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Two of a Kind

Michael Miller

The Justice Department's voluminous report on the joint operating agreement that will bind the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News in holy wedded monopoly, released to the public last week, isn't exactly overflowing with surprises. The document, issued under the signature of Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein, uncovers a few fresh details about how the News's go-for-broke strategy for polishing off the Post resulted, logically enough, in the Rocky going broke -- broke enough, at least, to qualify for a federal anti-trust exemption. But its most instructive clauses were those focusing on complaints filed by members of the public interested in putting a kibosh on the deal.

According to the manuscript's authors, the prospect of skyrocketing advertising and subscription rates, as well as the majority of other negatives likely to accompany the JOA's instatement, are "beyond the scope of appropriate inquiry in this report" because "Congress made the judgment that saving an editorial voice was worth the competitive harm that would result from the aggregation of market power that a JOA represents."

To put that in English, the Newspaper Act of 1970, which officially sanctioned JOAs, may be lousy public policy that's outlived its usefulness, but it remains the law of the land -- and until that changes, marriages of convenience like the impending Post-News nuptials can go forward without delay. No shotguns required.

Thanks, then, to the Newspaper Act (and Attorney General Janet Reno, who's expected to okay the JOA request in November), the Post and the News will both continue to exist, and to speak independently, more or less.

Better yet, the News's name may go back to the future: A Scripps-Howard executive quoted in the September 17 Post says the word "Denver," which was added to the Rocky's masthead in 1998 as part of yet another failed battle tactic, may be removed. That's no skin off my nose; I've refused to use the "Denver" part of the moniker for much the same reason that Joe Frazier continued to refer to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay. But it sure is funny.

But how different is what the two papers have to say? Although longtimers view the Post as Denver's liberal paper and the News as its conservative counterpart, such labels seem to mean less with each passing year. Granted, there are exceptions -- but on most days, the publications wind up covering the same stories in pretty much the same way. Rather than seeming separate and distinct, these editorial voices are all too often echoes of each other.

In an effort to illustrate this point, I analyzed all the editorial pages printed in the Post and the News for a single week chosen at random: Wednesday, September 6, through Tuesday, September 12. I focused on this particular segment of the papers because I wanted to minimize my own subjectivity: Whereas ideological leanings in the writing, editing and placement of a standard news story are presumably embedded within its text, headline and art, and require interpretation that may be susceptible to other biases, editorials are opinionated by their very nature. For that reason, I assumed it would be far easier to tell if something in the editorial category tilted to the left or right -- but I was soon disabused of this notion.

As it turned out, a substantial number of editorials, columns and political cartoons sported no discernible point of view whatsoever. They were often so vague that they wound up essentially position-free -- and even those that staked out perceivable stances generally did so near the middle of the road, steering clear of extremes of any type. In addition, there were numerous essays that dealt with uncontroversial matters (both papers ran snoozy eulogies to late News editor Ralph Looney) or subjects that didn't break down along standard political lines (since the debate over the status of Centennial was mainly a fight for tax revenues among warring camps of Republicans, I never could figure out whether being in favor of cityhood was liberal or conservative). Most important, many of the pieces I read, whether they were nationally syndicated or generated locally, were absolutely stultifying: opaque, confused, poorly structured and/or just plain boring.

Nonetheless, I was eventually able to organize these assorted components into five categories -- left, left to neutral, neutral, neutral to right, and right -- and the results weren't what you'd call resounding proof of the tremendous dissimilarities between the Post and the News. Of the 69 items from the News that were analyzed, right beat left, but narrowly (seventeen to fourteen), with neutral coming awfully close to the top spot (sixteen). George Gallup would probably dub that a statistical tie. The race among the eighty combatants at the Post was less of a photo finish; left nudged right fifteen to thirteen, but lost handily to neutral, which brought home a shocking 27.

 

Separating out unsigned editorials, which serve as the official expressions of the papers, demonstrates a bit more of a divergence, but not by much. Eight of the sixteen unsigned editorials published by the News fell into one of the two right divisions, while five fit into the two left groupings, and three were neutral; likewise, eight of the nineteen unsigned editorials from the Post pointed partly or largely to the left, with five slanting rightward to various degrees and six neutral. In the final analysis, the publications were on the same page more often than not.

Some specifics:

The News and the Post sometimes drew upon the very same syndicated columnists; during the test week, they published separate treatises by venerable ex-Nixon speechwriter William Safire, and both featured a Maureen Dowd tweak of George W. Bush following his identification of New York Times reporter Adam Clymer as a "major-league asshole." (This snicker-worthy subject was also tackled by Richard Reeves, Cal Thomas, new Roger Ebert sidekick Richard Roeper, Tony Kornheiser and Post editorial page editor Sue O'Brien, who joked about newspapers willing to print the words "ass" and "hole" separately but being too timid to put them together. Like the Post, for instance.) But even when the faces weren't exactly the same, the Denver dailies tended to plug in fare from the usual out-of-town suspects to achieve a stereotypical balance of liberal and conservative thought. The Rocky went right with George Will and left with Nat Hentoff, while the Post responded with Tony Snow on one side of the fence and Dowd on the other. Predictably, most of these columnists were Caucasians, and those few who weren't frequently fell into the ultra-conservative camp. Witness Joseph Perkins at the News and William Raspberry at the Post, a pair of African-Americans who did Rush Limbaugh proud; on September 9, Perkins argued that John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman should have been executed a long time ago (along with a lot of other bad folks), while Raspberry's September 7 salvo touted that old chestnut, prayer in public schools.

Most Colorado columnists espoused a correspondingly conservative ideology. The contributions of the Post's Ed Quillen, an old-school liberal from Salida whose September 10 column about Al Gore's support of a "crime victims bill of rights" attacked the veep from the left, were more than offset by the Post's Ken Hamblin, the News's Mike Rosen and several others. Which wouldn't have been so bad if many of the local columns weren't so wretchedly written. On September 10, Post staple Al Knight came up with a clear and concise, albeit doctrinaire, article about the judicial system's alleged prejudice against men in child-custody matters, and the News's Mike Littwin showed in a rumination about layoffs at Qwest published that same day why readers should be pleased he'll soon be in the news department on a full-time basis. But a September 11 response to a Douglas Bruce supporter by the Post's Bob Ewegen made less sense than the plot of the first Mission Impossible movie. After reading it once, I contemplated plowing through it a second time, but ultimately decided that some mysteries weren't meant to be unraveled.

The wishy-washiness of other offerings was even more frustrating; in particular, several of the Post's unsigned editorials contained opinions that were about as solid and unyielding as one-ply toilet paper. "Ski or Get Off the Slope," a September 12 editorial about financial problems at Winter Park, a ski area owned by the city of Denver, featured the line, "The Post isn't sure at this point whether Denver should sell its 'crown jewel,' invest in it through revenue bonds or explore the intriguing joint-venture concept." Then why the hell didn't you wait until you'd made up your mind before scratching out an editorial? The story was much the same in the September 10 piece "Logging at Loggerheads," about disputes between loggers and environmentalists over how best to prevent fires like the one that hit the Hi Meadow area this summer. After a laborious analysis, the anonymous author finally decided that, well, both sides make some pretty good points. Now there's a bold statement.

By comparison, the Rocky's unsigned editorials, overseen by editorial page editor Vince Carroll, were noticeably more decisive: Concerning Winter Park, the News came right out and said the city should consider peddling it. But much of the space was taken up by humdrum proclamations about national issues ("Accounting for the Kursk," "Pass the China Trade Bill"), thereby putting the squeeze on space for local matters. Even more quizzical was the decision to hand over page one of the September 10 effort to "The Case for a 10-Hour Play" by Peter Hall, the co-director of Tantalus, which just happens to be a ten-hour play that will be staged in Denver soon.

 

As for Carroll's own column, September 10's "Marijuana Backers Don't Make It Easy," about the campaign for Amendment 20, which would make medical marijuana legal, it began with the sentence "There are roughly 10,000 doctors practicing medicine in Colorado, yet not one is riding into battle beside sponsors of the medical marijuana initiative. Not one." Meanwhile, that same day's Post opened its editorial section with dueling arguments for and against Amendment 20 -- and the one in favor of it was co-written by Dr. Chris Ott, identified as "a Denver physician specializing in trauma and emergency medical treatment." That doesn't mean Dr. Ott's riding into battle, though. He could be taking the bus.

Without the JOA, amusing juxtapositions like this one might be on the road to extinction -- and even though I'm pretty sure keeping the comedy rolling isn't what Congress had in mind when it passed the Newspaper Act thirty years back, I guess we should be grateful for what we get. Try to remember that when the price of your four-dollar-per-annum subscription increases fiftyfold.

Jesus saves (money): The recent turmoil in the Denver radio scene, recapped in this space last week, shows no signs of diminishing. On September 18, Camarillo, California's Salem Communications, which had officially purchased KALC-FM (known as Alice) way back on August 24, sold the station to Indianapolis's Emmis Communications, new owners of the Peak, for $98.8 million. Spokeswoman Tricia Whitehead won't spell out how much profit this pact netted Salem, noting that Alice was one of eight outlets purchased from mega-corp Clear Channel for a lump sum. But since said total was $185.6 million, you don't need to be Alan Greenspan to realize that Salem came out of the deal smelling sweeter than a honey factory on a hot day.

Yet a tidy influx of moola likely wasn't the only reason this arrangement was reached. Salem specializes in Christian programming; of its four other Denver properties, three fit this description, while the fourth, KNUS, offers up conservative talk that's otherwise compatible with its sister stations. Alice's signature, on the other hand, is randy sex talk as delivered by the likes of Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce. Some observers thought Salem would overlook this contradiction because of Alice's popularity and allow jocks to talk about peters to pay Paul. But the contrast between smut and sanctimony was just too sharp to ignore over the long term. In a statement released in conjunction with the sale announcement, Salem president and CEO Edward Atsinger III emphasized that he wants to "broaden our clusters by adding new formats," yet the approach about which he seemed most enthusiastic was a new mix of contemporary Christian music dubbed "Fish" -- and no, I am not making that up.

Peak general manager Joe Schwartz, who will serve in the same capacity at Alice, insists that the purchase isn't a defensive maneuver against Clear Channel: "This was a great opportunity to buy another station in Denver, and that's all it is," he says. But there's no denying that Clear Channel has gone after the Peak like Australian sharks would like to have chewed on triathletes, responding to the station's "'80s and Beyond" slogan by altering the catchphrase of KTCL, its designated pitbull frequency, to "'80s, '90s and Beyond." Moreover, the Alice purchase allows Emmis (in which Liberty Media, controlled by ex-TCI kingpin John Malone, holds a significant stake) to put some heat on KISS-FM, Clear Channel's new supplier of contemporary hit radio.

Schwartz doesn't swear on a Bible that he'll leave Alice unchanged after he takes the reigns about thirty days from now via a local marketing agreement, but he comes close. "We plan to do some research in the market to see how Alice is doing and if there are any adjustments we should make," he says. "But we're not expecting much, if anything. Basically, Alice is a tremendously successful radio station, and to contemplate a format change would be silly."

Like pretty much everything else in Denver radio these days.


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