It seems that with each passing day, the era for digging in your heels, drawing lines in the sand and shouting “how dare you?!” becomes more and more pronounced. I was reminded of that last month as I watched a very public and painful saga play out between former coworkers.
It all started when former FOX31 Denver investigative reporter Heidi Hemmat took to her personal blog on Thanksgiving day to air grievances with her former employer. Mind you, these grievances were at the very least deemed worthy of headlines locally (see: Denver Post), nationally (see: New York Post) and internationally (see: The Daily Mail).
Hemmat said she received death threats from a man who had not only been put out of business but convicted of fraud on the basis of her reporting. These were threats, Hemmat claimed, that had been substantiated by the man’s psychiatrist. If nothing else, I remember hearing about these threats shortly after Hemmat became aware of them, as I was working for the Denver TV station as its digital content editor at the time.
But Hemmat also claims she was provided inadequate security by the station, and that management not only downplayed the threats but forced her to continue to cover this man as he went through trial, even as his threats persisted.
Those were among the most egregious of the many charges Hemmat leveled against FOX31 in a long-winded manifesto of sorts. She also bemoaned the station for not giving her what she felt would have been a proper farewell for someone of her stature, seeing as how she won six regional Emmy awards during her 15-year tenure, much of which was spent diving into dumpsters and chasing after people on live TV in high heels.
Perhaps feeling the need to respond after Hemmat’s blog post went viral, FOX31 issued a statement categorizing Hemmat’s claims as “inaccurate and egregious.” The statement went on to wish Hemmat the best “during what appears to be a continued difficult time.”
Being intimately familiar with the parties on both sides of this squabble, it’s not hard to understand why both felt the need to defend themselves in the face of a perceived attack. But it also got me thinking about one of my all-time favorite Denver stories gone viral — one in which the bereaved party decided instead to yield.
That story came to a head in 2004, when a then-wet-behind-the-ears politician by the name of John Hickenlooper had declared in one of his first acts as Denver mayor that he would be replacing the old, worn-out “Merry Christmas” sign above the Denver City and County Building with what he dubbed a “more inclusive” sign reading “Happy Holidays.”
Shortly after he detailed his plan to a Denver Post reporter, the headline read “Hick Hates Christmas.” It wasn’t long until the Associated Press picked the story up, and the rest of the country was printing the same thing.
Hickenlooper had the chance to stand his ground and make this issue a staple of his early administration less than six months into his first term in public office. Instead, he chose to do a 180, issuing the following statement:
“Over the past several days, it has become clear to me that there is strong community sentiment to maintain the ‘Merry Christmas’ sign, and I am glad to oblige. … I apologize to anyone who may have been offended or mistakenly felt I was being anti-Christmas. ‘Hickenlooper’ might have two Os, but I am not Scrooge. We are happy to keep the ‘Merry Christmas’ sign.”
Now the Governor of Colorado, Hickenlooper brought up the story at a meeting of the western governors this year during a panel discussion on failure and how to deal with it.
“I remember saying to my staff, ‘Shouldn’t we just say we’re sorry?'” Hickenlooper said. “My staff said, ‘Well, once you take a position like that — and considering the dignity and the authority of the office of the mayor — you can’t just say one thing one day and then the next day, reverse it.’
Fifteen minutes later in that same discussion with his staff?
“I convinced them it wasn’t the worst idea to say sorry,” Hickenlooper said.
Is it one of the reasons Hickenlooper’s name is now often mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate? It’s hard to say. But one thing appears clear: Choosing to swallow his pride rather than pick up his sword in 2004 didn’t seem to hurt him.