She lost her fight for pollution records from a Colorado Springs coal plant. Then she checked her inbox.

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She lost her fight for pollution records from a Colorado Springs coal plant. Then she checked her inbox.

 

Is a coal plant near her son’s school polluting the air? That’s what Monument resident Leslie Weise has wanted to know for years, and she has been fighting the public utility in Colorado Springs to find out. She has asked for air-quality reports from the Martin Drake coal plant and has been told no. She has gone to court and has been rebuffed. But then a strange thing happened. Recently, the Colorado Court of Appeals accidentally emailed her an air-quality report she has been seeking. Weise had to return the report, and she says she didn’t keep any copies. But she did tell her local newspaper what she found in it when she inadvertently received a copy.

From The Gazette:

The report shows that the Drake plant consistently exceeded federal limits on [sulphur dioxide] emissions, said Weise, a clean air advocate, who was obligated to return the report to the court but was not barred from discussing what she read.

Now, Colorado Springs Utilities, whose board is made up of members of the city council, is on the warpath for attorneys fees, and for sanctions against Weise. “The City of Colorado Springs has now been caught knowingly concealing air quality violations from the public, and instead of responsibly releasing the data to their rightful owner — the residents who breathe this air — it reacts in contemptuous fashion by insisting that the Court of Appeals impose punitive sanctions on me,” Weise told The Gazette.

I hear other news organizations are looking to see how they can help try and pry some of these documents loose, so this should be a story to watch.

On knowing your reporter…

Responding to my last newsletter about a Denver Post reporter’s concern about ideological actors involved in Colorado journalism, Jason Salzman wrote this on his BigMedia blog, which I thought deserved sharing:

At some point, news consumers will have to trust individual journalists, more than their publications. For example, I trust some reporters at the Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Statesman, even though the publications have mostly lost my confidence.

I tend to agree with the first sentence, and I have worked at publications where I have found myself saying, “Look, judge us by the work, not by our reputation” or something similar. Hell, I might be the only journalist in America who has written for The Nation and The Daily Caller within a six-month period.

Writing in the Colorado Springs alt-weekly this week, Laura Eurich wrote, “Are all journalists neutral fact-givers? Clearly not. But media consumers need to find those trusted sources and believe that they are doing the best they can do. Good journalism doesn’t simply echo your personal beliefs. It should inform you and challenge you.”

Trevor Hughes, USA Today’s Denver correspondent, had this take on Twitter: “Growing up in Vermont there was a phrase, ‘know your farmer.’ Modern equivalent appears to be ‘know your journalist.'”

A Denver TV reporter quit her job after a source threatened her — and then his psychiatrist called

Heidi Hemmat, a former reporter for Denver TV station KDVR, quit her job after 15 years, she said, following threats by a local businessman she exposed in one of her investigations that led to his arrest after fraud allegations. But that was in August. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving when the news anchor told her side of the story in a blog post titled “Why I left KDVR and TV news.”

“Shortly after he learned about the charges against him, that were a direct result of me, I got a call from his psychiatrist. She told me he was ‘homicidal’ and was planning to kill me,” Hemmat wrote in the post. Her blog post made local news and went viral. Denver’s alt-weekly Westword picked up the story from there, interviewing Hemmat and her bosses about what happened and about Hemmat’s response to the viral blog post (“The initial response to her post was entirely positive … But a darker tone seeped in after the story went national”).

The ex-local TV reporter had this message in the Westword interview: “I’ve had kids, people aspiring to be journalists, ask me, ‘What your advice?’ And I never thought I’d give this advice, but I’ve said, ‘Go to law school. Go to medical school. Do something else.'”

On Facebook, Pueblo journalist Kara Mason offered a take on why this story irked her.

First, because local TV news seems to think, and makes the public believe, investigative reporting is ambushing some random guy who is wrapped up in fraud accusations. If I spent all my time chasing around bad landlords and sketchy pawn shop owners, there would be no hard reporting in Pueblo (you know, politics, economic development, the stuff that impacts the whole community). Luckily, there’s three TV stations who are more than willing to send their reporters out on a wild goose chase for “good television.” How many times have you seen any newspaper do this kind of reporting?

Fake news, fake news, fake news

I’ve been hearing about fake news everywhere now, and not just from my friends in the journalism-politics-academic-industrial-complex. The other day I got into a conversation with someone at the local deli about it. Anyway, NPR tracked down a fake news creator, Jestin Coler in California, who is responsible for NationalReport and The Denver Guardian, among others.

From the must-read NPR piece:

He was amazed at how quickly fake news could spread and how easily people believe it. He wrote one fake story for NationalReport.net about how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot. “What that turned into was a state representative in the House in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana based on something that had just never happened,” Coler says.

But he might have an oversized view of his own impact. See, The Denver Post, a real news organization, actually debunked the idea that a fake news story was responsible for the bill two years ago when it happened. According the Post, the lawmaker had started drafting the legislation at least four months before the fake news story even came out. The bill “was introduced the same week as the spoof report appeared,” the Post reported, which is what likely led some media to fall for it. So to recap here: You can debunk false news that was based on fake news, but two years later report in real news that the false news was real.

I pinged the NPR reporter on the story to see what she thought. She pointed me to a Planet Money version of the piece, which she added was longer and more clear. “In retrospect, I wish I’d made it clearer in the first version that there was no clear evidence that his story was the reason the legislation was passed. Probably a quick line would have sufficed,” she told me.

She also said she thought it was possible that Coler’s fake news item might have helped bring momentum to get the legislation passed. The more comprehensive Planet Money episode doesn’t use the quote about legislation in Colorado.

An update on solutions journalism

In September I recorded a podcast for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project about a collaboration among seven news organizations in southern Colorado and New Mexico that were involved in creating solutions journalism. This week, one of the podcast participants, Ben Goldfarb, published a piece for High County News, based in Paonia, Colorado, about what he called “A new journalism, past fear-mongering.” In it he offers an update on solutions journalism in the era of Donald Trump.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

Did you focus on getting in your first ski or snowboard runs of the year and neglect all the news fit for the Sunday fronts this weekend?

Well, The Greeley Tribune localized the impacts of an injunction and appeal of a federal overtime rule. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel fronted a piece about how a local tax might help the high cost of 911 operations. The Loveland Reporter-Herald had a piece about candidates for a public eco/devo job making their pitch. The Longmont Times-Call reported how Boulder activists are concerned as a deadline looms at Standing Rock. Vail Daily had a cover story about a local group trying to tackle healthcare costs. The Durango Herald reported how La Plata County sees myriad uses for new drones it bought. The Boulder Daily camera fronted results of a local poll it conducted about a municipal electric utility. The Aspen Times profiled a local photographer after a recent assignment to the Grand Canyon for National Geographic. The Denver Post reported how Pearl Harbor touched the lives of locals. The Gazette had another installment in its “On Unsolid Ground” series about landslide risk in Colorado Springs.

How we localized a national story about the Electoral College

I hit two professional milestones this week I’m proud to announce. A story I wrote about the Electoral College for The Colorado Independent beat a story I wrote about “creepy clowns” by more than 8,000 clicks, according to web traffic analytics for the past year. I was glad to see that— and I’m also honored to report that the Electoral College story beat out a piece I wrote about ‘The Bachelor,’ too, by 14,000 clicks and counting.

The story about the Electoral College broke the news that four out of Colorado’s nine national electors made a pact last weekend to potentially disobey a Colorado law requiring electors to support the presidential candidate who won the state — in this case, Hillary Clinton. If they can persuade enough of their fellow Electoral collegians to do the same, they would become “faithless electors.” The goal? To stop Trump. The piece came after a previous one I wrote about the nascent rebellion told through the eyes of Bob Nemanich, a math teacher in Colorado Springs who is one of the 538 men and women who will — or won’t — cast an official ballot and ultimately make Donald Trump president. He wields plenty of potential influence for a guy who described himself to me as “just an average schmuck.”

After the story went viral, C-SPAN decided it would try and broadcast Colorado’s nine electors casting their votes at the state Capitol on Dec. 19 because of what might happen. The latest in this saga is that a group of lawyers across the nation have created a legal fund to help defend electors who might decide to go faithless. The attorneys are also willing to sue any of the 29 states with laws binding their electors. Colorado’s electors have already filed the first lawsuit. Check out our explainer on the Hamilton Elector movement, and expect more news about it on the site today.

Now for some news on the local media front from CJR’s United States Project

My colleague Jackie Spinner wrote about how in Trump country, local press tries to distance itself from the national media. CJR’s press freedom correspondent Jonathan Peters had four things to keep in mind when reporting on press threats. And Susannah Nesmith wrote a story about how a Florida newspaper’s audacious decision to highlight a silent epidemic by profiling all 216 people who died of an opioid overdose in its coverage area last year.

Three’s a trend: Welcome to the professor/speech beat in Colorado

1.) This week The Gazette in Colorado Springs introduced readers to a conservative group’s “Professor Watchlist” website whose mission is to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” and how a local professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) found herself one of the website’s targets.

2.) An assistant professor of legal studies at the private Colorado Christian University this week apologized for comments she made on a talk-radio program. When asked by a radio host if there are safe spaces on the campus, she said, with a partial laugh, “No, there are not, and if any of my students wear a safety pin and ask for a safe space, I will tear it off them and fail them in my class. And they know it too. We have no snowflakes on campus.” The professor didn’t immediately respond when contacted by a reporter for The Gazette, but later issued an apology via progressive consultant and media watcher Jason Salzman who watchdogs conservative talk radio in Colorado and blogs at BigMedia and The Huffington Post. Salzman had first reported on her comments after hearing them on the radio.

3.) Colorado’s flagship newspaper raised some eyebrows on its op/ed page this week with an editorial carrying this headline: “A Denver doctor’s racist comments shouldn’t have led to her firing.” (The doctor was a University of Colorado School of Medicine faculty member and pediatric anesthesiologist who made racist remarks about Michelle Obama on Facebook. If you want to see the comments, which I don’t feel like repeating, click the link.)

Editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett went on talk radio to defend the editorial. “I hope it’s not a surprise to folks that a newspaper would want to stand by the First Amendment as strongly as possible,” he said on the KNUS Craig Silverman show. “She’s a public employee and the First Amendment protections are a little bit different for public employees. But the test that would have to be made by those institutions would be to find that her statements were so disruptive to the work environment that she could not continue to work there.” The paper’s take on the situation is that while the doctor’s statements were stupid and untrue, the writers didn’t like the public shaming aspect. Plunkett said her firing was chilling to free speech and “bad for democracy.”

Oh yeah, and he also did the obligatory rundown about the newspaper’s retrenchment over the past decade:

When I first started at The Denver Post [in 2003] … we were still kind of at our prime, about as big as we would ever be. … Greg Moore, the then editor, was thinking about expanding and opening up a bureau in Mexico and opening a bureau in London. We had mountain bureaus, we had an environmental desk, we had a much bigger political desk for City Hall and the legislature, and, you know, 350-some people in the newsroom and a much bigger apparatus. And over time that has dwindled down to where we are now, which is about 100.

Now that’s bad for democracy.

*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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