Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Oh, Troy, you’ve been a very bad boy.
I’m referring of course to Aspen Daily News Editor Troy Hooper and his little altercation with former Aspen police officer Valerie McFarlane.
If you haven’t already heard the story, Hooper squeaked out of a DUI and got a ride home before saying he will give McFarlane more favorable treatment in the newspaper. As the cops and courts reporter, he broke a story last September when McFarlane used her badge to get into the VIP tent at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival, resulting in her suspension.
Now it seems he’s the one waving his proverbial press badge in her face looking for a favor. It turned out their little discussion was recorded on tape, and as a result, Ms. McFarlane was forced to resign from her job as an Aspen police officer. As of press time, Hooper continues to have articles published in the Aspen Daily News.
The whole drama raises a slew of issues regarding journalism ethics and small-town media. I know a little bit about that because I’ve been front-page news. And I’ve been written about, on more than one occasion, by Hooper.
For the most part, the stories Hooper wrote about me in the Aspen Daily News worked for me instead of against me. But then again, I didn’t break any laws. That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult to see the headline, “SkiCo bids good riddance to Princess” with my picture on the front page the day after I was fired from my job. Or to read numerous negative opinions about me from anonymous callers who phoned the Aspen Daily News’ “Tip Line” and had no accountability whatsoever.
Even though it wasn’t easy, I quietly accepted it. I knew I’d dished it out and had to take it. I’ve always had a good repertoire with Hooper. He was one of those party boys who was always on the scene, and so our paths crossed a lot.
But then there was the time one of my closest friends and Aspen Times colleagues got popped for drunk and disorderly at Cooper Street. It resulted in a story with the headline, “Sports editor strikes out at Cooper Street” and a rather unflattering mug shot to go with it.
There was something about Hooper’s headlines that had a little opinionated edge to them. Why not just say “Sports editor arrested at Cooper Street” or “SkiCo fires Aspen Times columnist?” Sure, it makes it more alluring, but don’t those phrases convey a certain level of animosity?
I was enraged. I wrote an e-mail to Hooper and former ADN (and now Aspen Times) Editor Rick Carroll to voice my complaint. I felt it was below the belt – not a news story but an opportunity to slander a rival from the competing paper.
They both responded professionally, explaining it is newspaper policy that any member of the media is considered a public figure and therefore subject to reportage under these circumstances. It is, after all, public record.
I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for Carroll to be faced with the prospect of breaking the story about Hooper, his friend and former colleague of eight and a half years, especially as the editor of the competing paper. He did the hard thing, but he did the right thing. I’m sure he lost a lot of sleep over it.
So it’s surprising to hear (albeit through the grapevine) Troy is looking into filing suit against The Aspen Times for libel and has not yet released a formal apology for his actions. It appears he is still on duty at the paper.
When I was front-page news, it was a tremendous learning experience. Every journalism student should be written about to truly gain an understanding of how quotes, even verbatim, can be taken out of context. And how reporting “facts” can be slanted in such a way (whether the reporter realizes it or not) to form an opinion, or at least let one slip through between the lines. In the confines of a small town, the impact of such “news” is exaggerated and intensified. Reporters are put in the awkward position of having to face their subjects in small social and professional circles, and even lose friends.
The most tragic part of this story that no one really wants to talk about is Aspen is an enabling community. Not only are “public figures” able to drink excessively, they’re able to get out of DUI charges. They’re even chauffeured home and let off at their front door.
I’m as much of an enabler as anyone. This is, after all, a party town filled with party boys, and I’m pretty sure I’ve loved and enabled every one of them. They’re fun. They’re cute. They’re the life of the party. So we let them get away with it. We forgive them, but we’re not helping them. Maybe McFarlane screwed up, but at least she got Hooper home safe.
Can of worms aside, at the end of the day it’s about journalism ethics. Even in this technological era, the written word is the most powerful medium because of its permanence. As a friend of mine recently reminded me, the newspaper is no place to vent your dirty laundry. Nor is being a member of the media a power that should ever be abused or manipulated for personal gain. I’ve done it. Clearly, I’ve done it. I’ve hurt people and jeopardized friendships and lost jobs (yes, more than one).
I’m no saint. I’ve driven drunk, I’ve weaseled my way into the VIP tent at more than one Jazz Aspen concert, and I’ve even conceded to letting a drunk boy seduce me (so to speak) in the front seat of my car.
Let’s just say Hooper and McFarlane aren’t the victims. They did, after all, let it happen.
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Some days, I miss being back in the saddle. I miss making memories.