Columnists jump on Owens' woes

Marital troubles of governor, wife become grist for two commentators

by David Kopel

Sept. 13, 2003, Rocky Mountain News

Newspapers are constantly making a big deal about how they are part of the community - not just distant commentators. After Bill and Frances Owens announced their trial separation, the Rocky Mountain Newsand The Denver Postboth ran columns which fell short of how members of a community should behave.

The morning after the Newsreported on the separation, it printed a snarky column by Mike Littwin that used the separation to attack some ``family value'' proposals. For example, Littwin suggested that Owens is probably now learning a hard lesson that he was mistaken to support a bill by Rep. Dave Schultheis, which would have required married couples with children to spend a year in counseling, in most cases, before being granted a divorce by the state.

Littwin announced that ``if you accept the premise of that bill, you must also accept the premise that people like the governor and his wife are incapable of understanding the impact of their own actions'' on their children.

Nonsense. A person who supported the Schultheis bill could believe that some divorcing parents have not fully considered their children's interests, and might be able to reconcile with counseling, while some other divorcing parents (perhaps people like the Owenses) have done everything possible to save the marriage and to protect their children.

Besides, the Owenses have only announced a separation, not a divorce, and Littwin had no information about whether the couple has sought counseling or plans to. Perhaps if Owens had supported a bill which would have outlawed trial separations, there would have been a point to Littwin's column. Even then, running the column on the day after the separation announcement was in very poor taste.

While the Post, admirably, did not run any attacks on Owens from the news-side columnists, Postopinion page columnist Reggie Rivers penned a column making essentially the same argument as Littwin about Owens and the Schultheis bill, and slamming Owens for opposing gay marriage.

The Newsand the Posthave run plenty of good columns arguing for and against changes in marriage and divorce laws, and will doubtless continue to do so. But pegging such columns on very recent news of a Colorado couple's marital troubles was wrong for the dailies, which should serve as models of humane dialogue.

When David Duke made a serious bid for the governorship of Louisiana in 1991, the media worked hard to inform the public about his racist past. Now suppose that California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarznegger, when he was a college student in Austria, had joined an Aryan pride group that trumpeted the slogan, ``For the race, everything; for those outside the race, nothing.'' And suppose this group, even today, advocated the re-Aryanization of all the lands Austria once ruled (such as Hungary, Slovakia and part of Poland), and expelling all the non-Aryans. And let's also suppose that when Schwarznegger were asked about the group today, he did not say that he had made a mistake, or that he repudiated the group's objectives, but instead affirmed his support for the group.

You can be sure that the media would go into an uproar.

Well, in California, the leading candidate to replace Gray Davis is Cruz Bustamante, who belonged to a similar group in college, the Movimiento Estudieantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), which calls the southwest United States ``Aztlan,'' and which wants to end U.S. rule thereof.

Press coverage? Almost nil. The Post(Aug. 29) ran an Associated Press story merely stating that Bustamante ``defended his membership in a Hispanic student activist group while he was in college.'' Duke's ``white pride'' group from his college days at Louisiana State University did not receive such a bland description.

A Sept. 5 AP article in the Postwas the only significant attention given the issue by the news pages of either paper.

The article reported the controversy, but attempted to exonerate MEChA by dismissing ``For those outside the race, nothing,'' as ``one of its 1960s slogans,'' but the slogan is actually featured currently, in italics, on MEChA's Web site ( MEChA/nat.html; under ``Documents,'' click on ``El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan/El Plan de Action.'') The AP concluded with a paragraph citing unnamed ``MEChA members'' who said that the claims about Aztlan were ``ideological rather than literal.'' A few quotes from the MEChA Web site, which announces ``the call of our blood'' and details plans for ``driving the exploiter out of our communities, our pueblos, and our lands'' would have given readers a better basis to judge.

Not all members of MEChA subscribe to every element of the group's foundation documents, so while some in the MEChA leadership continue to call for ethnic cleansing, the Web sites for Colorado campus chapters have a much softer tone, with an emphasis on tutoring and on promoting tolerance. With a MEChA aficionado poised to become the most powerful state official in the United States/Aztlan, the media ought to be examining MEChA in much greater depth.

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