How Colorado’s media gave Russian trolls a megaphone

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How Colorado’s media gave Russian trolls a megaphone

News outlets in Colorado unwittingly gave a signal boost to sneaky social media trolls created by the Russians to interfere with our 2016 presidential election.

That disturbing news comes courtesy of an analysis by Denver Post reporter John Frank who dug into a database of nearly 300,000 tweets published by NBC News “that are linked to thousands of accounts created by Russian operatives that Twitter identified to congressional investigators and labeled as ‘malicious activity.'” The Post reports hundreds of thousands of Colorado voters were exposed to “misinformation and propaganda through media outlets and social networks” and “the majority of the Colorado-related messages broadcast by Russia-linked Twitter accounts appeared to favor Republican Donald Trump and foster discontent in the nation’s political system.” What’s worse, “more than a dozen of the posts appeared in news stories published by Colorado media organizations before and after the election, further extending their reach.”

More from the piece:

The news organizations did not appear to know the tweets came from bogus accounts, but still represented the information as reaction to the current events from a real person. The majority of the stories in question were produced by others, such as The Associated Press, but appeared on the websites of Colorado media outlets, including The Gazette in Colorado Springs.

Three USA Today stories published by the Fort Collins Coloradoan included the counterfeit tweets in the body of text, including one about a Denver-based Secret Service agent who questioned whether she would take a bullet for Trump and another headlined, “The Internet thinks Hillary Clinton has a body double.”

More recently, KDVR Fox News 31 in Denver published a story in February 2017 about reaction to photos of Kellyanne Conway, a Trump adviser, kneeling on an Oval Office couch. The Russia-linked account @Jenn_Abrams was featured twice in the story defending the Trump administration.

This news in Colorado comes days after special prosecutor Robert Mueller dropped a 37-page indictment that accuses Russians of “information warfare” in part by using “fictitious U.S. personas on social media platforms and other internet-based media” during the presidential election.  News outlets can take a lesson from this and apply more scrutiny to the tweets they embedd in stories. I know I will. As Frank himself said in a tweet, “Twitter ≠ replacement for real reporting, nor an accurate picture of the entire political conversation.”

Why a Wyoming newspaper is trying to unionize under the Denver Newspaper Guild

This week, for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project I reported on a union drive at a newspaper in Wyoming, which, if successful, could mean the first unionized paper in the Cowboy State. One of the reasons why journalists at The Casper Star-Tribune say they want to unionize is so they can better explain— if they feel they have to— what’s happening at their parent company, Lee Enterprises, which owns about 50 newspapers and websites in the West and Midwest. Unionizing, the journalists say, will allow them “to speak directly to our readers so that any business decisions by Lee Enterprises that hurt Wyoming will not go unnoticed.”

In Montana, where Lee is the largest newspaper chain, the company has faced criticism for not reporting on layoffs and buyouts and letting communities know how newsroom shrinkage might affect them. Letting go of longtime staffers who readers have known for years without an acknowledgment, one Montana journalist told me, is “a great example of how to kill trust of a newspaper in a community.”

From the story:

The paper’s fledgling union is affiliated with the Denver Newspaper Guild, which is under the umbrella of the Communications Workers of America. In Denver, guild members at the Digital First Media-owned Denver Post have held rallies outside their own building to protest newsroom cuts. They often organize around the hashtag #NewsMatters, and operate DFM Workers, a website that offers updates on the latest company layoffs and buyouts and scrutinizes the practices of Alden Global Capital, the New York City hedge fund that controls DFM.

National newspaper analyst Ken Doctor pointed to a larger issue the story raises: Transparency with readers about coverage losses. Some owners, he said, blame journalists for driving a downturn in the news business by reporting bad newspaper news. “In fact, such transparency is hallmark of why press is the press,” he wrote. I would add that it’s not just owners. I’ve encountered a newspaper editor here in Colorado who makes a similar argument.

Springs alt-weekly to VDARE: Go home, you’re bunk

Readers of The Colorado Springs Independent, the alternative weekly print publication in Colorado Springs, saw a note from the publisher in the paper this week responding to the group VDARE. The group, which “has espoused a white nationalist viewpoint,” according to The Associated Press, scheduled an August conference in the Springs, but the Cheyenne Mountain Resort canceled it. The move was one of the reasons Tom Tancredo said he decided to run for governor before he dropped out.

Apparently, over the past several months “the VDARE Foundation and their lawyers have repeatedly demanded” that the alt-weekly publish a retraction related to the paper’s coverage of the group and its canceled conference. “They objected to our characterization of their group as an advocate of ‘white supremacy,'” the paper’s publisher, Carrie Simison, wrote. In this week’s edition of the paper, a note from Simison and the paper’s owner, John Weiss, reads, “After a thorough review, we stand by our reporting, and believe you have no grounds to seek a retraction.”

More from the note:

And while your analysis and accusations, to use a technical term, are bunk, we believe that you have the right to your boneheaded opinions.

We also know that our 200,000 print and digital readers are intelligent enough to see through your legal bluster. Accordingly, since the reporting you objected to was featured on our website, we will reprint your client’s response unedited on our website, directly below our original reporting.

In a separate note, Simison wrote, “While the Indy stands by our ‘white supremacy’ description of the VDARE organization, we are publishing major portions of the letter VDARE’s attorney wanted us to publish so that our readers can make their own informed decision.”

The Loveland Reporter-Herald joined a ProPublica project to document hate crimes

Hate-based crimes are seldom reported, according to the newspaper of record in Loveland, Colorado. So, in an effort “to make incident reporting easier and to tell the stories of those who have experienced hate, bias or discrimination in any form, The Loveland Reporter-Herald has joined a coalition of newsrooms participating in ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project,” the paper reports.

More from The Reporter-Herald:

Documenting Hate is a nationwide effort to collect reliable data on hate crimes and bias incidents. Project participants solicit and verify incident reports to contribute to a national database for use by journalists, researchers and civil rights organizations as they report on the nature and prevalence of hate incidents. Participants also report on incidents and data trends originating from their own communities that they cover. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom based in New York. Other project partners include The Google News Lab, PBS Newshour and The Denver Post, as well as about 70 other U.S. newsrooms, civil rights groups and universities.

A “crucial element of this effort is an incident reporting form designed by ProPublica that is now hosted on The Reporter-Herald’s website,” the paper says. “If you have experienced an act of hate or bias, report your experience at www.reporterherald.com/hate-crimes.”

Cynthia Coffman made newspaper ownership an issue in campaign coverage

During a talk-radio program last week, Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who is running for governor, took issue with a reporter’s characterization of her campaign— and blamed his commentary on the man who owns the newspaper for which he writes.

Here’s the exchange, per Jason Salzman who tracks conservative talk radio in Colorado on his BigMedia blog:

KNUS 710-AM HOST CRAIG SILVERMAN: [at 12 minutes] I don’t know if your ears were burning last night, but on “Colorado Inside Out”, Joey Bunch — veteran political reporter — said, “What’s up with Cynthia Coffman? She doesn’t really have a campaign.” I know you have a website now. But, do you have a full- blown campaign? Do you have a campaign manager? Are you ready to really participate in this race?

COFFMAN: You know, I’m going to say, “Baloney!” to Joey. Joey Bunch works for the Colorado Springs Gazette, owned by Phil Anschutz, who has already put out an editorial saying everyone in the Republican primary field should just clear the way for [Colorado Treasurer] Walker Stapleton, because that’s who [Anschutz] supports. So, I think you need to consider the source. Yes, I have a campaign. As I told you, I won Attorney General statewide by a higher percentage than anyone else. I know how to run a statewide campaign and I think people need to stop worrying about the girl in the race.

Coffman is talking about an editorial in The Gazette, which urged all the Republicans but Stapleton to drop out. Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz owns The Gazette and ColoradoPolitics, where Bunch works, and Anschutz has donated money to Stapleton’s campaign. (Bunch disclosed this in his coverage of Stapleton.)

Here’s what Bunch had to say about the Coffman swipe, per Salzman:

“I’ve reported what’s she said, her financial report and what appears to be a lack of an organized campaign or clear message on transportation and where she stands on abortion, something that matters deeply to the Republican base. Her first quarter in the race she spent about $14,000 and raised a little less than $100,000. I haven’t heard from any press person she’s employed, and it’s not clear who her campaign manager is.”

“I’ve said worse about her. I’m flattered she cared enough to mention me by name. I can live without positive attention. Maybe I’m wrong, Maybe she actually does have a campaign. Man, what a world, a conservative criticizing me because I work for Anschutz. I thought the liberals were supposed to do that. But in this race Cynthia doesn’t know who she is, and that’s a big part of her problem: no money, no message, no base. Is she Cynthia who shouted “Go Trump” on Election Night, or is she Cynthia who told the NYT people lament not electing a woman president the same night?”​

Oof. I can’t say I’m surprised a candidate raised ownership issues in this race. That’s going to happen when you have media owners who get involved in politics. And it’s an easier deflection that responding to the substance of the critique. Bunch, it should be noted, is on record saying he would quit ColoradoPolitics if he ever felt journalistic pressure from above. It’s probably not the last time we’ll see Anschutz, a publicity-shy GOP donor who has bankrolled Christian conservative causes, become an issue in one of the most important races in Colorado.

Speaking of The Gazette, it’s launching a new series on legal pot

The series, as Gazette editor Vince Bzdek wrote in a front-page column on Sunday, will explore “what the unintended consequences and unexpected complications have been of this national experiment.”

That might make some readers wince if they recall a 2014 “perspective series” the paper ran called “Clearing the Haze,” which looked like an investigative news effort but was produced by members of the paper’s editorial board and a contract writer from Denver who was an anti-legalization activist. (I wrote about the SNAFU at the time for CJR. For his part, Bzdek, who came on board as editor two years ago, has said, “I told them I would have never run that series.”)

This is the second series by the paper since the ill-fated “Clearing the Haze.” In April, the paper produced a five-part product called “State of Marijuana,” written in part by then-reporter Peter Marcus, who now works in the cannabis industry as a spokesman. Here was the frame of that series, which the local alt-weekly called “actually journalism“:

Colorado voters enshrined recreational cannabis in the state constitution in 2012, with the first stores opening in 2014. Together with legal medicinal marijuana, sales burgeoned to $1.3 billion in 2016. That economic clout has led to new influence in the state Legislature, enriched struggling towns, and has helped blaze a path other states have followed. But law enforcement insists that the legal market has sheltered the black market, in which criminals grow cannabis here to sell out of state. The Trump administration has hinted at a possible crackdown. All of this and more in the Gazette’s examination of the state of marijuana.

The latest series will be written by Gazette reporters Kaitlin Durbin and Tom Roeder along with data journalist Burt Hubbard, who teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and investigative reporter David Olinger. “Other Gazette reporters will join the reporting as we go,” Bzdek wrote. The first installment, written by Olinger and headlined “Black market marijuana busts nearly quadruple under recreational legalization,” dropped Sunday. Westword is skeptical.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages

The Pueblo Chieftain reported how candidates for governor aren’t budging on their gun-law stances following the latest mass shooting in a school. The Longmont Times-Call covered a state law aimed at curbing the criminalization of homelessnessThe Greeley Tribune ran a front-page takeout on adapting after adoptingThe Loveland Reporter-Herald had the story of how a beloved local coffee house is staying in businessThe Steamboat Pilot carried a report by a staffer from the demilitarized zone on the North-South Korean borderThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel covered a study showing healthcare prices are high in ColoradoVail Daily profiled the all-volunteer community radio station Radio Free MinternThe Boulder Daily Camera localized a national narrative about conservative ire at higher educationSummit Daily reported on what’s left behind as the reality TV show ‘Gold Rush’ leaves South ParkThe Denver Post dug into what went wrong with Colorado’s largest drug-treatment provider, which shut downThe Gazette in Colorado Springs published a front-page column by its editor notifying readers of a new series the paper is launching that will explore “what the unintended consequences and unexpected complications have been” from legalizing marijuana. The Durango Herald fronted a piece about big proposed budget cuts to Fort Lewis College and how tenured faculty are protected. The Coloradoan in Fort Collins checked in on how a family is coping after a high-profile police chase.

CU regent: J-school moved my daughter to the left

This week, The Boulder Daily Camera localized a national story about the “plummeting support of higher education among conservatives” and how the University of Colorado at Boulder is reacting to it. This line, from Republican regent Sue Sharkey, jumped out at me:

“I feel it’s my responsibility as a regent and a conservative to make changes where I can and also be able to say here’s where the realities exist and here’s where the perceptions exist,” Sharkey said. Sharkey’s daughter studied journalism, “a more liberal program.” “It did move her to the left,” Sharkey said.

“But,” the regent went on, “she was also very strong in her opinions, and she didn’t mind speaking out and speaking up, and my former self would have been afraid how that would impact her relationship with professors and fellow students, but myself today would say it’s OK.”

The Denver Post exposed politicians’ ‘political expediency’ for pension problems  

Colorado’s state pension fund has just under 60 percent of the money it owes, a shortfall in funding that has widened to between $30 billion and $50 billion depending on who is doing the math. (Because what’s $20 billion between friends?) Now the entity known as PERA is “barreling toward its second funding crisis in a decade,” according to The Denver Post. Why? Because, the paper’s reporter Brian Eason, reports, warnings were ignored.

From the story:

A Denver Post review of thousands of pages of financial reports and hours of public meeting recordings found that state lawmakers and the pension board alike ignored numerous red flags after the landmark pension reform was passed in 2010, opting time and again for political expediency at the expense of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association’s long-term financial health.

Unlike in 2010, “when PERA’s looming insolvency was triggered in part by a global financial crisis,” Eason reports, “the latest fiscal crunch was arguably self-inflicted, brought on by wishful thinking and a consistent pattern of putting hard choices off to the future.” The story, which carries subheads like “House of Cards” and “A Partisan Divide,” is “the work your subscription pays for,” Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo wrote on Twitter.

Colorado’s Highest Court to state judge: Justify keeping those records secret

The Colorado Independent nonprofit newsroom won a partial victory in its effort to gain access to court files that show why a judge said prosecutors in a death penalty case didn’t always conduct themselves properly.The quick background: A judge in the case against Sir Mario Owens found instances where “prosecutors withheld some evidence that could have been favorable to Owens’ side.” But documents in the case are under seal. The Colorado Independent thinks the public should know what led a judge to rule prosecutors improperly withheld evidence in the case. The prosecutors, led by 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, who is running for attorney general as a Republican, don’t think the public should know. And, apparently, neither does retired Senior District Court Judge Christopher Munch who “gave no legal reasoning for his decision to keep sealing those documents.” So, The Colorado Independent filed an emergency petition to the State Supreme Court to lift the seal or compel a judge to do so.

The latest on this case from The Colorado Independent:

The Independent filed an emergency petition asking Colorado’s Supreme Court to require Judge Munch to give a legal justification for keeping the documents secret, or to lift the seal all together. [First Amendment attorney Steve] Zansberg and colleague Gregory Szewczyk argued that journalists – and all Coloradans’ – have the First Amendment right to inspect court records, and that under state law judges have to make sound legal justifications if denying that right.

The full court ruled in The Independent’s favor … ordering Judge Munch to show legal cause for his decision by March 12. The Independent will have 30 days to legally respond.

According to Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition director Jeff Roberts, the High Court’s order isn’t a final decision in the public records battle, but “is good news for Coloradans who care about accountability in their state’s judicial system.” We’ll keep you posted on how this plays out.

*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.

Photo by neiljs for Creative Commons on Flickr

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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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