Hot Stuff

Before long, Channel 2 will begin sending out a digital TV signal across Denver -- good news for the relative handful of local viewers who have the proper equipment but no cable or satellite service. Yet the rationale under which the station was granted permission to mount a digital antenna to one of its Lookout Mountain towers has angered members of Canyon Area Residents for the Environment (CARE), a consortium of neighborhood groups that's spent ages fighting the proliferation of broadcasting gadgets in the foothills west of Denver. And Deb Carney, CARE's attorney, places the blame for this turn of events squarely on officials with Jefferson County and the Federal Communications Commission.

"Jefferson County owes its citizens a duty to protect their health, safety and welfare and should not be abrogating that duty because of a misplaced reliance on the FCC, especially in light of the FCC's documented history of failing to protect people," Carney says.

Specifically, Carney is concerned about "hot spots" near antennas where radio-frequency emissions, known as RF, exceed safety standards established by the FCC. (Several studies have suggested a link between RF and cancer -- conclusions that remain controversial.) Channel 2 has a pair of towers on Lookout Mountain: The first measures 450 feet in height, the second tops out at 198.6 feet. Over time, CARE member Al Hislop found assorted hot spots in the vicinity of these units, and his findings were generally confirmed by FCC personnel using a wand-like device called an RF survey meter to measure radio-frequency levels. On one occasion, power had to be decreased on an antenna attached to a Channel 2 tower (it was owned by local FM radio station Alice) in order for the station to sneak under maximum allowable RF limits.

Considering how close the tower already was to non-compliance, getting approval to add another antenna would seem to be a tough sell, and it was; a request made by Channel 2 to place a digital-TV doodad on its largest tower was rejected earlier in 2002. But the reason, says Jefferson County zoning administrator Tim Carl, had nothing to do with RF. Instead, the rub was a Jeffco regulation stating that an antenna can't be replaced on towers over 200 feet tall unless it provides the same service as the one for which it's being swapped -- and given that the tower hadn't supported a digital-TV antenna in the past, the service was plainly different. Channel 2 appealed this decision through Jeffco's board of adjustment. When it lost in that venue, the station took the county to district court; the case is still pending.

Still, Channel 2 couldn't simply wait for justice to take its course, because of pressure from the FCC. The commission ordered outlets in the country's fifty largest television markets to be digital-TV-ready before the end of the '90s, and at present, 49 of them are on track. However, a plan submitted by a gaggle of Denver broadcasters dubbed the Lake Cedar Group to build a so-called digital supertower on Lookout Mountain was rebuffed by Jefferson County commissioners in 1999, thanks largely to the efforts of CARE ("Something in the Air," April 6, 2000). Local broadcasters reacted by coming up with temporary digital solutions; for instance, Channel 4 and Channel 6 are currently sending out digital signals from the roof of downtown's Republic Plaza. But such stopgaps won't provide long-term satisfaction for the FCC, which is bent on moving the digital revolution forward by any means necessary. Last month, commissioners led by Michael Powell, son of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, directed all TV manufacturers to build digital tuners into their products by 2007, even though doing so may add as much as $200 to the cost of a set.

This year, three new tower proposals have been floated locally, but to date, none have won approval. Florida-based Pinnacle Towers wanted to build a tower on Eldorado Mountain, near Boulder, but county commissioners gave the scheme a thumbs-down in April. A separate bid by Public Interest Communications, an alliance of Channel 6, Colorado Public Radio and KUVO, to construct a tower on Mount Morrison, close to Red Rocks, will go before the Jefferson County planning commission on September 25; once a recommendation is made, the proposition will be forwarded to the county commissioners. Finally, the Lake Cedar Group, which includes Channel 2, is again asking permission to build a digital-TV tower on Lookout Mountain -- but its pitch probably won't be heard until next year. According to Jefferson County planner Steve Brown, the planning commission had penciled in Lake Cedar for sessions on November 13 and December 4, but a request for additional technical data has resulted in an indefinite delay.

Faced with these roadblocks, Channel 2 returned to Jefferson County with a new idea: How about putting a digital antenna on its smaller tower? After all, the same-service restriction applies only to edifices over 200 feet, and the station's auxiliary tower is under that height by almost a foot and a half.

Of course, the question of hot spots remained -- but the FCC came up with an answer. Previously, zoning administrator Carl points out, hot spots were measured by holding an RF survey meter approximately eight inches above an area to be tested, then lifting it straight up to a height of around eight feet. But Carl received a letter from the FCC that announced a new testing procedure. "They told us you have to take into account directions -- north, south, east and west," Carl says. "You're supposed to use more of a zigzag motion that can be spatially averaged to determine a person's exposure." He adds that when measured in this manner, all of Channel 2's onetime hot spots wound up beneath the FCC threshold -- and since he felt the antenna proposal met all other standards, he approved it in August.

To engineer Hislop, the shrunken readings were no surprise. He watched as an FCC representative measured the hot spots using the new approach, and he reports that on various occasions, the individual's body acted as a shield to RF emissions, thereby lowering the overall average. This same tack could conceivably be used to technically eliminate other hot spots, thereby allowing stations that are running at reduced power because of such difficulties to turn up the juice -- and further heat up the mountainside.

Channel 2 chief engineer Les Jensen, who expects that the station's antenna will be operational after the first of the year, doesn't want to be caught in the middle of this argument. After emphasizing that the safety of Lookout Mountain residents is a top concern at Channel 2, he says, "We're following the FCC's guidelines as far as RF measurement. If there's a dispute with that, they should take it up with the FCC."

Likewise, Jefferson County's Carl has no interest in taking a partisan stance. "I think there's a perception that the county is being coerced by the telecommunications industry or the broadcasters into doing what they want. But all we're doing is following our rules and regulations as they're spelled out. I'm not advocating for one side or the other."

Carney certainly is. She's formally registered several objections with the FCC over antenna permits, including one targeting the Lake Cedar Group. "The FCC has it down that the Lake Cedar Group constructed a tower on Lookout Mountain in 1998 -- and the tower's not there," she says. "Now, there was a change in the regulations, where towers constructed before a certain date would not have to abide by environmental laws or national historic-preservation laws. So we can't help but wonder if they're trying to evade complying with federal requirements." In reply, Lake Cedar Group spokesman Fred Niehaus says he has no knowledge of what Carney calls a "phantom tower" and emphasizes that "we've done everything to assure compliance with county regulators, as well as meeting the federal mandate on all our submissions," including its latest one.

Regarding Channel 2's digital antenna, CARE has filed an appeal with Jeffco's board of adjustment; it should be heard sometime this fall. Attorney Carney expects to argue that the FCC's new zigzag measurement methodology offers the illusion of safety, not the real thing.

"Picture a family having a picnic with one child closest to the tower," she says. "There's no person measuring the RF to block the radiation from the tower to that child, so the child is getting the full dose of what's there. But the FCC would come out and measure and say, 'There's no problem here.' Which shows you where their priorities are."

"Sorry" seems to be the hardest word: Most publications, including this one, run corrections when something makes it into print that's ambiguous, misleading or flat-out false -- and on most occasions, these acknowledgements are clear and unequivocal. Witness the actions of the Denver Post, which fessed up to accidentally printing month-old comics in approximately 150,000 copies of its September 19 paper. The Post even promised to send a copy of the missing funnies to anyone who called and asked for one.

The same couldn't be said for the boxed item at the end of the letters section in the September 5 Boulder Weekly. Appearing under the heading "For the Record," it read, "Patricia Blumenthal, executive director of the Hillel Council of Colorado, disputes making several statements attributed to her in a story titled 'PLO's Former Flack Comes to Boulder' (news, Aug. 29). Blumenthal says she did not question whether former PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi should be afforded the same free speech rights as law abiding Americans. Also, Blumenthal says she did not say Ashrawi's 'ties to terrorism' should have disqualified her form (sic) being offered a contract to speak at CU, and she claims to have not said that CU should be obligated to bring in a pro-Israel speaker."

As even a cursory reading of the blurb demonstrates, the Weekly never said it had goofed. Indeed, the use of attributions such as "says" and "claims" directly undermines Blumenthal's credibility. And nowhere in the paragraph is it mentioned that the author of the article challenges Blumenthal's contentions, or that the Weekly stands behind the initial piece.

Blumenthal, who's dealt with the media for years as the Hillel Council's executive director and, prior to that, state director for the Colorado branch of the National Abortion Rights Action League, certainly saw big flaws in the report, which was written by Ron Bain, editorial director of the conservatively inclined Independence Institute. (Although Bain ran unsuccessfully for a slot on the Boulder City Council last year, he won the Weekly's endorsement.) Blumenthal notes that two direct quotes were accurate, but three paraphrased comments bore no relation to anything she uttered and are contrary to her personal ethics.

"I've never before experienced members of the media putting words in my mouth that didn't come out of it," she says.

After the article's publication, Blumenthal phoned the Weekly and expressed her concerns to editor Wayne Laugesen, "and my impression was that they were deeply upset. I had a sense there would be an apology. But the way it's presented is not taking responsibility for an error that happened on the part of the paper."

As for Laugesen, he says he checked with Bain after taking Blumenthal's call -- and while Bain didn't have a recording of his conversation with Blumenthal, he maintained, based on his notes and recollections, that the paraphrases were accurate in spite of any editing they'd undergone. That left Laugesen in a quandary: "He says she said that; she insisted she didn't. So what I wanted to achieve by putting what we did in the paper was to at least say she does not stand behind those statements and says she never said those things, because she was taking a lot of flak for them."

This gesture may have been intended to placate Blumenthal, but what she calls the Weekly's "correction that wasn't even an apology" failed to do the trick. "I would hope the media would feel its responsibility to use its power to really help people understand what the issues are surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this debate in particular," she says. "But instead, they just confused the situation."

Hard sorries, mark II: By the way, the above remarks from editor Laugesen may be the last from a Boulder Weekly representative to appear in this space for a while. In our September 12 edition, about news-rack ordinances, I wrote that Weekly publisher Stewart Sallo hadn't bothered to return a call on the topic, which he'd previously been "up in arms" about. A few days later, I received the following voice-mail message:

"Stewart Sallo calling, Roberts. Just called to tell you that I thought your remarks that were brought to my attention by someone on my editorial staff were incredibly inappropriate and unprofessional. I don't know who the hell you think you are. You're just a reporter for Westword. I'm the publisher of a newspaper. I'm a very, very busy man. I spoke to you kindly on one occasion -- that's fine. I wasn't able to speak to you on this occasion, and you don't have to make any stupid, sarcastic comments about it in your rag, okay? So let me just tell you: Don't bother contacting me or anyone else on the Boulder Weekly staff ever again for any information you need for your stories. If you want to discuss this further, or if you want to submit an apology, I would be happy to discuss that with you. But at this point, you're on my shit list, and don't bother calling my office again for any purpose other than to express your apologies."

For the record, to coin a phrase, I didn't apologize -- but I did leave a message letting Mr. Sallo know I'd be printing his observations, which weren't identified as being off the record. Even so, I doubt if he'll see them. I've heard he's a very, very busy man.

A peek into our closet: Apparently, my sources inside Westword aren't as good as those outside it. I didn't learn until months after the fact that a former Westword staff writer, Steve Jackson, had filed an age-discrimination lawsuit against this publication in U.S. District Court.

The document, dated June 25, states that Jackson worked at Westword from September 1993 until September 2001, when editor Patricia Calhoun "fired Jackson, falsely claiming that his position was being eliminated due to 'company-wide downsizing.' This 'downsizing' came a mere month after the hiring of two younger writers" -- current reporter David Holthouse and former staffer James Hibberd, who was transferred to Westword from a sister paper, Phoenix New Times. A few months later, Hibberd was let go in a subsequent cost-cutting move akin to ones made at other papers owned by New Times Media, Westword's parent company, in the last quarter of 2001. Countless publications not affiliated with New Times laid off workers during this period, too, with most blaming plummeting advertising revenue after 9/11.

The complaint, which was offered once the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission declined to take action in the matter, further alleges that "Jackson was fired due to his age, 46, and the higher salary he commanded due to his seniority." Also mentioned are health issues that may have increased the cost paid by Westword for group health insurance. New Times responded to these and other assertions with an August 8 filing that listed nine "affirmative defenses" denying any wrongdoing.

Jackson, who's authored several books, including Monster, based on a story first published in Westword, declined to comment about the case, as did his attorney, Cris Campbell. For his part, New Times spokesman Steve Suskin, the company's legal counsel, limited his remarks to two sentences: "New Times did not and does not discriminate against its employees on the basis of age. Economic conditions necessitated making some qualitative decisions about the writing staff."

To be continued.

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