Broncos items lay papers bare

Recent coverage of Denver's most popular pro sports franchise exposes strong suits, frailties

by David Kopel

Jan. 13, 2002, Rocky Mountain News

Broncos coverage in the last two weeks revealed a lot about the strengths -- and weaknesses -- of Denver's newspapers.

The Denver Post's Adam Schefter broke the story that Broncos coach Mike Shanahan was considering leaving Denver to coach the University of Florida Gators. Schefter is a prolific writer who knows his subject thoroughly. Although he has been criticized for the "appearance of impropriety" because he's co-written books with Shanahan and with Terrell Davis, Schefter never shies away from criticizing the Broncos' on-field performance or player management decisions. As Glenn Harlan Reynolds' book The Appearance of Impropriety argues, the whole "appearance of impropriety" standard is bogus; we should focus on whether a person is actually behaving properly, rather than condemning him for "appearances."

But even though Schefter is an ethical, excellent journalist, he can still make occasional mistakes. In his commentary last Sunday on KUSA-Channel 9, Schefter offered his "guess" that Shanahan would take the Florida job. But Schefter then said, "if a deal can get worked out and Florida can come up with the right type of numbers and the right type of situation, and I think they will, then Mike Shanahan will be the next coach of the Florida Gators." As it turned out, Shanahan's decision to stay in Denver didn't pivot on Florida making him a good enough offer.

Back in May 1999, shortly after John Elway announced his retirement, Schefter wrote an article reporting "Bowlen intends to offer Elway a chance to buy a limited piece of the Broncos." As it turns out, Bowlen had already made Elway a legally binding offer on Sept. 23, 1998. Of course neither Schefter nor anyone else in Denver media knew about Bowlen's then-secret offer to Elway. The option was disclosed as part of a lawsuit filed by former Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser to reclaim the team from current owner Pat Bowlen.

Although the Broncos have, for decades, always been one of the biggest stories in Colorado, the Post and the Rocky Mountain News have given no better than adequate attention to this important suit. They covered the filing of the case, rulings on discovery issues last summer, and the revelation of Elway's option to buy part of the team.

But it was Westword's Alan Prendergast who produced the big scoop from the lawsuit -- exposing (Jan. 3) the convoluted corporate/family arrangements of Pat Bowlen's ownership of the Broncos. Prendergast got the scoop by going down to federal District Court and reviewing documents that had originally been sealed but which Judge Richard Matsch subsequently had opened to the public.

Back in July 1996, the News did produce a major article on Bowlen's financial network, although the article wasn't able to supply as much detail about the structure of Broncos ownership, due to Bowlen's stonewalling. (The Post also ran a skimpy article on the same subject almost a week earlier).

The News and Channel 9 both gave widespread play (Jan. 8) to the annual release of the most bogus statistic in Colorado. Education Week, the magazine that invented the claim that Colorado ranks 49th in education funding, recently moved Colorado up to 42nd.

The problem is, Education Week's standard doesn't measure actual school spending. Rather, Education Week figures that the more prosperous a state is, the more money that should be spent on the government schools. So even though Colorado's actual per-pupil spending is about average, compared to other states, Education Week ranks Colorado very low because of Colorado's strong economy.

The News, at least, acknowledged that the Education Week factoid didn't measure actual spending. Channel 9 left out this crucial fact. The Post gave the new factoid a single paragraph in a larger education story (Jan. 9), and also did not note that the figure isn't based on actual spending.

The News did a great job of exposing deception (Jan. 5) with a huge article explaining, item-by-item, the charges made by Columbine families, the statements of the Jefferson County Sheriff's office, and the known facts of the case. As the News showed, for most items, the Jeffco Sheriff's statements were demonstrably false.

A New York City and a Colorado gay group have written letters to the editor giving their selective version of the Kyle Skyock case -- involving a Rifle teenager who went out on a binge with his friends one Saturday night last February, and was found severely injured by the side of a highway the next morning. Neither these letter writers, nor I, nor the journalists who report on the story, know what really happened that night. None of us knows for sure if Skyock were criminally attacked, or if he accidentally injured himself while drunk. While the letter-writers are free to speculate and to present rumors as fact, newspapers are supposed to tell both sides of a story. So I'll continue to monitor the Skyock coverage for one-sidedness.

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