Thinking outside the box 

Congratulations are in order for the Gazette, which earlier this month published an excellent four-day series that explored the horrific living conditions for thousands of working-class and poor people off whose backs local slumlords reap their riches.

The series, which ran for four days beginning Sunday, Dec. 6, focused mainly on tenants who endure daily living inside the crime-ridden and cockroach-infested apartment buildings owned by wealthy landlord Terry Ragan, mostly in the southeast part of the city. Written by crime reporter Deedee Correll, who, in the spirit of full disclosure, is a former Independent intern, the response to the series was immediate and fierce.

Several members of the Colorado Springs City Council vowed to take action, and last week, state Rep. Michael Merrifield held a press conference announcing plans to introduce a statewide law to protect tenants' rights in Colorado's upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 7.

"It's outrageous that we have a system that allows that to happen," Vice Mayor Richard Skorman was quoted saying in the series.

"I was shocked that such conditions could exist right here in Colorado Springs," Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat, was quoted as saying during his press conference.

This is daily newspapering at its finest -- a shocking report that energizes local officials into overdrive. Frankly, we've been hoping to read this kind of substance in the Gazette for months, and they should be proud of their efforts.

Which they clearly are, as witnessed in Dec. 16 and Dec. 19 follow-up articles in which the newspaper announced Merrifield's upcoming legislation, as well as comments from "shocked" members of the City Council.

Which leads us to the inherent problems with the daily's cavalier eagerness to live inside a box.

Other than generic references to past efforts to reform the system, the newspaper insinuated by omission that they were the first to report the despicable living conditions that local slumlords force their tenants to endure. Nowhere did the daily recognize other local news outlets -- or the resulting past vows from our leaders for reform -- that have, for many years spotlighted Colorado Springs' big dirty slumlord problem.

If we were Jeff Marcu, for example, we might even go so far as to call the Gazette to the mat for its obvious disingenuousness in refusing, at the very least, to acknowledge his work, which has also resulted in unsuccessful statewide legislation and apparently unsuccessful local reforms.

Beginning in August 2000, Marcu, an investigative reporter for KKTV Channel 11, began routinely highlighting slumlords in an ongoing series, the "Landlord's Hall of Shame." Marcu's excellent exposure of Colorado Springs slumlords and the horrific living conditions that they force on their tenants resulted in anti-slumlord legislation that was introduced this year at the state capitol, but ultimately failed thanks to the power of pro-slumlord lobbyists. For his efforts, Marcu received two Edward R. Murrow awards and a citation from the Associated Press.

Channel 11's series highlighted Terry Ragan's run-down properties, as well as numerous other notable Colorado Springs landlords whose properties are disgracefully blighted. Marcu's Hall of Shame also highlighted properties owned by anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce, whose properties the Gazette ignored in its recent coverage but which have been exposed as rundown by Marcu and other Colorado media outlets, including the Independent.

Four months ago, as reported in the July 31 Independent and by other local media outlets, the City Council adopted new code enforcement rules to crack down on slumlords. These "major reforms," as they were heralded, were identified as the direct result of Channel 11's exposs, and represented the fruit of a year's worth of work by a task force comprising city officials, realtors and a representative from the Apartment Association of Colorado Springs. Included among the City Council-approved measure was that police would be granted the authority to condemn properties that have been previously cited for code violations. Slumlords would be forced to relocate tenants at their own expense.

Apparently, those "reforms" never materialized, leaving us back at square one. But instead of cornering politicians and bureaucrats for failing to follow through on past promises, the Gazette not only let them off the hook but also actually enabled them to grandstand and posture, while taking full credit for their findings.

If the Gazette's series -- built on the backs of prior media reports -- results in real changes, we'll herald it to the world. In the meantime, the daily newspaper should rethink its inside-the-box philosophy of pretending that their excellent -- and long overdue -- series has single-handedly defined reality for thousands of poor people whose stories they finally, rightfully, repeated.

-- degette@csindy.com


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