Colorado newspaper publisher: No lawsuit against senator for ‘fake news’ claim after all

Well, that escalated quickly— and then fizzled out.

It turns out Grand Junction Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton, who made national news two months ago with a threat to sue a local lawmaker for calling his newspaper “fake news,” announced he will not file suit. I covered the threat in February for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, writing how Seaton’s “intention” was to slap Republican Sen. Ray Scott with a defamation suit for his social media postings that called Seaton’s paper fake news. “This industry has taken it and taken it and taken it over the last several years,” Seaton told me. “And now we get diminished as fake news, going to the core of what we do. And we don’t push back. Well, I’ve had it. I’m not going to take it anymore.”

The news blew up nationally. A newspaper suing a politician for defamation? A truly man-bites-dog story. And here was a small regional newspaper that would try to get a legal determination about the term “fake news.” So all eyes were on Seaton. In March, he even went on 9News and said he was still considering the lawsuit.

But the crusading publisher has backed down, explaining to readers why in a column. His reasoning is three-pronged. One, because the public could pick up the tab of a lawmaker’s legal defense, Seaton doesn’t want to “cost taxpayers a bunch of money.” Two, a lawmaker can use a legal strategy by claiming legislative immunity and maybe tie up the courts for two years with appeals. And three, “there is the defense that words no longer mean what they have always meant.”

From Seaton’s column:

This is the defense that the definition of the term “fake news” has lost its objective meaning and now represents some kind of general pejorative for things we don’t like. It’s a good defense because it would mean that a label of “fake news” applied to a legitimate news organization is actually protected opinion, not defamation.

Fighting “fake news” is a worthy cause, the publisher believes, but he ultimately decided a lawsuit is not the way to do it.

But speaking of real newspaper lawsuits…

The Denver Post filed one this month. But not against a lawmaker. Or anyone close. Colorado’s largest newspaper is suing its former senior vice president of advertising and two other ex-employees, “alleging they tried to steal advertising clients and use the daily newspaper’s trade secrets to form their own, competing digital ad company,” according to The Denver Business Journal.

More on the suit from The Post itself:

The lawsuit, filed in Denver District Court, alleges the employees, before they resigned from The Post, solicited business from at least one of the newspaper’s advertisers. … The defendants had access to confidential information and trade secrets as employees of the newspaper’s advertising division, including customer lists, revenues and profits and proprietary technology, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says the former employees launched an ad agency called Digible “within hours of resigning their employment.” The suit seeks to recoup any money the newspaper paid them “during the period that they breached their duties of loyalty,” and to stop them from further harming the paper in their endeavor. The Denver Post wants a jury to determine how much money the paper should get if its allegations are proven true.

Here are three Colorado serial newspaper projects to bookmark for your weekend #longreads

I read a lot of Colorado local news throughout the week and realized at least three newspapers have been running a series about different issues in recent weeks or months. So I thought I’d round them up all in one place for you to bookmark for when you have time to really dig in.

First is “High Country, High Costs,” a six-part series on health care in Colorado’s mountain communities, which is one of the most expensive places to buy health care in the nation. Former longtime Rocky Mountain News health, science and environment reporter William Scanlon, now retired, produced the series for Colorado Mountain News Media’s papers in Aspen, Vail and Glenwood Springs. “The focus was supposed to be on ‘de-mystifying’ the reasons for the high costs,” Scanlon told me. He started by reviewing the letters to the editor on the subject and found “a lot of passionate people— mostly angry about the high costs in the individual market of Obamacare.” Response to the series was generally positive, he says, “although there is a lot of entrenched thinking on the subject. There was a feeling among every demographic that everyone is getting a better deal than me. … Many of the responses echoed the sentiments of the president— who knew that health care could be so complicated.”

Another series is “Whiteout,” produced by The Summit Daily News, about “the uphill struggle to uncover the human toll of Colorado’s ski industry.” To decode that, let’s look at the series URL: “news/skierdeaths.”

An excerpt from the first installment:

At least 137 people died in accidents at the state’s ski resorts since the 2006-07 season, according to a database compiled by the Summit Daily News. Who they were, where they lived, as well as where they died and what caused it — all of that has been accounted for in each case. That is, with a single exception: the unknown skier, No. 130, a statistic without a name.

Finally, check out “On Unsolid Ground” at The Gazette about why Colorado Springs residents are “losing their homes to landslides despite decades of warnings.” Reporter Billie Stanton Anleu says the series is “the first in-depth, sustained coverage of the issue and led to an overhaul of the city ordinance governing what developers must do to protect against this natural disaster.” The series’ landing page won a top multimedia award from the Colorado Press Association. All the continuing stories get sent here, so, again, bookmark.

On localizing the Bill-O story with a ‘biggest jerk in Denver’ headline

As Bill O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News amid a sexual harassment scandal reverberated across the media landscape, some of the ripples licked back into Colorado where he used to work. “Was Bill O’Reilly the biggest jerk in Denver TV history?” asked the city’s alt-weekly Westword. Reporter Michael Roberts looked at the no-spin-zoner’s time at KMGH-TV, which O’Reilly apparently loved. “But according to a former co-worker in Denver, O’Reilly was widely disliked at the station because of behavior that could be rude, egomaniacal and underhanded, and on multiple occasions, he was pranked by colleagues who left aromatic food to rot in his desk,” Roberts writes. Hard to believe, I know.

So, Colorado police departments are still denying access to their internal affairs reports 

The Greeley Tribune is encountering a “common practice” for police departments across the nation— and across Colorado: their willingness to deny reporters and the public access to reports of internal affairs investigations into officers. The Tribune is seeking information about a detective who left the force after the city settled for $150,000 with a woman who accused him of lying in an arrest affidavit for suspicion of prostitution. The police won’t release the internal affairs investigation because they think it’s not in the public’s interest and will dissuade people from talking in future investigations if they know what they say might become public.

This is, however, “the third time in a month a Colorado police department has declined to release any information about internal affairs investigations, according to an email from Steven Zansberg, the president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition,” reported The Tribune.

Oh yeah, and speaking of transparency: A Colorado First Amendment and whistleblower award

I’ve written before in this newsletter about an effort to bring the Colorado Open Records Act more in line with the digital world we live in— and specifically a current bill moving through the legislature to do that. No one this year was better at showing readers why such a law might be needed than reporter Nick Coltrain of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins, who was awarded a regional Society of Professional Journalists First Amendment award last week for his work.

Meanwhile, Leslie Weise, a clean air advocate, received The Colorado Independent’s annual Whistleblower Award for her court battle and personal struggle for records involving air quality related to a downtown coal-fired power plant in Colorado Springs.

“Leslie’s fight for the power plant data took moxie and guts,” said Indy editor Susan Greene. “As Coloradans, we all benefit from this kind of dogged pursuit of public information. It’s in all of our interests to support whistleblowers in exposing what government is trying to hide from us. Leslie has a long record of blowing the whistle in the public interest. This award is our small way of honoring her efforts.”

What you missed on the front pages of newspapers across Colorado on Sunday

You know what you did on 4/20. And that’s why you can’t remember what was on all the Sunday front pages three days laterThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel produced a cover package about local police body camsThe Longmont Times-Call looked at the human tragedy of a house explosionThe Greeley Tribune reported on what keeps some homeless vets from seeking helpThe Loveland Reporter-Herald profiled a local butterfly sanctuaryThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins found 60 percent of Colorado State University’s lowest paid faculty are womenThe Steamboat Pilot Today & Sunday ran an installment of The Summit Daily News ‘Whiteout’ seriesThe Boulder Daily Camera reported on the county’s long, elusive road to a municipal electric utilityThe Durango Herald covered a plan to bring more outdoor lighting to DurangoVail Daily reported on the end of the local ski seasonThe Denver Post fronted coverage of the march for scienceThe Gazette covered prom night in Colorado Springs.

A focus on local news got a big nod at the reporting-in-the-age-of-alternative-facts conference

In a write-up on last week’s CU-Boulder journalism conferenceColorado University Independent managing editor Jake Mauff reported how the importance of local news played an outsized role. Also writing about the conference, student Emily McPeak​ quoted New York Times metro editor Joe Sexton saying this about Donald Trump: “He calls the Times a failing newspaper but goes to bed at night hoping to wake up to a positive story about him.”

Why The Boulder Daily Camera edited a letter to the editor 

The Camera does not condone or endorse violence or property destruction of any kind.” That’s an editor’s note that appears above an online letter to the editor about “a philosophical question the Camera believes is worthy of community conversation in the context of the ongoing discussion over fracking.” The original letter, according to a cached version, asked, “If the oil and gas industry puts fracking wells in our neighborhoods, threatening our lives and our children’s lives, then don’t we have a moral responsibility to blow up wells and eliminate fracking and workers?” The letter, the Camera reports, “was edited to delete references that may have been construed to expressly advocate violence or property destruction.”

The paper’s editorial page editor, Dave Krieger, wrote a column addressing the situation.

Here’s part of it:

My mistake produced an internal conversation that took much of the day and got pretty profound. I have written before, on behalf of the editorial board, that we consider these opinion pages to be a free-speech zone within the limits of First Amendment law and of decency and good taste. So beyond the propriety of the language in question, one of the issues was whether it was appropriate in a free-speech zone to permit advocacy of a position that law-breaking, and even violence, was justifiable to oppose a perceived moral wrong, in this case, oil drilling in or near residential neighborhoods that oppose it, and all the potential harm to residents and the environment that carries with it.

Oh, “Free speech zones?” Well, that jumped out at me, because…

Colorado abolished free speech zones on college campuses this month

And I was invited to talk about it with Ryan Warner of Colorado Public Radio on his statewide show Colorado Matters. Listen to our conversation here about how so-called “free speech zones” came about, and how a hyper-polarized legislature came together over the First Amendment to abolish them in our purple state.

And the Kicker of the Week goes to…

Forget “Headline of the Day,” the “Kicker of the Week” goes to John Frank of the The Denver Post in a story about how lawmakers failed to come together on a major transportation bill some thought could be the year’s grand bargain. Here’s how he closed out his piece: “In a conversation with reporters, Sen. Lucia Guzman, a Denver pastor, twice dropped the F-bomb in frustration.”

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

Gwyneth Doland wrote how a free press lawsuit against New Mexico’s governor is nearing its end. Tony Rehagen showed how city magazines, dependent on print, are facing an uncertain future amid a wave of deals. Trudy Lierberman, who watchdogs health care coverage, wrote about how town hall crowds want clarity on GOP health plans and whether reporters can provide it. I talked about the fate of Warrenn Buffett’s chain of local newspapers for a podcast, and wrote about the sale of the independent alt-weekly Missoula Independent to Lee Enterprises, Montana’s largest daily newspaper chain, and about whether it can still report critically on its new owner.

*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 Jon S for Creative Commons in Flickr.