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King Soopers Caves 

Supermarket chain execs say they reponded to "sexually explicit" graphics, not public pressure

Deluged with letters of protest from Colorado Springs Independent supporters, the King Soopers grocery store chain has decided to allow the weekly newspaper back into their eight area stores, beginning this week.

The award-winning weekly alternative was pulled from store shelves last October after an unknown number of people complained to King Soopers managers, claiming the newspaper is "pornographic." With roughly 7,500 newspapers distributed from King Soopers stores each month, the stores are the second largest distribution point for the 7-year-old newspaper.

King Soopers reversed their decision after the Independent two weeks ago urged readers to stage an "un-boycott" of the store by filing complaints about not being able to pick up the newspaper while grocery shopping. Newspaper publisher John Weiss met last week with store representatives in Denver.

"They have no ideological problems with the paper," Weiss said. "I don't think they understood the breadth and depth of the popularity of the Independent and our community's support of tolerance, diversity and the basic American concept of free speech and the dissemination of ideas."

Donna Giordano, vice president of sales and marketing for King Soopers, said that customer comments -- either those in opposition to or in support of the newspaper -- had nothing to do with the corporate decision to first pull the Independent, then put the newspaper back in their stores.

The policy

According to Giordano, the chain yanked the papers after someone complained about an advertisement that appeared depicting a pillow shaped like a penis last September. Weiss said the ad ran by accident and the newspaper cancelled the ad contract after four weeks.

King Soopers also reported they received a complaint about a Tom Tomorrow cartoon that appeared last summer depicting "a fornicating couple." (The cartoon in question used an 18th-century woodblock print of jumbled nude figures to illustrate the point that it was impossible to get people to talk about dry issues such as campaign finance reform without using sex as a draw. The Independent printed the strip to illustrate an interview with the strip's author, Dan Perkins.)

"When we heard from store management that there were sexually explicit ads, we made the decision to pull the papers," Giordano said. "We based it on our policy that any sexually explicit graphics should be pulled."

Giordano said King Soopers executives will review the Independent every week to ensure no pornographic visuals are contained in the newspaper. She declined to define what constitutes pornographic material.

"Certainly frontal nudity is totally objectionable," she said. "Anything beyond that is an issue-to-issue basis."

Readers appalled and outraged

King Soopers' decision unleashed a flood of protests and dozens of customers responded. In messages sent to King Soopers President John Burgon and General Manager Paul Mauser, readers reported they were appalled, saddened and even outraged at the company's decision to ban the paper. Many suspected the store was responding to a right wing fringe and accused the chain of censorship.

"As a loyal customer of King Soopers, I am extremely disappointed that you chose to bow to what I can only assume to be right wing extremists in this town," wrote reader Georgia Moen. "Their only agenda is intimidation and control."

Reader Steve Milligan suggested that King Soopers executives do not share the same philosophy or editorial stance of the paper, and accused the chain of economic censorship. "My family will miss shopping at your store. We will return when we know that we can find the Independent in its usual place in your store."

Georgia E. Maguire said she missed her weekly fix of good journalism. "I feel it necessary to tell you that I don't care for the Gazette's editorial policy, any more than I care for some of the kinds of food you stock, the magazines you stock, some of the fruits, vegetables, etc. you stock, but I am the one who makes the decision whether or what to buy or not to buy!!!" she wrote to King Soopers.

Larry Gonzales suggested the action was based on "pedagoguery."

"The Independent is a weekly newspaper that respects good journalism, tolerates all viewpoints and is the only alternative newspaper in Colorado Springs to its counterpart the Gazette," Gonzales wrote.

"Let us all embrace and honor our rights of freedom by allowing one another's beliefs," reader Cali Brian wrote. "I do not read the [Colorado Springs] Gazette or pro-gun magazines so I don't buy them. However, I still shopped at your store. But now I will never set foot in your store again as long as you are taking a stand against the Independent and independence!"

Shopper Lois Fornander said she was dumbfounded when she learned of the King Soopers ban.

"For reasons unclear to me, I had always assumed that, somehow, the management of King Soopers was a step above partisan politics," Fornander wrote. "Maybe it was the better selection of organic produce or the variety of selections in the deli.

"I expect your company to rescind this ludicrous ban. You're on the wrong side here," Fornander wrote. "The Independent plays a key role in keeping communication open in a community that could otherwise become an American Kabul."

The usual suspects

The controversy heated up the airwaves last Thursday when radio talk show host Joseph Michelli made it the topic of his afternoon show, which can be heard daily at KVOR News-radio 1300.

During the show, Tom Pedigo, director of the American Family Association's Colorado chapter, called in and said he was excited that King Soopers had taken a stand by pulling the Independent.

Chapters of the Florida-based American Family Association have launched unsuccessful boycotts against alternative weeklies in other parts of the country. In Colorado Springs, Pedigo was involved in an attempt to boycott the newspaper's advertisers in 1999.

Another radio caller, "Ron," has also claimed responsibility for getting the Independent pulled from King Soopers stores. "Ron," a longtime critic of the newspaper, has been a regular caller to the Chuck Baker and other local radio talk shows for several years; it is unclear if he is employed or has any affiliations with any legitimate groups.

This week, Baker, a longtime conservative talk show host, said he was not aware of any organized effort to pressure King Soopers not to distribute the newspaper.

"Don't get me into this fight," he said. "I'm a free speech guy, babe, it don't matter to me."

During Michelli's show, another outspoken Independent critic, Mike McKee, appeared at the station to show Michelli items from the newspaper that he found objectionable. They were the same pillow advertisement and Tom Tomorrow cartoon that, coincidentally, King Soopers executives said they found offensive.

McKee, who paid to be a radio talk show host on a local Christian AM station, had his show canceled two years ago when he fell behind in his payments. While he was on the air, McKee launched his initial "boycott" of the Independent by urging listeners not to do business with the newspaper's advertisers. In 1999, the Independent published an expose of McKee's boycott activities, "God's Instrument," which won an award from the Colorado Society of Professional Journalists.

Often dressed in sackcloth and ashes, McKee has also staged boycotts of Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores in Colorado Springs because they carry books with gay and lesbian subject matter. It is unclear whether McKee is employed or is affiliated with any legitimate group. He is not listed in the telephone directory and could not be reached for comment.

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