More Messages: Sweepings

In the television business, February is sweeps -- the month when ratings are watched most closely, because they do much to dictate advertising rates moving forward -- and TV news operations tend to trot out their grabbiest material during this stretch. Some of these packages constitute strong stories in their own right, while others give off the scent of exploitation.

Channel 7 did things the right way with a report related to some of the major players in the still mysterious disappearance of Aarone Thompson, a girl reported missing by her father, Aaron Thompson, and his live-in girlfriend, Shely Lowe, in November 2005 -- but whom Aurora authorities believe died as much as eighteen months earlier. Investigator Tony Kovaleski discovered that a $100,000 insurance policy on the life of Lowe, who died in May 2006, left 90 percent of that total to churches under the supervision of Acen Phillips, a local bishop. Moreover, subsequent stories suggest that the sale of such policies may have been both extremely routine and notably hinky.

This material was so persuasive that the Rocky Mountain News jumped on the topic via a February 2 article that credited 7News -- something that may have caused folks at the tab some moderate discomfort, since the paper's TV partner is Channel 4. (Westword wrote about some of Phillips' questionable dealings in 1997. See this blog for additional details.)

Far less inspired was a Channel 9 piece that platformed off the September 2006 invasion of Platte Canyon High School in which student Emily Keyes died. One part of the presentation sported genuine news value. Turns out that Jim Orcutt, a guidance counselor there, had previously been investigated on at least two accusations of inappropriate contact with students, and while no criminal charges were filed, he was put on leave at Chatfield High School in Jefferson County after one incident, and resigned shortly thereafter. But rather than zeroing in on this material, reporter Kim Christiansen focused the report on a survivor of the aforementioned attack, identified only as Samantha, who Orcutt called into his office and quizzed at length two weeks after Keyes' death without getting permission from the girls' parents. Even though neither Samantha nor her mother accused Orcutt of sexual impropriety in relation to this session, questions about the appropriateness of this meeting were valid. Unfortunately, Christiansen and company dragged them out to an extreme length in order to allow the station to screen loads of helicopter footage and so on from the day of the attack.

This report continues tonight, and it sounds as if the Orcutt portion of the tale will be front and center, rather than the equivalent of a toss-in. Nevertheless, part one of this offering demonstrated why TV-news' sweeps programming has such a dubious reputation -- one that Channel 7's effort belies. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts