I diddled the Denver Post.
If I were Governor Roy Romer, maybe I would explain that nothing more than "deep affection" made me want to go undercover to the Post's Snapshots of Colorado town meeting last week in Colorado Springs.
But there was no affection. Just diddling. Find 'em, fool 'em and forget 'em.
So on May 13, I plastered some pomade into my hair, slapped an even-more-foolish-than-usual grin on my face and headed south into religious-right country, knowing full well that I was about to violate one of journalism's most sacred canons: the "harrumph" rule, which forbids a newspaper from publicly poking fun at another newspaper.
I also had two nobler purposes. I had said to myself, "Hey, man, what's up with these 'town meetings' the Post is conducting all over the state? Who goes to them? What goes on at these civic brainstorming sessions?" And I must confess that I wanted to rub shoulders with the top editors of the Post and bask in their reflected glory. Golly.
I figured to lose myself in the crowd that would flock to the meeting. But I also wanted to make my presence known to these big-city journalists. Knowing that the Springs is inhabited by thousands of right-wing religious zealots, I concocted an appropriate cover story: I was Martin L. Roberts, a management consultant who was home-schooling his children, the oldest of whom, Ezekiel (we call him "Zeke"), was thirteen and wanted to be a journalist but thought the Post was too liberal, while I, on the other hand, liked the Post.
Armed with two homemade signs, I showed up at Pikes Peak Community College for the meeting and waited for the crowd to arrive.
And I waited.
And I waited.
Where was everybody?
Finally, I went inside the meeting hall and started to circulate. I didn't lay any religious rap on people. All it took was for me to say "home-schooling," and everybody just assumed I was a wingnut. The president and sole member of the Colorado Springs League of Liberal Jewish Women Who Don't Want to Be Hassled Anymore by Meshuggenah Christians Like James Dobson and Will Perkins (CSLLJWWDWBHAMCLJDWP) suggested that I have "Zeke" read The Nation or The Progressive. "Too liberal," I told her with a smile. She didn't smile back.
Then I introduced myself to the Post bigwigs. Editor Dennis Britton (the paper's top dog under owner W. Dean "Dinky" Singleton, who wasn't there) agreed to my request for a photo. He asked me what I was going to use it for. I lied and said it was for my kids. (Memo to myself: Call the Post editors and ask them to transfer my resume to the "inactive" file.) Britton pulled managing editor Jeanette Chavez into the picture. I handed my camera to a Post flunky. It was over in a flash.
Suddenly it was time for the meeting. I looked around and realized that fewer than ten people had shown up! Out of a city of 300,000! Then it dawned on me. I was the only religious-right wingnut at the meeting. A sense of responsibility washed over me as I silently accepted the burden of representing the tens of thousands of true believers who have made the Springs the headquarters of more than 100 evangelical Christian organizations.
I looked around the room. Had a neutron bomb decimated the city? After all, we were literally in the shadow of NORAD's command post. I stepped outside and observed thousands of cars crawling along the Springs' clogged streets. Apparently, nobody cared about the town meeting.
Several Post reporters and circulation people sat down to join the handful of residents. I looked forward to a most lively discussion.
Britton greeted the throng by explaining that the purpose of the town meetings (the last of which will take place this week in Denver) was to learn "how we as a newspaper could better report the issues of the state." It struck me that this meeting hall was probably the only place in the state where there was absolutely nothing happening.
That was proved when Britton introduced the next speaker, Chavez, whom he called "one of the most important woman editors in the country."
I had to start the applause for her.
Then Janet Day, the project editor of Snapshots of Colorado, was introduced. "The best way to find out who we are and what we are," she said, "is to ask people."
I was too baffled to applaud for her, so no one else did, either.
Also on the dais was Christopher Lopez, the state editor and Sunday metro editor. He didn't say anything worth writing down.
I realized that aside from the well-spoken and energetic Britton, there wasn't enough brainpower emanating from these editors to light a forty-watt bulb. I uttered a silent prayer for Post reporters everywhere.
Britton snapped me out of my reverie by asking the citizens of Colorado Springs to speak.
Finally, the woman from CSLLJWWDWBHAMCLJDWP spoke up. She complained about growth, called the El Paso County commissioners "the worst bottom-feeders you've ever seen" and railed on and on about how "Jimmie Dobson" of Focus on the Family and "Willie Perkins" of Colorado for Family Values were ruining the Springs.
A retired part-time junior-college teacher chimed in with similar sentiments. A chill ran up my spine. I had stumbled upon Colorado Springs' liberal community! Both of them! Then a fellow from nearby Manitou Springs noted the "negativity from the clown newspaper here," referring to the Gazette. He blamed both the paper and the religious right for "polarizing" the community. (Memo to myself: Give the names and addresses of these speakers to Focus on the Family's Liberal Instigator Investigation Unit.)
I'd like to think that Britton was speaking to me--the representative of the religious right--when he gently responded to the fellow from Manitou by noting, "Dr. Dobson has things of value to say."
So did Britton. In explaining that newspapers do their best to cover all bases, he revealed something about the Post's personnel that I found quite shocking. "We are run by mostly human beings," he said. He apologized for the slip of the tongue and tried to laugh it off. But was it a slip? Was he implying that some Post staffers are actually aliens from another planet? I couldn't risk blowing my cover at the town meeting, or I would have pursued this potentially important news story. If it were true, I wondered, how would I write it? Maybe I would just join the invaders and write a press release on their behalf that said, "Resistance is futile, people of Denver!"
While half of my mind was piecing together this potentially significant story of alien intrigue, the other half was listening to the town meeting. Somebody was complaining about "growth." Colorado Springs, once a beautiful resort city of 50,000, has become an incredible mishmash of tract homes and shopping malls and twisted and confused streets. Traffic jams are monumental. One of the citizens asked managing editor Chavez to comment on how the Springs seemed to be turning into one giant "Levittown."
"Huh?" Chavez replied.
She distinguished herself: She's probably the only managing editor in the country who had never heard the word "Levittown." Britton had to explain to her that the citizen was referring to "ticky-tack" housing developments such as the famous postwar Long Island suburb.
I couldn't just sit back and let these groups of people--Post editors and concerned citizens--flail around without reaching some common ground. "How can a newspaper help solve these problems?" I asked Britton.
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His explanation was wise. "We have very common concerns and interests and want to solve them together," he said. I thought to myself: It's a shame that more people aren't present to hear this discussion. Britton mentioned that he was still awaiting the arrival of a Post photographer. I hoped it was Brian Brainerd, the self-styled crusader who, when he's not clicking photos for the Post, hassles bums north of downtown. If the Post were smart, it would have assigned Brainerd to round up some of those bums and truck them to these town meetings. The one in Castle Rock, on May 11, drew fifteen people, and this one drew ten. I'm sure Brainerd could find more bums than that.
But Brainerd never showed up, and Britton finally called off the town meeting a half-hour early by saying, "Well, I'm going to end it now, because--well, just because I am."
One of his parting comments, however, caught my ear. He vowed that the Post would "cover education very cosmically."
You know, that alien angle may be worth pursuing.