCU's audience is growing: "We had the highest number of listener hours of any non-commercial station aside from the religious stations. What that tells us is that our listeners don't surf around much; they turn the radio on and leave it there. So I guess they must like what they're hearing."

As well they should.

Muddy waters: Is it just me, or are you a little puzzled by the way Denver media outlets suddenly seem to be letting KBPI off the hook in regard to the so-called Mudfest ("KBPI Wrecks the Rockies," October 5)? Last week, videotape surfaced that seemed to support the contention of KBPI insiders that the private property near Boulder where DJs Willie B., D-Mak and Marc Stout (plus a veritable army of four-wheelers that rendezvoused with them) got down and dirty in late September had been the site of mudding shenanigans since the mid-'90s. But while this revelation, if it proves true, means KBPI may not be liable for causing as much damage as was initially thought, it doesn't exactly absolve one and all from any blame. The defense seems to be, "Sure, we were trespassing, but a lot of other people have been doing the same thing for years!" -- to which my mother would likely respond, "And if a lot of other people jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?"

Okay, Ma, you're right -- but I wish you'd get some new material.


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