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Tilting at Windmills

Sam Turner

The fight against the Denver dailies' joint operating agreement ended not with a bang, but with a snicker. Or maybe two.

The second such bit of mirth took place on April 12, day two of a hearing before U.S. District Judge John Kane, who had been asked to issue a temporary restraining order against three key results of the JOA: the combined classified section running in both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, the split weekend editions (the News gets Saturday, the Post gets Sunday), and elevated advertising rates. As American Furniture Warehouse magnate Jake Jabs, who funded the challenge, was ranting about the evils of the pact from the witness stand ("It was crazy time...There should have been an investigation"), Kane put his hand to his cheek to block his expression from Jabs's view and chuckled quietly to himself. You didn't have to be a legal expert to know that was a bad sign -- and a few hours later, Kane smacked down the plaintiffs' arguments like an especially irritating horsefly, even going so far as to hint that he might sanction Jabs and company if they attempted to darken his doorway with their arguments again. Even Jabs, who testified repeatedly that he didn't understand the papers' new rate cards, could read between those lines. Less than 24 hours later, he gloomily announced that he was dropping the suit.

Just as telling, though, was the initial guffaw, which took place the previous day during the presentation by Ryan Ross, a freelance journalist and former Westword staffer who, through doggedness and wile, had managed to attach himself to Jabs's efforts despite lacking the financial resources normally required to bring an action before the federal bench. Unlike the other parties in the case, who were motivated mainly by money (the desire to pay less or collect more), Ross was driven by his belief that the people of Denver would be poorer if the JOA were allowed to stand. In an attempt to illustrate his contention, he displayed two newspaper bundles: one a week's worth of editions from just before the agreement went into effect, the other from afterward. He then pointed out with a flourish that the former stack weighed 20.4 pounds and the latter tipped the scales at just 15.3 pounds -- meaning that we, the readers of Denver, are losing out on 5.1 pounds of news and information per week.

The gallery watching the proceedings, made up mostly of reporters from the very papers that were defendants in the matter, responded to this clumsy bit of theater with unmuffled cackles -- and why not? There are few things more embarrassing than a failed Perry Mason moment. But this reaction was also an acknowledgement that, in the overall scheme of things, Ross didn't matter, because he wasn't powerful enough to matter. Joint operating agreements are by their very nature political: Had Congress not passed the exemption-filled Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, many JOA provisions would be blatantly illegal. As such, the only opponents who count are those with enough clout to make things politically uncomfortable -- collective business interests rather than lone wolves, as Jabs was perceived to be, or public officials like Denver mayor Wellington Webb, whom the dailies were able to co-opt early on. And how has Webb been repaid for his support? Rates for city notices required by law to be printed in newspapers have more than doubled, forcing Webb's staff to look for alternatives to the News and the Post. Thanks, your honor -- now, pony up.

Considering all that, Ross was easy to dismiss despite the moral high ground he occupied. His passionate, energetic performance before an indulgent Judge Kane recalled Jimmy Stewart filibustering in the populist classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- but if Ross had collapsed in exhaustion, papers fluttering to the floor around him à la Stewart, no one would have cared. In Hollywood myth, the little guy makes all the difference. In reality, he's usually a speed bump.

If Ross and Jabs failed to make a lasting dent, however, they managed to provide some temporary discomfort for several court attendees at the heart of it, including Alan Horton, an executive with E.W. Scripps, the News's parent company, Denver Newspaper Agency head Kirk MacDonald, and Dean Singleton, de facto owner of the Post, who was heard to grouse at one point about the hardness of the wooden benches provided for spectators.

But their keister pain was likely soothed by momentum, which was on their side from the start. Judge Kane occasionally exhibited a certain uneasiness with the muscle being displayed by the News-Post juggernaut, noting that "when you're able to pay for this stable of lawyers, it becomes apparent that this is more a sport of kings than polo is." Likewise, his decision included the comment that "one and a half newspapers is better than one," indicating that he didn't regard the JOA to be a panacea. But he also sharply chastised Jabs's lawyers, Thomas McMahon and Patricia Bangert, for "personally and individually" naming Attorney General Janet Reno, who approved the JOA, as a defendant in the lawsuit; snapped at McMahon when he tried to bolster his line of reasoning by citing an unpublished decision; and repeatedly muzzled Jabs on the grounds that many of his remarks were founded on hearsay -- which they indisputably were.

Indeed, Jabs spent hours under examination without helping his cause in any perceivable way. He conceded that the rise in advertising rates was "predictable," which lent credence to his opponents' assertion that he should have filed his suit months earlier; repeatedly said that he wouldn't be hurt by leaving the dailies, thereby blowing holes in his damage claims; and casually listed alternative media outlets without seeming to realize that by doing so, he was undercutting his own allegation that the JOA constituted a monopoly. But he did provide some color (the bright white of his hair, the bright red of his face) as he bellowed about lies and snow jobs and poor customer service and just about every other sin imaginable. As an added bonus, he shared memories of "honky-tonkin'" with ex-News publisher Larry Strutton and trying to buy steers with Dean Singleton, and allowed that he'd built his new American Furniture Warehouse superstore "out in the middle of nowhere, out there on E-470...It'll probably take people two or three years to find us." No wonder advertising's so important to him right now.

The attorneys facing off against Jabs seemed as unconcerned by his words as they were by the substance of the suit, for which they clearly hadn't overprepared. Alan Marx, representing MediaNews, briefly implied that one of the Denver dailies circulated in the evenings, not the mornings, before correcting himself, and Paul Eyre, a lawyer for Scripps, repeatedly referred to "the Denver Rocky Mountain News," demonstrating along the way that he hadn't gotten the memo announcing that the "Denver" had been dropped from its moniker months ago. Yet they had an ace in the hole in the enthusiastic assistance of the Justice Department. Carol Federighi, the department's rep, had no place complimenting the papers, but she did so anyway, describing the News's penny-a-day circulation sales, which most observers agree was a disastrous strategy, as one of the "heroic efforts" deployed to keep the operation alive. That's objectivity, government style.

Of course, Federighi's apparent bias played little role in the suit's demise: Ralph Nader had a better chance of winning the 2000 presidential election than Jabs did of prevailing. But at least Ross's paper-weighing stunt, silly as it was, managed to disprove that customers would need "a bigger dog" to carry in their post-JOA newspapers, as a Denver Newspaper Agency advertising campaign maintained. On most days, a Chihuahua should be able to handle it.

And the thought of that is pretty damn funny.

Sheriff Stonewall's origami circus: Also present at the JOA hearing was Post columnist Chuck Green, who took umbrage at the inference made in this column last week that he'd lifted a description of the News's Saturday broadsheet -- he called it "origami" -- from a piece by Mike Littwin, his News counterpart, published two days earlier. Green insisted that he'd heard the origami gag the day before Littwin's critique saw print, and therefore felt it was improper to dub it Littwin's property. Furthermore, he continued, Littwin swiped "Sheriff Stonewall," a biting nickname for Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone, from him -- and there's evidence to support this charge: Green used it eight times beginning in December 1999 before it surfaced in Littwin's April 10 salvo. But before I could pen an earnest tribute to Green's originality, he published an April 13 column about the Jabs lawsuit featuring the very same circus motif used in an April 12 Littwin essay on the same topic.

But I'm sure Chuck thought of it before he read it in the News. Aren't you?

Not quite on top of the trends: 5280, which advertises itself as "Denver's Mile-High Magazine," doesn't pretend to be a news publication -- but it took an editor's note in the April/May edition to show just how out of touch the folks at the mag are. The issue's letters section was kicked off with a missive from Karen Davis, identified as president of United Poultry Concerns Inc., who criticized 5280 for including Stephen Meade, aka KBPI disc jockey Willie B., in the magazine's recently published most-eligible-singles list because he'd been charged with and convicted of animal cruelty in connection to a radio stunt with a chicken the previous year. The note that followed apologized for Meade's inclusion: "5280 was unaware of the charges against Meade when we compiled our list...Had we known, Meade would not have been selected for the article."

To put it mildly, this statement is jaw- dropping. Meade's arrest first made headlines last June and was reported widely and prominently by virtually every media outlet in the city, almost all of which followed the story closely for months. Furthermore, Meade's participation in the so-called Mudfest controversy was just as widely circulated. How anyone living in Denver could have missed that is a mystery on par with Kathy Lee Gifford's popularity. Then again, fact-checking evidently isn't high on 5280's agenda: In the editor's note, Meade's first name is misspelled.

Stormy weather: Like most Denverites, I awoke on April 11 to reports of a spring storm that had paralyzed the city. Between 6 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., I flipped from one local news broadcast to another, both on television and radio, and each transmitted the same essential message: Driving is all but impossible throughout the metro area, and anyone who doesn't stay home is risking his or her life. Since I live in a foothills community often hard hit by inclement weather, and because my route to work requires me to motor along snow-susceptible thoroughfares such as C-470, I-70 and Sixth Avenue, I slid behind the wheel of my car feeling something just short of terror. So imagine my surprise when I encountered road conditions that wouldn't have frightened recent arrivals from California or Texas, let alone a lifelong Coloradan. I made it to the office in less time than usual, partly because of extremely low traffic volume -- a result, no doubt, of the consistently hysterical coverage.

Granted, the city suffered very real problems because of the weather, including scattered power outages, but the worst of these troubles were to the east and south -- and my travels showed that a huge chunk of western Denver was in much better shape than was announced by any reporter or anchor I had heard. And it wasn't as if the TV stations, in particular, had too little time to offer more complete information: Most of them pre-empted regular programming in order to go wall-to-wall on the storm, kept it up for hours, and took the opportunity to let viewers know power was on and lines were short at Krispy Kreme.

Perhaps the next time they do so, they'll try to be a little more inclusive and considerably more responsible -- or else they're in danger of being ignored entirely. After all, Chicken Little is a better nursery-rhyme character than a traffic reporter.


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