At 'Westword,' the sh-- must go on

Substance too often makes way for scurrility

May 17, 2008

by David Kopel

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story the name of Westword writer Adam Cayton-Holland was misspelled. The error was corrected.

Did your grade-school English teachers ever tell you that people who overuse foul language do so because they don't have much to say? Your teacher was right. Consider two recent columns on the same topic: the recent losing ways of Denver's professional basketball, hockey and baseball teams, the Nuggets, Avalanche and Rockies.

In May 8 issue of Westword, Adam Cayton-Holland told readers a lot about himself (e.g., "I could give a sh-- about hockey"), but many of his observations were shallow (e.g., the Rockies' "bullpen is sh--").

He piled it on near the end: "The fetid compost icing on the all-you-can-eat dogsh-- cake that has been this past week in Colorado sports." A turn of the phrase which would thrill a vulgar 11-year-old, but which did little to advance the story.

Rocky Mountain News sports columnist Bernie Lincicome (April 28) took on some of the same events, and wove them into a theme that offered an insight: fans are more frustrated right now because each of the teams has, in different ways, offered fans "a false sense of success, an idea that things are getting better." For example, "When the Nuggets were just clearly awful, entirely hopeless, there was no agony in their failures, merely indifference." But then came "the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, the installation of George Karl, the inclusion of Allen Iverson," and so "Each addition amplified the expectations, no matter the recurring evidence of mediocrity."

Cayton-Holland's article exemplifies a broader problem with Westword. Although the weekly's long feature articles are often outstanding, many of the shorter pieces are mostly snark. H.L. Mencken proved that mean-spirited cynicism can make for great columns. However, when Mencken was at his best, his vicious style was used to offer original insights. Just as faith without works is dead, style without substance is pointless.

Some great verbal artists - such as comedians Margaret Cho and Chris Rock - have the skills to use gutter language in very funny ways. But they are the exceptions; Westword writers too often use four-letter words and cynical malice as a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, interesting ideas.

"Housing crisis imperils pets," announced a headline in the May 9 Rocky. The lead anecdote for the article was about three dogs who were left behind in the yard after the occupant abandoned the house. The article said the house was in "north Denver," but the picture caption placed the home in Adams County. Wherever the house really is, the three-dog plight was a poor choice to illustrate the article's thesis that the so-called "housing crisis" has "forced" homeowners to abandon their pets.

Even if a person can't make the mortgage payments on a house, and has to move to someplace where pets aren't allowed, there is no good reason why the pet owner can't give the pets to a local animal shelter. The callously irresponsible act of leaving the pets abandoned in a backyard perhaps suggests that the former homeowner was not the victim of a housing crisis, but an irresponsible lout who walks away from all his obligations, financial and otherwise.

The Rocky reported on May 2 that Denver government and business officials are starting a public relations campaign to try to get some airline to launch nonstop service from Denver to Tokyo. The article was fine in its reporting of current events, but would have been improved by some long-term perspective.

For example, it should have been noted a similar effort was attempted (and failed) 20 years ago, under the aegis of then-Mayor Federico Pena.

Even better would have been a reminder that Denver voters were sold on the expensive project of abandoning Stapleton, and building a new Denver "International" Airport, with claims that the new airport's long runways would attract nonstop service from Tokyo.

After the election, the local media remained overly credulous about the Tokyo promises. For example, the Nov. 1, 1990, Denver Business Journal announced: "The region and world's business leaders say the airport will create a 'new world geometry' because it will provide a perfect geographic triangle linking Denver, Tokyo and Munich. That triangle, they believe, will form a new international pattern of trade routes." Thus, "Traffic forecasts project demand for three flights weekly to Tokyo . . . "

That "new world geometry" turned out to be old-fashioned hokum.

Kudos to the Denver Newspaper Agency for, its online obituary site. The Web site provides a published obituary for more people than could be included in the printed papers, and for each decedent, the site offers the family online guestbook for people to write messages (or to contribute audio condolences), a space for a digital photo album, and links to memorial charities.


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