The Denver Post was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its treatment of the Columbine High School shootings and wound up as the lead dog in a joint operating agreement with the Rocky Mountain News -- but in recent years, the paper has been seen by many observers as flabby, boring and consistently less energetic and engaging than its crosstown quasi-rival. Since the June arrival of new editor Greg Moore, however, this reputation has started to change. Simply put, people are talking passionately about the Post again, and if a lot of that chat has been nasty, silence is infinitely worse.
Of course, not every prominent Post story has come in for a tongue-lashing from irritated subscribers. Investigative scribe David Migoya's series about health and safety questions associated with the meatpacking industry has earned praise from pretty much everyone other than executives at ConAgra, and deservedly so. But responses to Michael Riley's reporting about Mexico-born honor student Jesus Apodaca and Congressman Tom Tancredo, who have been linked in several immigration-related stories, and Susan Greene's profiles of senatorial candidates Wayne Allard and Tom Strickland have broken along ideological lines. Many of those to the left of center see the pieces as factually sound and ethically aboveboard, while plenty of conservatively inclined readers in this conservatively inclined state are crying bloody murder, accusing the Post of propagating not-so-secret left-wing positions.
The unofficial spokesman for the latter group is KOA talk-show host and News columnist Mike Rosen, who's spent a large chunk of his airtime during the past two weeks whipping the Post. "I've criticized the Rocky for some of its reporting in the past," notes Rosen, who wrote for the Post before jumping to the News. "But in general, I find much more to fault in the Post -- and that's certainly been true lately."
In reply, editor Moore, who spent a jaw-slackening two hours on Rosen's September 24 program, says, "I don't expect that people will always be happy with the issues we raise, but I'm comfortable journalistically with them. And sometimes it's the right thing to do to challenge people, even if you know they may be angry with us."
Although the Apodaca dilemma and its aftermath have certainly steamed folks on both sides of the political fence, it initially made little impact. August 11's "Immigrants Shut Out of Colleges" focused on worthy students like Apodaca, an Aurora Central attendee with sparkling grades, who are unable to afford college because they were brought into the country illegally and are therefore ineligible for in-state tuition. Riley sees Apodaca's tale as "key to a larger debate nationally. Four states have passed laws that would allow students like Jesus to attend schools with in-state tuition, and other lawmakers are proposing legislation on the issue" -- among them Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who's no one's idea of a pinko. The Post editorialized in support of Hatch's immigration bill, dubbed the Dream Act.
Nonetheless, only one letter about Apodaca was published in August. And the sole staff member to take on the subject at either paper that month was Post columnist Al Knight, who, in an August 14 piece bannered "Limiting Generosity," argued that the law should be obeyed whether or not Apodaca is an outstanding candidate for college.
Riley admits that he received some unflattering phone calls and mail addressed to him personally after introducing Post readers to the Apodacas, whom he says he learned about from "a university source," not someone at the Mexican Consulate, as Tancredo, Rosen and other critics have intimated. (Even so, a September 30 story in the Dallas Morning News stated that the family is currently being "sheltered" by the consul office.) But the reporter insists that such communication was substantially outweighed by contacts from individuals who wanted to help Jesus. One donor even offered to pay his first semester's tuition at the University of Colorado at Denver -- a gesture far more selfless than Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell's September 26 sponsorship of legislation that would make Apodaca a permanent U.S. resident, since it was done anonymously, and with no expectations of a political boost.
In addition, Riley heard from an informant who said that two undocumented workers in the employ of an area drywalling firm helped install a home theater in Tancredo's home. The reporter was in the midst of researching this tip when he learned that Tancredo, a proud hard-liner on immigration policy, had asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service to cast its gaze upon the Apodaca family, whose presence in the city had come to his attention via the original August 11 package.
"Tancredo Presses to Deport Student," Riley's September 13 account of the representative's call to the INS, sparked an uproar that shows few signs of quieting. Shortly thereafter, Riley contacted Tancredo regarding the allegedly undocumented laborers who toiled at his home. In an effort to remove the political sting from anything the Post might do with this revelation, Tancredo denounced the anticipated salvo before congressional C-SPAN cameras on September 18, giving the News a chance to play catch-up -- something it's getting accustomed to on this topic. (The Rocky's September 14 follow about the Tancredo-INS tête-à-tête was particularly lame; it went out of its way not to credit the Post and stated that Apodaca attended "Aurora High School," not Aurora Central.) Riley's version of events came out on September 19, the same day as the Rocky's rendering. Also in the News was a Mike Littwin column that cited Tancredo's effort to preempt "a newspaper story" from the House floor without mentioning the Post. A trend, perhaps?
Predictably, the Post's home-theater article was far more thorough than the Rocky's, which focused primarily on Tancredo. But one sentence in it provided ammunition to those making claims of subjectivity: "The Denver Post is not naming the employees because of the possibility that identification might lead to legal proceedings against them." When asked about the line, which seems aimed directly at Tancredo, Riley says he didn't write it -- the announcement was edited into the piece -- and that neither worker requested that his name be withheld. Moore confirms that he was involved in "crafting" this passage, maintaining that "it's standard journalistic practice not to be a tool of law enforcement, and we're not going to do that. I always prefer to name people, but there was potential harm in doing it, and in my judgment, the story wasn't hurt by us not naming them. People can disagree with that, but at least we explained the process."
Defenders of Tancredo believe the Post was unreasonable to imply that he should have double-checked the immigration status of employees at a company he hired, even though he was under no legal obligation to do so. That's why Rosen feels "there isn't a lot of substance to the criticism" leveled at Tancredo by what he refers to as a "gang" of Posters that includes columnists Diane Carman and Tina Griego. This view is echoed by News media critic Dave Kopel, who called the home-theater story a "self-indulgent exercise in 'gotcha' journalism" in his September 29 submission. But as was the case earlier this year ("Pack Mentality," July 25), Kopel fell considerably short of full disclosure, neglecting to divulge that he and Tancredo were once colleagues at the Independence Institute, an area think tank; on one 1995 article, they even shared a byline.
Setting potential conflicts aside, Kopel's column failed to recognize that fairness and newsworthiness aren't always the same thing. Tancredo justified his singling out of the Apodacas in part by saying they were "brazen" to think they could show up on the front page of the Post without getting into any trouble -- a dubious assertion given that Riley's reporting suggests the perennially understaffed INS wouldn't have acted without pressure from a government official. But Tancredo's decision to use a sympathetic figure like Jesus Apodaca as a symbol of his immigration-reform crusade was just as brash, knowing as he must have that the Post would cover it in gory detail. In other words, the Post applied Tancredo's own standards, making any complaints about the paper's entirely legitimate reporting thoroughly disingenuous.
Granted, Tancredo isn't leading the whining parade. Indeed, he's eagerly taken advantage of the publicity his actions have garnered, even guesting on the Fox last week to trade weak witticisms with morning yuksters Lewis and Floorwax. On top of that, he announced that he was backing away from a previous term-limits pledge smack in the middle of the Apodaca mess, knowing full well that both papers would hammer him -- which they did. He seemed unaffected by these assaults during a September 26 turn on Peter Boyles's KHOW talk show, laughing good-naturedly when the host, by way of plugging a children's-book drive, joked that Tancredo's favorite tome as a kid was Mein Kampf. Maybe that's because Tancredo knows he's in so safe a Republican district that even if he grew an Adolf Hitler mustache and goose-stepped at every public appearance between now and November, he'd still be elected by a tidy margin.
Neither Wayne Allard, a Republican incumbent, nor Tom Strickland, his Democratic opponent, are as lucky. Pollsters say their race for the Senate is too close to call, which may account for the strong reaction to Post staffer Greene's September 15 profile of Allard. A sizable chunk of Allard's supporters saw the piece as a viciously partisan attack, and Diane Eicher and Joe Bullard, former Post employees who recently began sharing the Rocky's criticism beat with Kopel, agreed. Their extraordinarily vitriolic September 22 evaluation deemed Greene's roundup "one of the most biased locally written stories in recent memory."
Greene declines to comment about the Eicher-Bullard analysis but says she consciously tried to avoid taking sides when writing about either Allard or Strickland. "The bottom line is, I'm being paid to spend time with both the candidates and to call it like I see it -- and that's what the profiles reflected. I tried to capture who Wayne Allard is, and the same with Strickland."
Rosen thinks Allard got the short end of Greene's stick, and this time around, he lays out a rather persuasive case. According to him, most readers form opinions about articles from their opening sections, and by that measure, the Allard piece hit considerably lower than did the Strickland counterpart. For one thing, its headline was more damaging: "Colorado's Stealth Senator Keeps 'Em Guessing: Critics say Allard's Image Masks Far-right Agenda" is wholly negative, whereas "Strickland Touts Environmental Record: Opponents Blast Corporate Lobbying" is better by half. For another, the photo is worse. Strickland seems to be stiff but professional in a stock shot, but Allard is seen in a bizarre, open-mouthed close-up that makes him look like a circus geek who's just caught sight of an unattended chicken.
In addition, the introductory tone of the Allard portrait is the harsher of the two. Strickland is faulted for being too ambitious, for cozying up to corporations in ways that conflict with his populist message and for being allergic to direct answers; later, his integrity is questioned in a fairly mild way by Betty Wilkins, identified as "a Democrat from Denver's Clayton neighborhood." And Allard? His voting record is likened to that of "Sens. Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, stalwarts of the Senate's far right," and his trademark openness and accessibility receives a devastating blow that hints at hypocrisy: "Despite all his town meetings, critics say his politics reflect an ultra-right-wing ideology that's out of step with moderate Colorado values. Just because he shows up doesn't mean he's listening." Yet, as Rosen notes, the next person Greene quotes -- political science professor Tony Robinson -- is not an exemplar of "moderate Colorado values," but an activist who identified himself in a Westword profile ("Welcome to the Real World," November 11, 1999) as a socialist.
In her article, Greene didn't characterize Robinson's political leanings one way or the other. But Rosen believes she gave such prominent play to someone he considers to be on the extreme left because she had a preconceived vision of the piece and didn't want anyone to contradict it. Greene scoffs at that. "I wasn't seeking out any one political perspective," she says. "In both profiles, I tried to get as wide a cross-section as I could." Regarding her use of Robinson, she says, "He's a professor at a pretty well-respected university, so I think that speaks for itself."
This justification prompts Rosen to ask, "Does that pass the giggle test? I don't think so." But at the same time, he doesn't describe the Strickland profile as a puff piece. Instead, he surmises that Greene toughened it up after her Allard article stirred controversy. Greene says no: She points out that the Strickland profile was largely written before the Allard project was published and stresses that nothing was altered to placate ticked-off Republicans.
If Moore feels burned by the firestorm swirling around Greene, he doesn't show it. He says he's pleased with the profiles of the Senate wannabes. "I thought she captured the candidates well, and there was no difference in the way they were put together than the way Time or Newsweek would have done them. People may not be used to this, but we take politics and public policy seriously here. We'll continue to do that, and I'll continue to insist that we be fair -- and we are."
This contention doesn't pass Rosen's giggle test, either. But he sees reason for some optimism down the line. "I use the analogy of an umpire. When you argue a call, you don't expect the umpire to change the call -- but it may affect his next call. So I would hope this would influence their handling of stories in the future."
Clearly, Rosen will be watching. But at least the Post is giving the rest of us a greater incentive to read closely as well.
Three's a crowd: There's no shortage of sports on the Denver radio dial, but more's on the way anyhow. On October 7, KLZ-AM/560 will become part of the ESPN family. That'll make a trio of signals, including the Fan and the Zone, that are entirely or largely devoted to sports -- and KOA, the broadcast home of the Broncos, the Rockies and the CU Buffaloes, certainly airs its share of the stuff, too.
KLZ's call letters are important to the history of the medium in these parts. KLZ-AM, which went on the air in 1922, was the city's first radio station, while KLZ-FM (now KBPI) was the initial FM signal west of St. Louis when it debuted in 1947, and it began programming rock and roll before just about anyone in the West. But since being purchased by Crawford Broadcasting a decade or so back, KLZ-AM has attracted comparatively few listeners despite a flurry of format changes. Most recently, the station specialized in music "chosen by women, for women," a unique approach for which the company wasn't rewarded. "I don't know why the women of Denver didn't embrace it," says company head Don Crawford Jr. "Qualitatively, it worked, but quantitatively, it didn't.
"We strive to be pioneers and try to do things differently instead of giving people the same old boilerplate, cookie-cutter stations," he continues. "But that hasn't worked for us on KLZ. So now we're going after the opposite demographic, and instead of being entrepreneurial, we're going with a format that's proven. It's something that's been staring us in the face for ten years, and we're finally going to try it."
This decision will cause some changes at the Zone, a Clear Channel outlet that's currently using ESPN programming between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. and was broadcasting the network's highest-profile talk show, hosted by Dan Patrick, up until three months ago. But Don Martin, the Zone's program director, isn't overly concerned. "Clear Channel is Fox Sports Radio, so I'll just go a hundred percent Fox," he says.
As for the apparent glut of sports on Denver radio, Martin notes that there have been other times, such as the mid-'80s, when similar programming was available in equal abundance. Not that it lasted.
"With sports, you aren't hitting the widespread audience, so none of us will have the numbers of stations like KHOW or the Fox or KYGO. But if you hit your niche and live within the format, you can do all right," Martin says. "Do I think there are enough hard-core sports crazies for it to work for all of us? No. So we'll have to see if there's enough to go around."