The Message

David Harsanyi, the new, officially designated conservative metro columnist for the Denver Post, thought he was being funny.

"They Want Wolves in Colorado?," Harsanyi's June 14 offering, dealt with gray wolves, an endangered species that's recently been reintroduced to the environment in states such as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The possibility that the creatures will start migrating to Colorado in ever greater numbers makes him decidedly uncomfortable. "Beyond the confines of a zoo, I'm not prepared for an unanticipated encounter with a ferocious carnivore," he wrote, adding, "As a native New Yorker, I've had a tough enough time adjusting to those feral prairie dogs." No wonder he responded to news that the carcass of a Yellowstone wolf was discovered near I-70 west of Denver with the quip "That suits me just fine."

Although he says the column was at least partly tongue-in-cheek, Harsanyi, 33, says many of the reactions it generated were anything but. He doesn't mind hearing from folks who disagree with him, declaring, "If it's about the issues, I love to debate." Yet he's considerably less comfortable when criticism leads to personal attacks, as was the case when a reader raised the prospect of Harsanyi's own family winding up dead in a ditch by the interstate. He stirred related thoughts in at least one Montanan. "The guy said if I ever got to Montana, he was going to take my head off and put it on his wall," Harsanyi reports.

Taxidermic threats are new for Harsanyi, whose pre-Post columns generally ran in publications that tilted to the right. "When I was writing for the National Review, I had solely conservatives reading me," he says, "so I didn't get any nasty letters." At the Post, however, he's been positively bombarded with negative missives during his first few weeks on the job, with many correspondents making sweeping generalizations about him based on perceptions of his politics. After the publication of his first column, which endorsed the concept of private-school vouchers, "I had someone write, 'Come on. You don't care about kids. You're a conservative.'" As the married father of two daughters under age three, he says, "that stuff makes me sick."

The vitriolic nature of the assaults on Harsanyi's character is especially surprising given the hysteria-free tone of his columns to date. He's certainly no Ann Coulter, who even kindred spirit Bill O'Reilly implied was unnecessarily shrill during her recent appearance on his Fox News show. (When O'Reilly asked if she thought her effectiveness might be enhanced by turning down the stridency a notch or two, Coulter brusquely told him to check the bestseller list.) Indeed, June 7's "Court Could Give Kids Better Choice," the aforementioned voucher piece, went easy on the splenetic rhetoric, relying on quotes from parents and their attorney rather than overt chest-thumping by Harsanyi. He followed this formula again throughout June 17's "Hispanics Wield Key Vote in State." Harsanyi sided with a Republican spokesman over a de facto Democratic counterpart but gave them roughly equal time.

As for "Reagan's Unheeded Lessons," Harsanyi's June 10 column, it didn't settle for the hagiographic bluster that dominated the media in the days following Ronald Reagan's June 5 death. Again, Harsanyi relied heavily on interviews, quizzing Governor Bill Owens, Independence Institute frontman Jon Caldara, and George Stillings, who leads Colorado's chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay conservative group. Along the way, he contrasted what he saw as Reagan's decisiveness, disdain for polling and disinterest in legislating morality with George W. Bush's track record in these areas -- a comparison that implicitly disparaged the current president.

Such distinctions evidently escaped many left-leaning Post subscribers, who lashed out at Harsanyi as if he'd proposed that the country be renamed the United States of Gipper. Then again, Denver-area readers have had little recent experience with local columnists on the conservative side of the continuum. The Post has long published the musings of Al Knight and Ken Hamblin, whose beliefs are reliably Republican, but their work appears deep within the editorial pages, not in the higher-profile Denver & the West section. That makes Chuck Green, who left the Post under a cloud in early 2002, the closest thing to a conservative metro columnist the Post has had in years -- and while Green was a dog lover, he wasn't a dogmatist. Since then, liberals Diane Carman, Jim Spencer and, until recently, Cindy Rodriguez haven't had to share space with ideological opposites. Rocky Mountain News metro columnists Mike Littwin, Bill Johnson and Tina Griego are in a similar situation. They're stylistically different enough to provide readers with some variety, but none of them come within a country mile of conservatism.

According to data made public last month by the Pew Research Center, this disparity extends well beyond the ranks of columnists. The organization polled 547 media pros and discovered that of those employed by national organizations, 34 percent call themselves liberal, as opposed to just 7 percent who say they're conservative. The remainder prefer to be called "moderate," but Harsanyi isn't so sure that all of them truly are. He thinks that "'liberal' has become a word many liberals shy away from. They use words like 'progressive,' which is a genius word, because how can you be against progressing? But conservatives have embraced the word 'conservative.'"

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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