More on the Ward Churchill-Daily Camera Dust-up

The January 31 Message includes an update about an incident involving Boulder Daily Camera reporter Heath Urie and a supporter of professor/controversy magnet Ward Churchill. The item includes the first public comments either Urie or Churchill has made about the case -- and there's much more from both of them below.

First, a recap. As detailed in an October 18, 2007 column, Urie had been sent to cover an outside-the-CU-curriculum course taught by Churchill, who'd been fired earlier in the summer for alleged academic misconduct. There, Urie was told that press wouldn't be allowed in the classroom, but he subsequently learned representatives of the university's Campus Press online publication had been granted admittance. When he entered the room to ask about what he perceived to be a double standard, he says he was physically ejected by Josh Dillabaugh, a CU sophomore who was part of Churchill's retinue -- and he subsequently filed a formal complaint about these actions with the university's police department. However, Benjamin Whitmer, a CU instructor, Churchill backer and chief instigator on the provocative blog, who was also present, denied that Urie was manhandled. Indeed, he insisted that the reporter instigated any contact that occurred. Whitmer also argued that Urie and the Daily Camera should apologize for their collective conduct.

In late December, charges against Dillabaugh were dropped, and in the weeks that followed, Urie, Whitmer and Churchill all shared their thoughts -- the former in a telephone interview, the last pair via e-mail. Here's what they had to say.

Urie said he didn't know the specific reasons why the complaint about Dillabaugh had been set aside, "because the DA's office never informed me about it. I found out the same way our newspaper found out about it -- by searching out the DA's records online." As a result, he continued, "your guess is as good as mine. But I think the police certainly did their job. If somebody reports an incident and there's something to merit charges being filed, they should, and they did in this case. But I can't speak to the DA's decision, because I don't know what decision they reached or why."

Was Urie trying to send a message by filing charges against Dillabaugh? "That was never my intention," he stressed. "I just felt my rights were personally violated, and that's why I contacted the police that afternoon. As far as I'm concerned, when somebody lays a hand on you, that's when they cross the line." He added that he's seen accounts by Whitmer and others that portrayed him as nearly hysterical and out of control as he charged into the classroom, and suggested that Dillabaugh's response was extremely measured under the circumstances. However, he rejects such comments, calling them "exaggerated, blown out of proportion and just inaccurate -- and I stand for the opposite things as a reporter. The actions of myself and my photographer [Joshua Lawton] were within the scope of our job."

In his view, "equity among the press doesn't necessarily exist in all instances, and it was unfortunate that they allowed the other reporters in the room." But while the excuse that the Campus Press journalists were given access because they're students doesn't wash with him, he's philosophical about being excluded. "As far as I'm concerned, campus reporters are equal to, if not better than, daily reporters, and to their credit, I don't think the reporter and photographer from the Campus Press [Aaron Musick and Sara Fossum] did anything wrong. They did their job getting in. But life isn't fair, life isn't equal. That was the lesson for that."

In the end, the main thing that bothers Urie is the way in which he feels he was forced into the forefront of his report. "It's unfortunate that my name became attached to my own story other than at the top," he said. "I think any reporter hates for that to happen. But any accusations that I deliberately tried to make myself a part of the story are unfounded. As a reporter, you want to stay a third party, and in that respect, that's probably my only regret. I think my actions were appropriate, but the results could have been better."

When contacted for his comments, David Lane, the attorney who represented Dillabaugh, was brief and to the point. "The charges against Josh were dismissed as they should have been because he never assaulted anyone," Lane wrote. But Whitmer was much more expansive in the following e-mail exchange, conducted earlier in January.

Westword: What's your understanding of the reason charges against Josh Dillabaugh were dropped?

Benjamin Whitmer: My understanding is the charges were dropped because the case couldn't be proved -- i.e., Mr. Dillabaugh's lawyer talked to the DA, told them the Camera had a longstanding animosity towards Mr. Churchill and that if the case went to court, he'd run roughshod over Urie. Granted, that came to me secondhand, but that's the way I heard it.

WW: Were you surprised by this decision? Or was it pretty much what you expected?

BW: It's exactly what I expected. And what I've been predicting since charges were filed. I've been calling Heath Urie a liar from the outset, and that wasn't hyperbole. He's a lying little prick with a monstrous sense of entitlement. This was his attempt at retribution after going batshit when he was prohibited from entering the classroom. The only thing fucking dumber than Urie's filing charges is the other lying asshole over at the Camera, [city editor] Matt Sebastian, implying [in a public statement] that Urie had been physically harmed. I've received rougher lap-dances than the treatment Urie got.

WW: When did you send your latest letter to the Daily Camera? [The letter demanded an apology from the Camera.]

BW: January 2nd.

WW: Was it posted on the blog right away? Or was there a delay? [A previous Whitmer letter didn't appear online until after Westword contacted the Camera about it.] Did it also appear in the regular print edition today?

BW: It was posted on the blog right away. As to whether or not it appeared in the print edition, I have no idea. I'd rather gut myself with a rusty fishhook than read the Camera on a regular basis, so I don't subscribe. [The letter was printed in the paper's January 7 edition.]

WW: Have you heard from anyone at the Camera in regard to your demand for an apology? Do you expect to hear from anyone there in the future?

BW: No, I ain't heard from anybody. And I won't hear from anybody. To be honest, the only reason I sent the letter was in hopes they'd be dumb enough to "lose" it again. It was a stupid enough move on their part that it seemed worth seeing if they'd replicate it.

WW: What lessons should reporters at the Camera and/or other newspapers learn from what took place?

BW: Quit the mainstream media. The fourth estate's populated by dribbling morons of which Heath Urie's all too typical.

WW: Would you like to share any other comments about the resolution of the case?

BW: This is what the Camera does when it comes to Ward Churchill. This is typical. Like the Rocky, they hate Ward Churchill's fucking guts, and they'll pass up no opportunity to slime all over him. It's this kind of sleazy horseshit that's pissed me off throughout the so-called scandal, and it's exactly what led to my attempt at giving them a taste of their own medicine on the Try-Works.

The only thing atypical about this incident is the stunning incompetence of Heath Urie. It's one thing to attempt to smuggle in recording devices and rush a closed room to provoke a gotcha journalism incident. I expect no less when dealing with the Denver/Boulder media. But to file charges based on an insane, self-contradictory police report is something else entirely. I feel almost bad doing this, since Urie seems a beer or two shy of a six-pack, but I kind of owe him a hearty round of thanks. I can lecture about the hypocrisy of the local media until my eyes bleed, but it doesn't have anything like the impact of Urie's dipshit stunt.

A few days after this exchange, Churchill provided his own replies to a similar batch of e-mail questions:

Westword: What is your response to charges being dropped against Josh Dillabaugh?

Ward Churchill: There was never any basis for filing charges against Dillabaugh in the first place. Setting aside the fact that Urie was assaulted by no one -- quite the opposite, actually (see below) -- Urie described Ben Whitmer, not Josh Dillabaugh, as his "assailant." Indeed, his identification of Ben was "confirmed" by a picture snapped in the hallway by the photographer who accompanied Urie that night.

WW: Are you pleasantly surprised that charges were dropped? Or did you expect them to be by virtue of witnessing the incident?

WC: Actually, I'd like to have seen it go to court. That way, the bald-faced nature of Urie's lies would have ended up a matter of official record. And that, in turn, would have served to shed a bit of very useful light on the Camera's editorial defense of the guy, as well as its broader editorial posture.

WW: Were you interviewed by representatives of the Boulder Police Department in relation to the charges?

WC: Nope. Nor by the campus cops, although I was standing within a few feet of the "investigating officers" at a couple of points while they were on the "scene." That in itself would have made for some interesting testimony when I took the stand at trial, doncha think?

WW: Do you think charges should have been filed against Heath Urie, the reporter with the Boulder Daily Camera?

WC: Given the daintiness of the "standards" applied in bringing charges against Dillabaugh, Urie should definitely have been charged with assaulting Ben Whitmer. This is to say that when Urie came barging into the room, Ben put up his hand, palm toward Urie, and told Urie to stop. Urie then walked into Ben's hand, and tried to keep moving forward (i.e., to push Ben backwards or out of his way).

My own view is that this is all chickenshit, pure and simple. But, since Urie, the cops, and the DA all opted to play by such rules, Urie should have been charged with assaulting Ben and possibly Dillabaugh.

He should also have been charged with menacing me (he was headed directly towards me when he ran into Ben's hand), harrassment (he came charging right up into my face later, during the break, despite having been repeatedly told that I didn't wish to speak with him), trespassing (he entered a closed session in a reserved room after being told he was barred from doing so), and something on the order of creating a disturbance (demanding his "right" to interview me right in the middle of my trying to deliver my lecture).

WW: Benjamin Whitmer has asked for an apology from Camera representatives in the wake of the charges being dropped. Do you think the newspaper should issue a formal apology? If not, how do you think the paper should respond?

WC: Apologies are owed by the Camera not only to Whitmer, and even more so to Dillabaugh, but to everybody in the room that night -- including yours truly -- and to its readers. Any reputable newspaper would already have issued them. But, hey, we're talking about the Daily Camera. So neither the word "reputable" nor the word "newspaper" really applies.

WW: How would you characterize your treatment by the Camera?

WC: Truth is, I've received better treatment from the Klan.

WW: Are you teaching your class at CU this semester? Do you feel that the first class last semester was a success?

WC: It's a year-long deal, so we'll simply pick up during spring semster where we left off in the fall. And, yes, I'd consider the fall semester to have been a resounding success. It was, moreover, a genuine delight.

Of course, Churchill doesn't seem to have found the incident at the first session to have been similarly delightful, and Urie and Whitmer appear to feel likewise. That may be their sole area of agreement. -- 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