Rocky's Excellent "Deadly Denial" Series

The possible expiration of the traditional daily newspaper may not seem like a big deal to the average person,given the declining quality of many tabloids and broadsheets due largely to budget cuts, layoffs, buyouts and the shrinking number of pages. Every once in a while, however, a publication rouses itself to provide a reminder of what newspapers can deliver when everyone involved is working at the top of their respective games. And the Rocky Mountain News's "Deadly Denial," a three-day series by reporter Laura Frank and photographer Javier Manzano about stricken cold warriors and government indifference that's set to wrap on July 23, is a prime example of this phenomenon.

The Rocky introduced the opus in a fairly odd way. Instead of publishing the first section on Saturday, July 19, in the edition of the Rocky that reaches the most readers (thanks to a joint-operating-agreement clause), the paper chose to devote part of page one to a preview penned by editor/publisher/president John Temple. Why? Presumably so that it could run on consecutive days rather than having to wait in dry dock through Sunday, the exclusive province of the Denver Post. Then, on July 21, a front-page tease offered a notably defensive rationale for why anyone should devote his time to the topic:

Tens of thousands of America's former nuclear bomb builders are sick, dying or already dead because of their exposure to radiation and other poisons. You knew that.

After decades of stonewalling, the government started a compensation program in 2000. You knew that.

After four years of bungling, Congress reformed the program, demanding that it be "compassionate, fair and timely." Perhaps you knew that.

But what you may not know is that today only one in four claimants has been compensated and millions more of your taxpayer dollars have been wasted creating hurdles instead of help.

For many of the nation's cold warriors, the government's game is deadly denial.

This intro may have scared off as many people as it enticed. But in July 21's main piece, Frank laid out her damning evidence clearly, with a welcome undertone of righteous indignation. Although comments from Barack Obama and a spokesperson for John McCain were included to give the material heft, they made less of an impact than passages like this one:

The Rocky first requested an interview for this series with the labor department's Shelby Hallmark, director of compensation programs, on May 13. After receiving no response to repeated requests, the newspaper sent Hallmark a 3-page letter on June 10 outlining the findings of its investigation. Hallmark sent an e-mail saying the department would respond.

But it has not.

Accompanying sidebars about specific victims proved just as compelling, although they began to get moderately redundant by the second package of material on July 22 -- and the problem is likely to crop up again on day three. Clearly, the Rocky's decision to publish Frank's work in three separate sections was influenced by the prospect of entering it in major journalism contests -- and focusing too much on prizes in advance can be a detriment to overall presentation. Still, these are minor quibbles. Even before its concluding segment arrives, "Deadly Denial" is already among the finest offerings to appear in a Denver newspaper this year -- and it's precisely the kind of thing we'll miss if the Rocky goes away. -- 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