July 1, 2001, Rocky Mountain News

by David Kopel

The Denver dailies' coverage of the Marilyn Manson concert, the protests, and the counter-protests revealed that there are a lot of folks in the media who don't understand the First Amendment.

Both groups of protesters were exercising their free speech rights. Yet the counter-critics were often labeled "free speech" or "First Amendment" or "anti-censorship" advocates. Censorship is when the government prevents speech, or punishes speakers, and nobody in the anti-Manson group was advocating censorship (e.g., the government preventing Manson from performing).

Rather, they were simply urging people not to attend or promote the show.

A few years ago, the NAACP urged a boycott of conservative Black talk radio host (and Sunday Denver Post columnist) Ken Hamblin. Then, the papers didn't accuse the NAACP of attacking the First Amendment. They correctly recognized that the NAACP vs. Hamblin battle involved the exercise of First Amendment rights on both sides.

Ironically, while the Post and News churned out dozens of stories on the Marilyn Manson (non) censorship story, they gave much less attention to actual censorship taking place in Colorado. Pueblo radio station KKMG was fined $7,000 by the Federal Communications Commission for playing Eminem's Grammy-winning song The Real Slim Shady. Post television columnist Joanne Ostrow gave part of a column to the subject. The News did a short story, and the News' Bill Johnson devoted a column to it.

But it was the Boulder-based Colorado Daily that gave the censorship story the attention it deserved, with an in-depth front-page feature in its June 22 issue. As the Daily explained, the FCC censorship has implications far beyond Colorado. All 200 stations owned by Citadel (KKMG's parent) have pulled The Real Slim Shady from their playlists.

And in Oregon, listener-supported radio station KBOO has been slapped with an FCC "notice of apparent liability" for playing the song Your Revolution by feminist singer Sarah Jones. The song lyrics (reprinted by the Colorado Daily) are about a black woman refusing to be a sex object for men, because that wouldn't be a "real revolution."

The FCC's action in Oregon led to Your Revolution being banned from playlists at Boulder radio stations KGNU and KVCU, because management was afraid of FCC reprisals. So, right here in Colorado, we have the federal government censoring both misogynists (Eminem) and feminists (Sarah Jones). Couldn't we have a few less Manson stories, and a few more stories about real censorship?

Allen Wayne Webb, the 38-year-old son of Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, was arrested on drug charges, which may send him to prison, because he was serving a deferred judgment for robbery charges. The Post ran a short (six-paragraph) story on June 19, while the News ran a tiny (four-paragraph) story from the Associated Press the next day, at the bottom of page 15A. As I file this column, neither paper has done any follow-up.

Is this low-level coverage appropriate? I think so. Allen Webb, unlike his father, hasn't made himself a public figure. But given the papers' good judgment on the Webb coverage, it's rather hypocritical for them to have given so many column-inches to stories about the Bush daughters attempting to buy themselves a drink.

The Colorado Transportation Commission delivered a huge blow to the Regional Transportation District's plans for a sales tax increase next year; the commission rejected RTD's request to endorse the tax hike. The Post gave the story appropriately big coverage, as the top story in the Denver and the West section. But the News buried it in a short item at the bottom of page 14A.

Colorado recently became the center of a major national religious story, as several Colorado Episcopal churches left the American Episcopal Church to affiliate with the Anglican Mission in America. The breakaways are unhappy with the mainstream church's views on the ordination of women, gay marriage, and tolerance for bishops who question traditional doctrines.

Post Religion Writer Virginia Culver disparaged the breakaways by quoting a pair of professors who predicted that they "will be a minor footnote in American church history" and wouldn't survive. But both professors happened to come from mainstream Episcopal institutions - and thus represent precisely what the breakaways are against. It's hardly surprising that these two professors dismiss the breakaways' prospects.

Writing about President Bush's National Missile Defense program, News Washington correspondent M.E. Sprengelmeyer offered a textbook example of biased presentation of experts. The story quoted pro-defense Frank Gaffney, who was accurately described as president of the "conservative Center for Security Policy." But the story also quoted someone from the Center for Defense Information (CDI), which was described as merely "a national security think tank." In fact, the CDI is reliably on the left side of every defense debate. But Sprengelmeyer never discloses the group's leftist ideology to the reader. Also very solidly on the left-wing side of the political spectrum is the Union of Concerned Scientists, another expert group that Sprengelmeyer quotes without disclosing their ideology.

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