In the Matter of The Rocky, Douglas Bruce and Anonymous Sources
No criminal charges. No witnesses. A classic “he said, she said.” Leadership would not corroborate. What is the difference between The Rocky Mountain News’ approach to stories involving anonymous sexual harassment charges against Rep. Michael Garcia and Rep. Douglas Bruce? The answer: less than three months.At its Web site on Tuesday afternoon The Rocky published a story with exceedingly sketchy information involving the latest kerfuffle involving Bruce, the Republican from Colorado Springs who has caused numerous headaches since he was appointed to a vacancy in the House in December.
According to various versions of The Rocky’s report, Bruce has been either “ordered” or “instructed” to stay away from an unnamed woman working at the state Capitol who lodged a harassment complaint against him. (The harassment complaint was later identified as “sexual” in nature).
The story, by reporter Lynn Bartels, originally noted that Bruce “was handed a letter by House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Bruce’s face turned red when he read the letter, and then met briefly with Romanoff in his office.”
The red-faced reference has since been inexplicably removed from the newspaper’s Web site. In addition, there is no indication of what Bruce might have, or have not, done. No corroborating witnesses. No comment from Bruce, or from the legislative leadership. No word of criminal charges. Just that “other lawmakers confirmed that a complaint had been filed and that Bruce had been told to have no contact with the woman.” (Those lawmakers were not identified.)
The story is salacious enough — after all, everyone else is talking about it, and the great pile-on of the boorish Bruce is all the rage these days.
But it wasn’t even three months ago when Bartels’ boss, Rocky Publisher and Editor John Temple indignantly weighed in on how his publication would never, ever stoop to such lowbrow tactics. Specifically, he was referring to another lawmaker, former Rep. Michael Garcia — in a scenario that virtually mirrors the goods, if you will, that they’ve so far got against Bruce.
In Garcia’s case: Anonymous charges of sexual harassment. No criminal charges. No corroborating witnesses, no confirmation or comment from leadership.
The Rocky did not initially run the Garcia piece — which was also being pursued by Bartels. Ultimately Garcia, an Aurora Democrat accused of exposing himself to a female lobbyist, resigned (and the Rocky finally did report the news).
Temple subsequently weighed in, in a Feb. 2 column offering up what he called a “Cautionary tale for the Web era” and explaining why they simply would not stoop to gutter reporting tactics, er, “lower standards” — in other words why they got scooped by The Denver Post and the blog FacetheState.
This is from Temple’s Feb. 2 column, explaining the paper’s decision not to publish in the case of Garcia:
“I knew the woman had told her story to the speaker of the House,” Temple wrote. “She had done the right thing, gone to a person in authority who could do something about her concerns.
“But she hadn’t filed a criminal complaint. There were no witnesses. Other women were said to have had similar experiences. But we couldn’t find them. And a prosecutor hadn’t evaluated the case and determined that there was cause to file charges, so no independent party had concluded there were grounds to believe she was a sex assault victim. (The Rocky doesn’t report the names of sex assault victims in criminal cases.)
“The story was a case of ‘he said, she said,’ I told Lynn. Without witnesses or other women or a prosecutor or confirmation from the House speaker, we would do nothing with the story except continue to investigate it — unless the woman was willing to put her name to the allegations.
“Our policy on anonymous sources is clear:
“The Rocky Mountain News discourages the use of anonymous sources. Their use threatens the credibility of the newspaper because the reader has no way to judge whether the source is reliable and/or whether the source is using the newspaper for his or her own end.
“When considering whether to grant an exception to our rejection of anonymity, journalists should ask whether the information from the source is crucial to the story, whether it is informational or accusatory and whether it is fact or opinion.
“The News does not use anonymous sources for opinion or accusatory material, or for incidental elements.
“It was clear that we were dealing with accusatory material and couldn’t publish it.
One can only conclude, after reading The Rocky story about Bruce this week, that the newspaper’s policy on anonymously sourced stories has changed radically. We’ll look forward to Temple’s upcoming explanation of the change in the guidelines.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what will come of the latest complaint against the embattled Rep. Bruce — a legendary bachelor who — yes it’s true — has long been known to routinely lob inappropriate and offensive comments at women and men, government officials, staffers and even his own supporters.
Among other things, he’s called fellow politicians “corrupt socialists,” threatened to drop his pants in city council meetings and printed up business cards identifying his occupation as “terrorist.”
Cara DeGette is the editor of Colorado Confidential and a longtime Colorado-based journalist. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org