#schoolshooting | MEDIA: 📻 How a school-shooting comment got a KNUS host canned

Image by Nomad Tales for Creative Commons on Flickr

Even on conservative talk radio where hosts sometimes mock safe spaces and PC culture, there are some comments so out of bounds they can get someone canceled.

By now you’ve likely heard about Chuck Bonniwell, a host on Denver’s 710 KNUS radio show who is also the publisher of The Glendale Cherry Creek Chronicle newspaper, and whose show recently got the ax.

Here’s what did him in, from The New York Times:

“All right, Chuck Bonniwell, Julie Hayden here, a little after 1:30, talking about the never-ending impeachment of Donald Trump,” Mr. Bonniwell said on the air. “Yeah, you wish for a nice school shooting to interrupt the monopoly—”

Ms. Hayden quickly interjected. “No, no, not even,” she said, according to a recording of the show that was later posted by 9 News, a local television station. “Don’t even say that. No, don’t even say that. Don’t call us. Chuck didn’t say that.” Mr. Bonniwell then tried to soften his remark by adding, “In which no one would be hurt,” and the couple turned to the phone lines.

KUSA 9News anchor Kyle Clark reported the show “was edited to remove [the] comment,” but 9News “downloaded the audio prior to the edit.” The radio host’s remark made national news, getting picked up by NYT, CBS, CNN, and The Washington Post, among others. Locally, Westword’s Michael Roberts added some context to the situation, reporting: “Irony alert: During her time as a local TV reporter, Hayden extensively covered the murderous 1999 attack on Columbine High School.” Posting on Facebook about their show’s cancellation, the couple wrote in part: “Chuck’s comment about school shootings was inappropriate and if he could un-say it he would.”

So that’s the backstory. But how this scandal played out offers a useful lens through which to examine a crucial part of it in the role of The Colorado Times Recorder, a relatively new digital news and information site in Colorado’s media landscape and the outlet that broke the news of Bonniwell’s comment. Since that day, Dec. 18, the site racked up nearly a quarter of a million page views, says CTR founder and editor Jason Salzman. (Narrator voice: That’s a lot.)

The Colorado Times Recorder, which launched three years ago, says on its site its work is “fair, honest, and fact-checked, and has a nonpartisan, progressive orientation.” It is the latest project for Salzman, a progressive consultant, and journalist who has long mined the radio waves of conservative talk radio for impactful scoops since his time as a freelance media critic for The Rocky Mountain News, contributor to The Huffington Post, and his own Big Media blog.

As big as this recent KNUS news became, a fair question is whether it would have even made news without Salzman who listens to conservative talk radio for nuggets about which to blog. That was the case on Dec. 17, when he recorded a Tuesday “Chuck and Julie Show” on KNUS, which runs daily from 1 p.m. to 4, to listen to later. After hearing the “nice school shooting” remark, Salzman realized it was ugly, but didn’t jump on it immediately. He actually waited until the following day before writing up a blog post. From there, mainstream local news outlets ran with it, crediting The Colorado Times Recorder. The headlines then unspooled in the national press. “I never, ever dreamed it would be a national story,” Salzman says. “I totally misjudged it.”

In his role as a progressive media critic and journalist, Salzman has spent untold hours over nearly 15 years listening to righty talk radio in Colorado, which he sees as part of his job. In that time, he says, he has gotten pushback in some quarters for elevating the rhetoric of fringe characters who likely have limited audiences. But, “I think it’s important what we do,” he says, “monitoring” them and holding guests and hosts accountable for what they say. He does have some help listening each week, so he’s not doing it all himself, he adds. “It’s just like any other public entity: when they make these kinds of comments— errors, misinformation, bigotry— shine a light on it,” he says. “It is very gratifying when [other outlets notice] and the light is brighter.”

As for who pays for the work he’s doing at The Colorado Times Recorder, “it’s progressive funders” is all he’ll say. On a Denver PBS TV roundtable, ColoradoPolitics reporter Joey Bunch said, “Good for Jason Salzman for doing this work, and in getting his moment in the sun.” For more about Salzman, ColoradoPolitics did a Q-and-A with him around this time last year headlined “Where activism meets journalism” and called him “one part polemicist, one part watchdog; definitely a voice worth hearing amid the din of Colorado politics.”

There’s a scene in the HBO series “Succession” in which a conservative TV news network of the global media empire at the heart of the show has a problem that some of its central characters must confront. One of the network’s right-wing anchors might maybe kinda-sorta be a fascist and, well, a fan of Adolf Hitler. Among other things, the network finds out the anchor got married at Hitler’s Bavarian Eagle’s Nest retreat and his dog has the same name as Hitler’s, though, the anchor stresses, it’s spelled differently. Pressure is on the station to do something; anti-fascist demonstrators are protesting in front of the building.

At one point, the anchor’s boss sits him down for a little chat, checking in on his affinity for the Nazi-esque. What is it about that period in history that so interests him, the boss wants to know. “The scale,” the anchor says, and the “tragedy,” and the boss looks momentarily relieved. But then, pressing, his boss asks which tragedy specifically. “Europe decimated,” the anchor says flatly as if it’s obvious. “Seven million Germans, 20 million Russians, five million Poles.” The boss starts to point out a glaring omission but the conversation is disrupted by a shooting incident. Either way, you get the gist: the popular right-wing TV personality could be one of these young neo-Nazi Charlottesville tiki-torch types we’re hearing more about these days finding an audience among certain media.

What does this have to do with Colorado? Well, in an art-imitating-life-or-vice-versa this week, a producer at KNUS is out of a job after Colorado Springs Antifa and Denver media started asking questions about posts in an online forum by someone of the same name. Westword was blunt in its headline: “Is a Neo-Nazi on staff at 710 KNUS?“

From KUSA 9News:

An executive producer who has come under scrutiny for alleged neo-nazi ties has been let go from the conservative talk radio station 710KNUS. 9Wants to Know obtained a memo announcing Kirk Widlund’s departure. The memo doesn’t explain why, it just cites financial restructuring. Widlund was the executive producer of The Steffan Tubbs Show and The American Veteran Show. He also hosts the 710KNUS podcast Keeping America Great. He claimed years worth of neo-Nazi social media posts attributed to him are an elaborate hoax by the leftist group Antifa.

Some of the posts on the profile of a person named Kirk Widlund were re-shares of memes praising Adolf Hitler, Nazi soldiers and American Nazi Party founder George Rockwell. The profile also included a post about the U.S. fighting on the “wrong side” during World War II, particularly “the Jewish side.” … “I’ve never used VK,” Widlund told the Colorado Times Recorder for an article published on December 10. “I am not a Nazi. Those quotes they are saying are mine are not mine.” But a review by Westword of one of the VK accounts linked to the Widlund profile corroborates that some of the posts included in the antifa blog were authentic.
On social media, The Steffan Tubbs Show said, “Kirk is now gone. He denied it to the end. Now we move on. Let’s see the next target – justified or not.” Someone tweeting from the account also wrote: “When a colleague, friend & hard-working co-worker denies – we believe. What else is there than a person’s word?” And “To those in the media who have enjoyed the saga (admittedly worse than a telenovela) & felt they were doing a heck of a job: you, too, are ONE allegation away from GUILTY until proven INNOCENT. Blood in water, sharks circle, prey eaten. Have a very Merry Christmas. Feel proud.” Over at The Colorado Times Recorder, Jason Salzman has more details.

The school-shooting comment and this other scandal come not long after KNUS made national news for the ouster of conservative Trump critic Craig Silverman. Westword called the latest a third “strike” for the station. On this week’s PBS Denver public affairs TV show “Colorado Inside Out,” host Dominic Dezzutti and his panel spent six minutes talking about the KNUS scandals, which, he said, likely have led the programming manager to be downing plenty of Maalox. On the show, Westword’s Patricia Calhoun said of her outlet’s reporting on the producer, “when you really look through everything it’s hard to believe someone manufactured this,” and also noted she learned the “Chuck and Jullie Show” was on its way out even before the school-shooting comment.

Over at The Colorado Sun, cartoonist Drew Litton sketched out a cartoon he called “Tune this out” in which a man graffitis a ‘T’ inside the station’s call letters on a billboard so it spells 710 “KNUTS” and transforms the station’s slogan from News/Talk to “Nuts/Talk.”

Two Colorado news outlets got some national ink this week, and not for scandals. First, The Colorado Independent made a BuzzFeed list of “24 Great Local News Stories from 2019.” The story highlighted a piece by editor Susan Greene “about the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention centers run by a private-prison company” that “sparked a state investigation.” (Editor’s note: The story prompted further federal oversight and questioning by Congressional representatives about the use of solitary at the Aurora Detention Center.)

Here’s an excerpt from Greene’s reporting:

If (GEO) staffers had asked how he was holding up in isolation, he says he would have told them that his tight cell stirred memories of the armoire in which his stepfather forced him to sleep when his mother was dying and other women would spend the night. He would have said the experience was flashing him back to the day he stood in the center of a wood pallet surrounded by boxes of auto parts in an airless semi-truck wondering if he would still be alive once it crossed the border. But…staffers didn’t ask, he says, nor did they offer psychological treatment during his nine months in Aurora.

Also this week, The New York Times published a story about how readers across the country are being affected by the decline of local news. A Denver resident told the Times she was reading the year-old Colorado Sun because its “reporting is good, insightful and widespread.” (She also threw some savage shade at The Denver Post. I don’t feel like repeating it here, but I’ll note that Post reporter Alex Burness said of the critique, “It’s completely fair — necessary, even — to be outraged about awful newspaper owners and the damage done by constant layoffs. But if you think The Post isn’t still doing essential journalism, in spite of the headwinds, my guess is you probably aren’t paying attention.”)
Unanimously. That’s how the members of Denver’s City Council voted this week on a resolution urging Alden Global Capital (née, The Nothing), the journalism devouring hedge fund that controls The Denver Post, among dozens and dozens of other newspapers across the country, to make investments into local journalism or to get out of the business entirely.

From Alayna Alvarez at ColoradoPolitics:

The proclamation was sponsored by Councilman Kevin Flynn, a former reporter for Colorado’s Rocky Mountain News. Journalism is an “integral part” of democracy, he said, but “you simply cannot cover a community with 25% of the staff that used to cover it.” Over the last eight years, about three-quarters of The Denver Post’s staff has been slashed. “If we do not stand by our local news, then we won’t be seeing it,” Councilwoman Robin Kniech said in support of the proclamation.

A new documentary about the fight against this hedge fund by some journalists is expected to come out in early 2021. Watch the trailer here.
In October, we learned the nonprofit Longmont Observer, which reports on the City Council among other issues, won a $155,000 contract from the city to provide public, educational and governmental television services for the city and viewers, beating out the organization that had been providing the service for the past 37 years. The move came with some drama in the pages of the local newspaper, the Longmont Times-Call, and on social media.

Now, as the deal is set to take effect on Jan. 1 and the nonprofit outlet takes steps to make sure its news-gathering side is separate from its entanglements with the local government, some members of the City Council are proposing a new oversight panel to monitor its process.

From the Times-Call, referencing former City Councilwoman Bonnie Finley and Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley:

Finley said in an interview that she thought a mechanism needs to be in place to ensure that any city-underwritten programs “should be neutral” when it comes to gathering and reporting information about Longmont city government to cable TV subscribers and online viewers — and “how the money’s being spent.”

Bagley … said no government, at any level, should control conventional news reporting. He said the city’s contract with the Observer has no bearing on that nonprofit’s publications. “This is not going to be funding the Longmont Observer’s current activities,” Bagley said, adding that “If this becomes a city-funded newspaper or TV news station, I would have a problem with it.”

Observer co-founder and publisher Scott Converse “did not respond” to “text, voicemail and email requests for comment,” The Times-Call reported for its coverage, which underscores a tension between the two news sources in the town, one a new-media nonprofit and the other a thinning legacy print paper controlled by a hedge-fund that moved its office out of the city it covers.

In part because of this dynamic, Longmont, a growing former agricultural town near Boulder with a population of nearly 100,000, has become a flashpoint for an idea about public funding to help support local news. This spring, the area made national news because of an effort by a local group to ask voters to potentially consider new taxes for a library district with a local news component. The city of Longmont is wrapping up a feasibility study about that, and I’m told there should be a “very strong community engagement effort” once it’s complete.

Starting in January, Melissa Davis, a vice president at the Gates Family Foundation, will take over “day-to-day direction” of the Colorado Media Project, “as Nancy Watzman steps down as director,” Davis wrote in an email this week. Watzman will join the project’s local advisory committee, and will also work on “several projects in Colorado and beyond to help journalists and researchers detect and track online viral mis- and dis-information,” which sounds interesting.

More from the Davis email:

In 2020 CMP will focus on two major initiatives: expanding statewide conversation on the future of local news (leveraging our October report, to inform and engage more people and communities – with a special focus on those outside of Denver metro), and investing in COLab, the new collaborative newsroom in Rocky Mountain Public Media’s downtown building opening in 2020, which aims to be a hub of activity for mission-driven journalism statewide.

On Jan. 7, the project will partner with PEN America for a 5:30 p.m. event at the Denver Public Library to discuss a recent national report on the health of local news that includes journalist Alan Prendergast’s case study about Denver.
“For a time,” wrote The Colorado Sun’s Tamara Chuang this week, “Denver was the nation’s cable capital, with the three largest cable companies headquartered here. And while those companies have consolidated or moved east, they left their engineering teams here and the region is still home to a significant cable workforce.” There’s even a “monument to the history of cable TV” at the University of Denver.

But as streaming services and cord-cutting become more of a thing, the industry is having to take stock of itself. Chuang dove deep into the history of cable in Colorado for her piece and checked in with insiders who gamed out the industry’s potential future.

From the Sun:

Read the whole piece here.
Colorado’s two southwestern “orphan counties,” La Plata and Montezuma, where the “local” news gets beamed in from Albuquerque, New Mexico, still don’t have satellite access to Denver NBC, CBS and ABC stations following a June FCC ruling allowing it. But they do have something this holiday season to celebrate.

From Rocky Mountain PBS:

Rocky Mountain Public Media announced that Rocky Mountain PBS will be made available for the first-time to DIRECTV customers in La Plata County, and DISH customers in both La Plata and Montezuma County. “This is a big step forward for public television and Colorado programming in La Plata and Montezuma counties, where we’ve long been considered part of the Albuquerque market and, as a result, orphans in our home state,” said James Foster, Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Rocky Mountain PBS and a La Plata County resident.

For decades, some La Plata Montezuma satellite subscribers have complained they feel left out of the news loop in Colorado because of their orphan county status. (For background on why orphan counties exist, read this story I wrote for CJR in May. The TL;DR version: The way the Nielsen ratings company and the FCC intersect creates a “national media market map [that] looks like a paper target blasted with buckshot.”)

Colorado’s Democratic attorney general, Phil Weiser, a former DOJ telecommunications lawyer, took on the orphan county issue as a crusade after hearing about it from frustrated Four Corners-area voters during his 2018 campaign. “We still have work to do with satellite providers and commercial stations, but this is important progress to celebrate,” he said in a statement provided to RMPBS. Other politicians, too, added their voices to the RMPBS news release with statements. Republican. U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner called it “exciting progress.” Republican Congressman Scott Tipton said the move is “a step in the right direction for satellite customers.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who is running for president, applauded the news. He also added that he “strongly” encourages “the remaining stations and satellite companies” to follow the lead of Rocky Mountain PBS.

*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE. Image by Nomad Tales for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

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