A Salt Lake journalist said Thursday Sen. Orrin Hatch created his own problems last week when he denied media reports that he'd called Democrats "the party of homosexuals."

Bill Beecham, Salt Lake bureau chief for the Associated Press, told a group of Brigham Young University journalism students the U.S. senator dug a "tunnel deeper and deeper" for himself when he denied reports about statements he made during a speech in St. George Aug. 31.AP picked up the story about Hatch's speech from a St. George newspaper, and when a Salt Lake television station decided to report the information, the senator denied AP's report.

Vern Anderson, news editor for the wire service, said Hatch has a habit of making strong statements during visits to southern Utah and later denying them.

"It appears that Hatch, when he goes down to St. George, lets his conservative instincts really grab hold in that conservative city," Anderson said. "I think the senator wouldn't have gotten in the trouble he did if he hadn't flatly denied (what he said)."

During a press conference the day after his speech, Hatch said he did not intend to say the Democratic Party was the party of homosexuals.

Anderson said that because the Hatch story was reported the same day that a Delta airliner bound for Salt Lake City crashed in Dallas, it got onto the wire unchecked by AP editors, who were busy pursuing the local angle of the crash story.

"I got a call from our person who works at night saying we had received a call from KUTV asking whether we stood by a story saying that Sen. Hatch had called the Democratic party the party of homosexuals. Sen. Hatch was denying that he'd said that," Anderson said. "We said, `Yeah, we do as far as we know.' "

After some checking, AP learned that a St. George radio station had a tape of Hatch's speech. The recording proved the senator had indeed made the remark, though the context was slightly different than reported.

Anderson said the original story may have focused too much on the quote, without emphasizing that the senator's apparent intention was to say Democrats support homosexual issues.

"The initial AP story that was picked up from the (St. George) Spectrum treated the quote too baldly. The story needed better context when it hit the wire," he said.

After hearing the recording, AP altered its story slightly, but Anderson said that Hatch's "panic reaction" to the incident stirred the controversy and national publicity about the statement.

"It was a story that had the life it had not simply for what he said, but for having denied he said it. Had he not made a flat denial, then that would have been a different story," Anderson said.

The controversy over Hatch's comments has yet to calm. A group of homosexual-rights activists staged a protest in Salt Lake Wednesday and vowed to work against the senator's re-election in November.