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Student's anti-Obama shirt returns Colorado to culture war crosshairs

Daxx Dalton's anti-Obama shirt.

Eleven-year-old Daxx Dalton's suspension from an Aurora school after wearing a homemade T-shirt calling Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama "A TERRORIST'S BEST FRIEND" has led to bays of outrage in the conservative media and blogosphere. But there's nothing surprising about how the story has circulated, nor is it shocking that it originated in Colorado. The Rocky Mountain News' latest Dalton account includes a sidebar about "Recent Freedom-of-Speech Cases in Colorado Schools;" it highlights five matters that made national news, including those pertaining to Westword story subjects such as former CU student Max Karson and ex-Rocky Mountain Collegian editor David McSwane. And the Rocky actually overlooked a couple of recent entries. Metro instructor Andrew Hallam is currently being scalded by right wingers for an assignment some students saw as an attack on Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin -- a brouhaha similar to the furor about a lefty lecture by Overland High School teacher Jay Bennish that an offended pupil recorded back in 2006.

Why have so many incidents like these taken place in these parts? And why do they keep coming?

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My best guesses: Colorado's media soil has proven to be fertile, and controversies tend to generate their own momentum. While it's impossible to pinpoint the beginning of the state's ongoing culture-war press cycle, the uproar over CU professor Ward Churchill -- who made the Rocky's list -- and the school's recruiting scandal of a few years back represent significant markers, since they reminded news organizations how well stories related to academia travel. After all, there are schools and colleges everywhere -- and viewers far beyond the state's borders can relate to the concept of a loony prof or young women treated as party favors for footballers even if the specifics otherwise seem local.

Moreover, issues fueled by ideology are well suited to the ways the 21st century news environment has developed. The explosion of partisan blogs and websites means a story that seems to show one side or another side being mistreated can serve everyone's purposes, since it can be either embraced or attacked in ways that fire up the faithful. And the theory translates equally well for cable-news outlets. A network host needs only to assemble zealots from either side, introduce the subject and then let them bicker. The results typically generate more heat than light, but if they fill five minutes or so a night, who cares? And it's fun for folks like Dann Dalton, Daxx's dad, who gets to suckle at the teat of fame for a few days or weeks simply because his son scrawled some incendiary words on a shirt and headed to school.

It's just that easy, kids. Stop by a craft store tonight, and you might be a media star tomorrow -- especially if you live in Colorado. -- Michael Roberts

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