Most broadcast execs shy away from criticizing the local TV newscasts that help butter their bread. But Cindy Velasquez, Channel 7's general manager, isn't most broadcast execs.
"Look what local TV stations have become," she says. "They've become very nice, very cautious -- and I think that's why so many viewers feel disconnected from them. God forbid you stick your head out and take a swing for something."
Those are bold words, particularly given that they sometimes apply to Channel 7's own newscasts. Although Velasquez, who moved from vice president of broadcasting for Channel 9 to her current post in late 1997, speaks disparagingly of the increasingly puffy reports that are heavily promoted during ratings -- or sweeps -- periods like the one taking place throughout February, her station has spent much of its time this month energetically hyping packages on marshmallowy topics such as home remodeling. That should stir up some controversy, eh?
Still, Velasquez, who rose to upper management from the sales rather than the news side of the journalism biz, deserves credit for pushing her organization to add substance to its style. She champions interactive, issues-based features such as 7 Speakout, a call-in segment hosted by KHOW's Peter Boyles seen on the 11 a.m. weekday news. And, more interestingly, she fronts a regular series of editorials that, since their debut last May, have grown steadily tougher and more provocative.
Televised editorials aren't a new thing; as Velasquez notes, such items can actually be termed "old-time broadcasting." Eric Sevareid was probably the best-known TV pundit, dishing out stern, stone-faced judgments for years on CBS Nightly News with Walter Cronkite (after Sevareid's 1977 retirement, Bill Moyers filled his slot for a time), but there were numerous local equivalents, including the late Carl Akers, a longtimer at Channel 9. In the past fifteen years or so, however, newscasts have moved away from taking stands on the issues of the day.
The reasons behind this shift aren't difficult to surmise. Stations with an eye on the bottom line strive to be as inoffensive as possible so as not to alienate any potential viewers, and since editorials, by their very nature, tend to make enemies -- including, on occasion, advertisers -- as well as friends, they've been largely abandoned. (An exception is sports, a fan-oriented arena where the stakes are lower and offering opinions is part of the fun.) There's also the question of access. If stations go after public figures, these people may not be wild about chatting with their representatives in the future; witness the frigid shoulder ex-Denver Police Department chief Tom Sanchez recently gave to Channel 4 in the wake of Brian Maass's report on Sanchez's poorly timed trip to Hawaii ( "A Failure to Communicate," February 17).
None of these factors dissuaded Velasquez. Last spring she helped form an eight-person editorial board made up of Channel 7 staffers from a variety of backgrounds and began meeting weekly to determine what subject should be addressed. "Each person comes in with three or four ideas," she says, "and we hash through those until we come up with two or three things that we have a consensus on. The person who's most passionate about the issue we decide on is told to do the research and the writing of the editorial, and then I front them."
While Velasquez has never vehemently disagreed with the views she's subsequently espoused on camera, she admits that there have been some editorials that wouldn't have been her first choice -- "but majority rules."
Early on, some of the questions discussed were as safe as they were banal. For instance, we didn't need Velasquez to tell us that a high-tech Coke machine that charged more on hot days was a pretty creepy innovation. And Velasquez says she was zinged by a few folks for the cuddly piece she did about spaying and neutering pets. "In some ways, that was the most difficult one we've done. We were in a shelter by the kennels, with dogs barking and cats chewing at my hair -- and it was really pathetic to look at all the animal carcasses just lying in grocery carts. But later I had some people tell me, 'Hey, that was really hard-hitting.'"
Fortunately, other editorials have been. After a Channel 7 helicopter got striking footage of a police chase involving a trio of suspects that ended with the cops beating the bejeezus out of their prey ( "The Eyes in the Sky," September 2, 1999), Mayor Wellington Webb promised that the city would take quick action. But when nothing was done for weeks, Velasquez went on the air and demanded action -- and after Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters, who'd been asked to look into the incident, finally ruled that the officers involved had behaved appropriately, she chided him for not making a stronger disciplinary statement.
The 7 editorial squad also asked for the resignation of Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone, argued in favor of abolishing the lieutenant governor post, and pointedly suggested that embattled safety manager Butch Montoya (a co-worker of Velasquez's when she was at Channel 9) revamp hiring standards for the police and fire departments in the wake of Montoya's championing of Ellis Johnson, a police academy recruit with a Dennis Hopper-like drug history. And last week, in a piece about the search for a new police chief, Velasquez urged Mayor Webb to look seriously at candidates outside the DPD who couldn't be accused of being one of the department's "good ol' boys."
Such straight-shooting hasn't resulted in a turnaround of Channel 7's audience share. The station is in the black financially due to the strong performance of its network, ABC, and syndicated cash cows such as Oprah and Wheel of Fortune, but its locally produced newscasts are running behind those of its Denver competitors in most time slots.
This mediocre showing is nothing new. Velasquez concedes that in the early '90s, the battle between Channel 9, where she was employed at the time, and Channel 4 was so competitive that she seldom even thought about Channel 7 -- and 7's situation was worsened by a mid-decade revamp, dubbed "Real Life, Real News," that was widely disparaged for glitziness seemingly derived from Entertainment Tonight.
Velasquez doesn't grind her heels into the aborted format with the vigor one might expect, even going so far as to compliment her predecessor, John Proffitt, for taking such a bold risk. But she acknowledges that her first job at Channel 7 was to "neutralize the ill will" engendered by "Real Life, Real News" and its flamboyant figurehead, Natalie Pujo, and infuse the news operation with some much-needed credibility. With the addition of news director Diane Mulligan, who previously helmed the so-called superdesk at MSNBC, and an on-air crew consisting of Anne Trujillo, Mitch Jelniker, Marty Coniglio and Tom Green, she feels she's taken a giant step in that direction.
Trujillo and company will no doubt be cheered to hear that Velasquez wants to keep this team together for the sake of consistency; she sees the pending retirement of Channel 9's Ed Sardella and the possible departure of 9 sports anchor Ron Zappolo (who's heavily rumored to be heading for a news position at Fox's Channel 31) as an opportunity to make some ratings headway.
In the meantime, the editorials will continue, despite the public's failure thus far to engage the station in an on-camera debate. Velasquez gets loads of e-mail and plenty of anonymous phone calls after most editorials, with a percentage of them opposing the station's position. But to date, only one guy, John Parvensky, has had the nerve to enter the studio and videotape a response -- and since he agreed with Velasquez (he said her plea to remember the homeless year-round rather than just during the holidays "hit the nail on the head"), no sparks were thrown.
Which isn't to say that the editorials are being dismissed by those they spotlight. Two weeks ago, Velasquez and a camera crew went to a gas storage facility near Arvada that was starting to leak, thereby creating a potential danger to nearby homes; in her videotaped statement, she demanded that Public Service (a sizable target) either guarantee that the site is safe or shut it down. But during the taping, Velasquez, who delivered her words while standing on a crate ("because I'm so short"), was startled when an unmarked helicopter began circling the area, followed shortly by the arrival of Public Service security and someone from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department (yeah, John Stone's posse). "It was fascinating that they were able to react so quickly," Velasquez says. "But we didn't let that intimidate us. We were on public land, and we hadn't done anything wrong. So we did what we'd gone there to do."
As for taking a shot at Public Service, which she describes as "a big advertiser," Velasquez is as unapologetic as any TV executive could be. "That has to be put aside. If you're going to do this, you have to do it with complete conviction."
In the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a character played by Carleton Young delivers a couple of memorable lines: "This is the West, sir," he tells James Stewart. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Proof that this dictate still holds true: On February 24, Misty Bernall, mother of slain Columbine High School student Cassie Bernall, will receive a prestigious Christopher award (dispensed for the last 51 years by the Christophers, a New York organization dedicated to honoring artists "whose work expresses the highest values of the human spirit") for her book She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. The title, of course, refers to an alleged exchange between Cassie and Columbine killer Dylan Klebold in which he asked her if she believed in God and then shot her after she told him that she did -- but after the publication of She Said Yes, convincing evidence came to light implying that the young woman who actually said yes was Valeen Schnurr, who was grievously wounded but survived the assault. Does that matter? Not too much, says Christophers spokesman Father Thomas McSweeney, who will also be giving an award to South African archbishop Desmond Tutu on the 24th. "The book is really the story of a young woman who turned tragedy and darkness into a positive force, and how that brought her to the threshold of heroism," he says. "Now they're saying, 'Did she say "yes" or didn't she?' and so on, but that's only a small part of the story. So in a sense, it isn't that important whether she's the one who said it or not." In other words, print the legend.
Nothing will be printed by the Boulder Planet anymore -- the publication went belly-up last week. The Planet had a tough time finding a niche in a market also occupied by the Boulder Daily Camera, the Boulder Weekly and the Colorado Daily, but owner Doug Greene, who also holds the deed to the Boulder Theater, insists that competition didn't doom his baby, and neither did red ink; he notes that after years of losses (and major layoffs beginning in 1998), the paper began making money a few weeks ago, in part because the Denver Post included the Planet in some ad-bundling deals. But for Greene, a major Internet player who hopes to make a mint off his yet-to-be-launched Boulder.com site, the small profit didn't justify the hard work it took to make it. Moreover, he says it was difficult to recruit talented journalists when such scribes knew that by going into what he calls "the dot-com world," they could make a lot more green. "It's very difficult finding the right people unless you can promise a big upside," he allows. "And we couldn't look someone in the eye and say, 'You've got a great upside here.' It was a labor of love, and a lot of times, labors of love don't pay."
You can say that again.
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A pair of journalism awards presentations sponsored last week by the Associated Press and the Colorado Press Association, respectively, prompted energetic spinning by both Denver dailies. In the AP contest, the Rocky Mountain News was named best large newspaper and took home eleven of seventeen first-place awards on the way to racking up twenty honors, as compared to two first places and thirteen baubles overall for the Denver Post -- a comparison the Post chose not to make (its article about the competition didn't mention the News at all). The math got even trickier when it came to the CPA: The News boasted that it won twelve first-place nods as opposed to the Post's ten, while the Post said it took home nine first places (one less than the News claimed) of what it said were just fourteen top editorial honors available.
That doesn't add up -- but Denver's newspaper war seldom does.
Something else that doesn't compute: In a February 22 Post article about Denver cops breaking up a rally staged by a group demanding justice for Ismael Mena, an innocent man slain in a botched no-knock raid, Denver Police Department spokeswoman Detective Mary Thomas -- part of the DPD's public information office, which caught flak for its dealings with the press in this space last week -- is quoted as saying, "If there's a complaint, the First Amendment doesn't apply." Does that mean the next reporter who gripes is going straight to the hoosegow?
Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at Michael_Roberts@westword.com.