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Three the Hard Way

Mark Andresen

Daily newspapering in Denver has been on a bumpy ride for the past several years, with many of the jolts coming courtesy of the joint operating agreement between the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. But despite changes in publishing schedules, format and behind-the-scenes matters, the most prominent faces seen by readers each morning have largely remained the same -- until this month, that is. News columnist Gene Amole, News international editor Holger Jensen and Post columnist Chuck Green each left the stage within a span of ten days, resulting in a turnover of local print stars that's all but unprecedented.

Of course, Amole's departure was no surprise: He announced he was dying last year and spent the time leading up to his May 12 death recording his thoughts in diary fashion (see page 13). But neither Jensen nor Green gave any indication that they were going until they were gone, and the manner in which they vanished remains under a veil of secrecy that none of the parties involved seems eager to lift.


International news: At present, the Middle East is the mother of all tinderboxes -- a conflict in which the adversaries are armed to the teeth and equally certain that God is on their side. It's a situation seemingly made for Jensen, who filed dispatches from Israel's West Bank earlier this year.

But in the midst of this rapidly developing story, Jensen dropped off the radar screen. Shortly after his last byline, on April 17, his name, photo and biography were removed from the roster of columnists on the News's Web site, and his archived pieces couldn't be accessed using the search engine. Just over two weeks later, on May 3, Jensen resigned.

Why? No one will say, on the record or off. But despite the dearth of information, Rob Prince, a Metro State professor and member of the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace, has taken up Jensen's cause. Last week, Prince, who's never met the writer ("I have a feeling we wouldn't get along," he says), penned a piece dubbed "Back to Hick Town: The Purge of Holger Jensen" for the group's Web site, www.ccmep.org. In it, he theorized that Jensen was "nailed for maintaining his integrity in his international reporting, most specifically about the crisis in the Middle East." He added, "You can be sure that the pressure from the outside, especially from some of Israel's more enthusiastic and uncritical supporters of which this town has its fair share, has been unrelenting and that tonight -- or whenever it is that they learn the news -- they'll be dancing in the streets."

This article now forms the backbone of a "Where's Holger?" page, at www.angelfire.com/ co3/alaqsaintifada/Holger/where.html, that includes an archive of Jensen columns, a section imploring visitors to e-mail complaints to the Rocky and a guest book where fans can vent.

"Officially, I know Jensen resigned," says Prince, who's printing buttons emblazoned with the phrase "Where's Holger?" "But we all know when you want to screw somebody in style in this country, that's the way you do it. It's the kind of stuff that would have made Joseph Stalin smile."

To that, Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple says Jensen's resignation "had nothing to do with pressure from anyone in the community. The News hears from an enormous array of individuals, and the News is committed to publishing a wide range of opinions on a wide range of topics. That's reflected in our commentary section and our Letters to the Editor page.

"The notion that somehow there's been massive pressure from one side on this issue is misguided," Temple continues. "I receive a tremendous amount of praise and criticism from all sides of this particular dispute."

Jensen is well-versed in international discord. His News bio touted his more than thirty years of journalism experience spent working for Newsweek and other publications in places such as Moscow and Beirut. Among the laurels he's received is "the Overseas Press Club's top foreign reporting award for his coverage of Palestinian guerrillas and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus."

His personal life has seen its share of strife, too. Jensen was arrested in June 2001 on suspicion of driving under the influence, an offense that was pleaded down to a DWAI (driving while ability impaired). In Jefferson County court records, he wrote that his bosses wanted him to travel overseas immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks, but he couldn't because "of DUI classes, court and DMV hearings and my lack of a driver's license" ("Swing Shift," February 14). Then, after Jensen finally made it to the Middle East, George Kochaniec Jr., a photographer accompanying him, was injured in an Israeli attack on Gaza City.

 

Such assaults have escalated under the regime of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom Jensen has taken to task on many occasions. In an April 9 salvo, he referred to critics of Israel who warn that unless George W. Bush can find a way to stop the violence, "the 'Bulldozer' [Sharon] will succeed where Osama bin Laden failed: forcing us into a war of civilizations against 1.2 billion Muslims."

These sentiments didn't land Jensen in hot water, but his April 13 followup, "Obsessed Sharon Applies Brutal Philosophy to Advance Zionism," did. After sketching out what he called the prime minister's "bloody reputation," he cited an interview that Sharon supposedly gave in 1982 to Amos Oz, "one of the leading figures in the Israeli 'Peace Now' movement." The quotes he mentioned include "Better a live Judeo-Nazi than a dead saint."

Such statements would be shocking had Sharon made them, but he didn't. Oz attributed the comments to "Z," a heavyset military man with "a certain history." Because these characteristics roughly fit the man who became prime minister, Jensen wrote in an April 16 "mea culpa" that the interviewee was "widely assumed" to be Sharon. But after the "Brutal Philosophy" column appeared, Oz told Jensen he had never met or interviewed Sharon and identified the actual speaker as an Israeli soldier who died eleven years ago.

The News dealt with this "grievous error," as Jensen put it, in an admirable manner. An item in the April 16 correction box referred readers to Jensen's apology, which was large, detailed, and in roughly the same place where the problem column had appeared -- a rare example of rectification parity. Even more striking was another mention of the gaffe printed on page two of the April 20 News to make sure subscribers to the Post who only get the Saturday Rocky knew the truth.

But the paper took numerous whacks for the bungle anyway, including one from the Wall Street Journal's online opinion page, which chastised Jensen under the headline "Rocky Mountain Lie." And on May 13, Washington Post media expert Howard Kurtz implicitly linked the Sharon botch and the resignation. Jensen, for his part, told Kurtz, "The Rocky Mountain News prints about 400 corrections a year. I have accounted for three in twelve years. I did not resign because of that error."

Maybe not, but he disappeared from the News in close proximity to it. In "Arafat's Old Habits Die Hard," published the day after his apology, Jensen admitted that PLO leader Yasser Arafat may not have entirely shed "his old guerrilla skin." But the column's first sentence -- "Since I examined Ariel Sharon's background in my last column, readers say I should do the same with Yasser Arafat" -- hinted he was writing under duress. After that, the articles stopped, and his previous contributions to the Rocky's Internet destination were deep-sixed.

The next week, Jensen offered brief comments to Westword about his status that only added to the mystery. He said he knew his material was no longer on the News Web site but wouldn't reveal anything about why it was stripped, and he confirmed that his personal Web site, http://homepage.mac.com/hjens, was down as well. (Jensen pulled the plug on the latter, a knowledgeable source says, after receiving complaints about it from higher-ups at the Rocky. By May 10, it was back up.) But he insisted he was merely "taking some time off," and refuted newsroom chatter that he'd been fired with the remark "Don't believe the rumors."

The gossip flow only increased with the May 4 publication of "Staff Gives Paper Sense of Continuity," another in a series of our-people-are-nifty columns by editor Temple. After updating readers on Amole's faltering health and boasting about News victories in a journalism contest, Temple lavished two sentences near the bottom of his article on Jensen, writing, "Holger Jensen has resigned his position as International Editor to pursue other interests. We appreciate his contributions over the past eleven and a half years at the Rocky, and we wish him well in his future endeavors."

The brevity of this sendoff left a vacuum that Jensen did little to fill. In an interview two days later, he again denied that he'd been handed a pink slip: "I quit," he declared. However, he wouldn't talk about what motivated his decision or discuss whether he'd accepted a settlement as a lovely parting gift.

In the meantime, Jensen buffs began to speculate about what really went on, with some guessing that complaints from Israel backers played a key role. Those who advance this argument note that Jensen's walkout makes him the second Denver media figure known for questioning Israeli policy to be effectively silenced last month -- the other being KHOW host Reggie Rivers, who announced his resignation in March and helmed his final broadcast on April 26. Rivers incurred the wrath of pro-Israel factions in 2001 when he unwittingly criticized the country's actions on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; afterward, he was haunted by callers who excoriated him for everything from naiveté to anti-Semitism ("Many Rivers to Cross," February 7).

 

KHOW was inundated with complaints from constituencies within the Jewish community about Rivers's program, and numerous businesses yanked their ads, prompting management to suggest he stop dealing with such heavy issues. But in the end, Rivers said he chose to leave not because of the heat, but because he was tired of people screaming at him ("Dead Lines," April 18). Scott Redmond, a former rock DJ who replaced Rivers on April 29, is unlikely to stir such passions: The subjects he's touched upon thus far include favorite one-hit wonders, ugly car designs and whether Jazzercise should be forced to hire a 240-pound instructor (Redmond said no).

Jensen has also been the target of grievances from Jewish community groups in recent months. This experience mirrors protests that have affected operations at several major news operations across the country. In the May 2 San Francisco Chronicle, media writer Dan Fost catalogued a rash of campaigns by outfits who perceived "an anti-Israel bias" at newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, which saw more than 1,000 people cancel their subscriptions to express their displeasure. A similar flap embroiled WBUR, Boston's National Public Radio affiliate, which was dropped by two sponsors because of alleged chilliness toward Israel.

As for Linda Gradstein, NPR's Israel correspondent, she's been accused of partiality from both sides. A pro-Palestinian Web site, www.electronicintifada.org, demanded Gradstein's resignation after discovering that her expenses for a speaking tour were being covered by the Jewish student group Hillel. Chastened, Gradstein turned down the money. But then www.usajewish.com, the self-proclaimed "only daily Jewish tabloid in America," unexpectedly supported harsher consequences. "Here's something we could all agree on," asserted an anonymous author. "We think [Gradstein's] riding a pro-Arab bias the size of a Kassam rocket; the Palestinians can't stand the fact that she's Jewish; so we say to our Palestinian brethren, we are with you in your righteous quest."

To Eric Alterman, a columnist for Nation, the insinuation that the media in general is anti-Israeli is absurd. In an April 2 piece, he assembled a list of 57 nationally known "columnists and commentators who can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and without qualification," but he could only come up with five "likely to be reflexively anti-Israel and/or pro-Palestinian regardless of circumstance." (Jensen wasn't on the list.) Yet battles over suspected slanting continue to be fought on various fronts. Locally, even the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has been fingered for being too Arab-friendly; Meirav Eilon-Shahar, from the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, was added to a Middle East lecture series after objections of imbalance from Israel-defending museum members.

Nonetheless, representatives of three organizations that have groused to the News about Jensen contend that they're more interested in proper reporting and clear labeling than in stifling debate.

"We have brought to the Rocky's attention times when we felt Holger's facts were not accurate," says Suzi Stolte, communications director of the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado. Evan Zuckerman, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's Mountain States office, divulges that "we've had dialogue with the Rocky and Mr. Temple for years, and our objection consistently has been the accuracy and substance of Mr. Jensen's column, especially when there was blatant bias as a result of misrepresenting the facts." And Susan Heitler, an area therapist involved with Denver-based www.actionisrael.org, feels Jensen "starts with a set belief that Israel is to blame for the problems in the region -- and we think that for American papers to preach an anti-Israel propaganda line that distorts the actual facts is quite inappropriate."

Heitler says after she shared such gripes in correspondence with Temple, the News started running most of Jensen's writing under the heading "Perspective," which she feels was "a good choice of words, because he wasn't reporting objective facts." But Temple doesn't want anyone to think the change was made at Actionisrael's behest. He partly credits complaints from Greg Dobbs, the News's biweekly media columnist, with spurring the move.

"Greg did have an influence," Temple says. "If Greg, a sophisticated journalist, felt there was confusion, and if a lot of other people seemed to be having a hard time understanding that he was writing perspective, we thought we needed to label it."

The News hasn't exactly been barraged with remonstrations about Jensen since he left. Last week, Dave Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, who shares the the News's media-critic beat, said he and Dobbs had been sent copies of approximately eighteen e-mails addressed to Temple from various spots in the U.S. and Canada, with most charging that the Rocky had forced Jensen out for ideological reasons.

 

Still, Jensen has plenty of supporters with national platforms, and at least two of them surmise that politics is at the root of his troubles. Ned Hanauer, of the Massachusetts group Search for Justice and Equality in Palestine/ Israel (www.searchforjustice.org), says, "I think his leaving the Rocky Mountain News is a serious loss to the people of Colorado, particularly given the often one-sided media coverage and anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim bias in much of the American media."

Adds Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (www.accuracy.org), "It's almost unheard of for an American journalist to lose his or her job after coming under attack for being overly pro-Israel. But it's fairly common for journalists to run into professional difficulties after coming under attack for being pro-Palestinian."

If this description fits him, though, Jensen's not saying. About the most he'll disclose is that he'd like to remain in Colorado but is "entertaining all offers." Considering what's happening in the Middle East, and here at home, it will be interesting to see how many he receives.


The grass isn't always Greener: Reached a day after an article labeled "Columnist Green Resigns from Post" appeared in the May 12 Post, Chuck Green was nearly as taciturn as Jensen. He offered only a succinct written statement: "I would not characterize my departure as a resignation, but I don't want to elaborate publicly." The Post obviously disagrees, since this same sentence was made available to the paper -- and to the Rocky, which didn't run a story of its own -- prior to the publication of the goodbye piece. So was Green surprised by the wording of the headline? "Yes," he said glumly.

But Green, who worked for the Post for 34 years in various capacities, including editor, was more talkative in previous weeks -- and his observations help put subsequent events into perspective.

The final chapter of Green's Post career began on March 24 with what aforementioned News contributor Greg Dobbs referred to as Green's "latest violation of journalistic ethics" -- a column in which Green published a letter "purportedly" sent by relatives of Frank Rodriguez, a convicted killer who died earlier this year before he could be executed.

The word "purportedly" was what rightly bothered Dobbs. Green wrote that while "Rodriguez's attorney said [the letter] sounded like the real thing," the authors "couldn't be reached to verify the letter's authenticity." In other words, Green built an entire column around a missive that could have been as phony as an Enron earnings report.

When asked about the column, Green said he had more information about the letter than appeared in black and white. Upon receiving it, he said, he called Rodriguez's lawyer, David Lane, but Lane never called him back. So he asked Post colleague Howard Pankratz to phone Lane on his behalf. Lane told Pankratz he'd been contacted a few weeks earlier by a member of the Rodriguez family who wanted to write a letter to Green; Lane responded that the family should feel free to do so. The attorney also told Pankratz that the letter's text was in line with what the family member had discussed.

To Green, Lane's statement authenticated the letter to his satisfaction. But why didn't he provide this evidence to readers? "To put in that detail, I would have had to cut the letter, and I thought that would be a greater ethical violation," Green said. He maintained that both Post city editor Evan Dreyer and managing editor Larry Burrough signed off on the column, "so if there was an ethical violation, it was because of their judgment." (There's no telling what Dreyer and Burrough think of this conclusion; so far, we've failed to connect.)

Lane, who's hardly Green's greatest devotee, corroborated the broad outlines of the columnist's version of events, but heartily disagreed with his other contentions. "The family was angry, and it was an angry letter, but I didn't write the letter or see the letter, and I don't know if they wrote the letter. And I thought he shouldn't have mocked the family the way he did in his column. I hold Chuck Green in the lowest regard that I have ever held any journalist in my entire 22-year career as a defense attorney. I've asked [Post editor] Glenn Guzzo why they give a forum to a guy like that, and he told me, 'Polls show he's got the highest readership of any columnist in Colorado.' But if a column by a Klansman had the highest readership in Colorado, would they still run it? Couldn't they find someone who's controversial and well-read who actually uses his brain?"

 

Guzzo, whose own resignation/replacement was announced on May 2, couldn't be reached for comment. But the News's Dobbs thought Lane's conversation with Pankratz didn't justify the Post's use of the disputed letter and that Green's reasons for not alluding to his "proof" in the column were dubious at best. "What Green's telling you is that he's a lousy writer. If anyone wants to reread that column of his and they've graduated from ninth-grade writing class, they could find another twenty words to cut to make space for his alleged explanation."

A week later, on March 31, Easter Sunday, Green's column wasn't in its usual slot; he said it had been spiked by Dreyer and Burrough because its topic, terrorism, was deemed inappropriate for a holiday edition. But the submission also caught him recycling his own material. Specifically, the unpublished column mentioned his father's only suit, "a wide lapeled pinstripe" -- a garment that was at the center of Easter columns in 2000 and 2001.

The Easter issue led to over two weeks' worth of Posts that were Green-free, and the paper chose not to explain his absence. But Green told Westword he was simply (think of Jensen) "taking some time off." Dobbs later discovered that Green had spent part of this break at the ranch of Dean Singleton, the paper's owner. Green took great pleasure in confirming this item: "If I'm being fired or am on suspension or on discipline, the chairman and owner of the Post isn't going to provide me refuge at his ranch," he said. "I don't know what the definition of 'disfavor' is, but that doesn't seem to fit."

Plenty of other things do. Green returned to the Post on April 19 and wrote one halfway-decent column (a May 8 piece about the postal worker assigned to his father's old route) and a bunch of lesser ones, including a May 3 finger-wagger that was simultaneously paternalistic and racially insensitive. But then a column he wrote for the May 10 paper, about the Highlands Ranch High School student who heaved a rabbit into the middle of a student assembly, was jettisoned.

Greg Moore, who will take over as the Post's leader in June, didn't ax the column; he's finishing up his duties as managing editor of the Boston Globe. But he's familiar with the situation, and he says the piece was held "because, quite frankly, there were some inaccuracies, and some facts that were not in the column. It just didn't hold together."

The same was supposedly true of Green's next column, a sentimental journey slated for Mother's Day. As Moore puts it, "His editors wanted some changes in the level of reporting. And that evolved into some other discussions about general feelings the editors had about his columns and feelings he had about how he was being edited."

At this point, Moore was apprised of the situation. "I was certainly involved in some of the content questions about his column. They were going to talk to him more broadly about how often his column would appear and on which days, and after that, he decided it was best that we part." Moore insists Green "was not fired. He said, 'Maybe it's time for me to go do something else,' and I can understand that. He's been writing a column for a long time, and with the level of scrutiny, he may have just felt he doesn't want to go through that anymore."

Singleton echoes Moore's account. He, too, was out of town at the time everything went down and says he was informed about Green's pronouncement after the fact. But, he notes, "There are numerous people who heard him resign. There's no ambiguity. He was asked to think about it for a while, and he said he didn't need to. So the one thing I know is he resigned."

How big a loss will Green's leave-taking be for the Post, especially given the oft-touted size of his readership? Singleton, long assumed to be Green's protector, is unsentimental: "I think his readership had declined as the quality of his columns had declined."

Moore adds that he didn't tell anyone to deal with the Green matter before he took over the Post. "There was no ultimatum that I wanted him out of there. I did not say, 'Get rid of Chuck,' or anything like that, and if I have an opportunity, I'll talk to him when I get there. I'd love to meet a guy who's been around for 34 years."

 

It's hard to know how eager Green would be for such a meeting: He didn't respond to Moore's comments. But considering the sentiments he shared with KHOW's Peter Boyles on May 12, which Boyles passed along to his listeners the next morning, such a get-together might not be too pleasant. After Green swore to Boyles that he hadn't resigned, he groused that after all the years he'd put in, he was dismissed without even receiving "cab fare."

What a way to go.


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