Out Of Focus, Again

When a representative from the Focus on the Family media empire informed me last week that he would never again speak to me for publication, well, it wasn’t the first time I had been given the treatment.

The year was 1993. I had signed up for what seemed an impossible assignment: Being the news editor of a feisty and fair alternative weekly in a city that had recently taken a hard right turn.

With the separate arrivals of California transplants Douglas Bruce and Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs the year before had birthed both the Bruce-sponsored state Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), and the Focus on the Family-endorsed Amendment 2, to deny gays and lesbians the right to seek legal protection.

Nationally, internationally, Colorado Springs instantly adopted the reputation – which remains today – of being a place that breeds closed-minded intolerance.

Even the mayor at the time, Bob Isaac, generated headlines when he, immediately after Amendment 2 passed, balked at issuing an official welcome to a convention of gay lawyers who were coming to the five-star Broadmoor resort for a convention.

“You mean I have to invite the queers?” was Isaac’s famous utterance.

The gay lawyers cancelled. Others boycotted too.

In anticipation of launching the Colorado Springs Independent, I was charged with writing the newspaper’s first cover story – a piece designed to address head-on the city’s reputation versus its reality.

Colorado Springs has always been a haven for the GOP, but the days of its moderate, keep-government-out-of-my-face-and-out-of-my-bedroom brand of Republicanism were fading fast. Republicans, Democrats, unaffiliated and many, many others who eschewed such labels, were alarmed at the city’s new reputation. They openly and freely discussed their concerns – and their ideas for how to right what had gone so wrong.

Members of the city council, other lawmakers and government leaders, religious and minority leaders, business owners, longtime community activists, military reps, weighed in.

The notable exception was Focus on the Family.

With the help of a $4 million relocation grant from the Springs-based El Pomar Foundation, the Christian media empire had relocated from Arcadia, California two years earlier.

Most people back then did not equate Focus founder James Dobson as being a political animal, but rather the folksy child psychologist who dispensed advice on how to deal with your chronic bed-wetter. But there was another side to Focus. The one that was credited by Amendment 2’s sponsors as having provided the advertising push needed for Colorado voters to send it over the top.

Paul Hetrick, then the ministry’s spokesman, was polite but firm. If I wanted to interview them, I would first have to submit, in writing, my personal positions on several issues, like homosexuality, abortion, women’s issues, and families in general.

“I can tell I like you personally, Cara,” Hetrick explained. “We just need to know where you stand.”

The rationale went something like this: Focus had granted many secular reporters interviews, only to have the resulting story come out far differently than they had anticipated.

I was dumbfounded. As a reporter I’d never been required to hand over my personal beliefs in exchange for an interview. Indeed, back then I was a novice when it came to the masters of message control. I thought about taking the position of being personally anti-woman and anti-family – but that would have been very unprofessional indeed.

When that first issue of the newspaper hit the streets, Focus on the Family was the only community player that had declined participation and representation.

Nearly 14 years later, when it comes to open and honest public community debate, the ministry’s practice in its hometown has become a pattern.

Cara DeGette is a longtime Colorado journalist and a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential. E-mail her at cdegette@coloradoconfidential.com.

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Cara Degette

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