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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM ASPEN, COLO.

For Paper, It's a Slam Dunk: Bryant Story Isn't Fit to Print

The Aspen Daily News triggers an avalanche of controversy for refusing to further cover the case.

October 19, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

ASPEN, Colo. — Kobe who?

That's what readers of the Aspen Daily News may well ask in the weeks and months to come.

Fed up with the relentless, increasingly lurid media coverage of the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case playing out 75 miles away, the paper recently told the world -- or at least its 15,000 readers -- enough is enough.

No more stories of sex over chairs, legal gamesmanship or alleged promiscuity.

"We are removing ourselves from the pack," declared Rick Carroll, editor of the paper, which sits above a consignment shop here. "The story just doesn't warrant the coverage it's getting. It's just gossip."

This small act of journalistic independence, orchestrated by an even smaller staff at the free daily, was trumpeted in a front page editorial Oct. 9. It triggered an immediate avalanche of controversy.

More than 200 e-mails, letters and phone calls poured in from across the country. Readers applauded the decision, claiming they were sick of the story and impressed that at least one newspaper had the guts to ignore it.

Others, mostly reporters and editors, were incensed. They accused the Daily News of grandstanding, censorship and betraying the fundamentals of journalism.

"I think I pricked a nerve," Carroll said.

One of the chief critics is the paper's owner, Dave Danforth.

"We are no more able to stop pack journalism at the Aspen Daily News than we can stop obesity," he said. "Who are we to appoint ourselves the ultimate censors of stories? I don't think it's right for a paper to declare in advance what they believe is newsworthy."

Danforth wrote an editorial saying the move was counter to the motto emblazoned atop every issue of the paper: "If you don't want it printed, don't let it happen."

"I won't act like George Steinbrenner and say, 'I'm the owner, and you have to do it my way,' " he said. "I respect their ability to make their own decisions."

Until recently, the Daily News routinely ran stories on Bryant, the Los Angeles Laker arrested in June on suspicion of raping a female employee at a resort in the town of Edwards. The paper used news wire stories and freelance correspondents.

But one night as he was looking over the countless Bryant stories on the wire, copy editor Ben Gagnon had an idea.

He walked over to Carroll and suggested dropping the whole thing. The story, he said, had reached a saturation point offering nothing meaningful to the readers.

"Rick was skeptical at first, but it took maybe five minutes to convince him," Gagnon said. It reminded the two about why they went into journalism to begin with. "We got a sense of what our own idealism was about."

Carroll and Gagnon wrote an editorial announcing the decision, saying they would break the ban if there was a settlement or verdict in the case or a compelling local angle.

Bryant's preliminary hearing began in Eagle on Oct. 9, complete with explosive details about what went on the night of the alleged attack. The paper ran nothing.

"I was sweating a little after that," Carroll confessed. "I'm a single dad with a 4-year-old boy. If I worked for a chain newspaper, I'd be sitting in the unemployment office."

When the hearing resumed last week, the paper ignored it again.

At the same time, Carroll and Gagnon were besieged by interview requests from the national media baffled by their noncoverage of the story.

On Oct. 12, the Daily News ran nine pages of letters, many from around the nation, commending and condemning the decision.

One reader wrote: "I was pleased to hear that someone in the media has the brass to 'just say no' to the circus that surrounds celebrities and their shenanigans."

Others sounded more like this reader: "Regardless of who's covering the on-going Kobe saga, it is news. You're a newspaper. That's math even a journalist can do. Way to stand firm, yet stand for absolutely nothing."

Local journalists were also skeptical.

David Williams, managing editor of the weekly Vail Trail in Eagle, knows the Daily News staff well.

"They have a proud tradition of muckraking, and they are very true to that, so this is very inconsistent," Williams said. "It seems disingenuous for them to say, 'We won't cover this because of pack journalism.' They got what they wanted, a great deal of publicity out of something that is a nonissue."

An editorial in the rival Aspen Times also voiced suspicion at the decision.

"It's so ripe with hypocrisy that I can barely stand the stench," wrote Editor in Chief Mike Hagan. "It is my sincere hope that this is yet another Daily News ploy to grab headlines and stir up something."

Bryce Nelson, professor of journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, said editors have a right to decide what stories are important.

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