In Colorado’s gun-law debate, one sheriff is willing to go to jail while another rants on a reporter

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Photo by Kurt Bauschardt for Creative Commons on Flickr

“We called all 64 Colorado counties for this story,” said CNN national correspondent Scott McLean, who is based in Denver, about his national network piece on an issue beginning to boil over in conservative politics.

At issue is a “red-flag” law Democrats in the legislature are asking the new Democratic governor to sign. CNN’s provocative headline, “This Colorado sheriff is willing to go to jail rather than enforce a proposed gun law,” is about Weld County’s Republican top lawman. CNN’s calls to local officials across the state found “more than half of Colorado’s 64 counties officially oppose the bill. Many have even declared themselves Second Amendment ‘sanctuary’ counties in protest.”

It was only a matter of time until this sparked national interest. The storyline is irresistible: A state bloodied by gun violence that just went full-on politically blue looks to pass a law that could lead to gun confiscation by allowing law enforcement, family, or a member of a household to petition a court to do so, riling conservative resentment while underscoring a rural-urban divide. All in the lead-up to the 20-year anniversary of the Columbine shootings. You have law enforcement officers talking about not obeying laws; one of the bill’s backers is the dad of an Aurora theater shooting victim; Republicans, including the party’s newly elected leader, are using the R-word— recalls — lighting a fuse that stretches back to a political powder keg of 2013. The CNN piece went viral, racking up about 75,000 shares on Facebook, blistering across Twitter feeds, and leading to countless followups. “I’m getting calls from all over the world,” the local sheriff told Westword. “I’ve been asked to do TV interviews from as far away as England.”

No way this story could go by without a local-media-issue angle. Colorado journalists have been all over stories about the red-flag legislation and its potential impact. Rocky Mountain PBS’s “Insight with John Ferrugia” won the broadcast equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize for a special report on the law called Imminent Danger. TV news stations have been reporting plenty on the bill and legal backlash by sheriffs and others, as have print, radio and online outlets. One of those, The Colorado Sun, earned the ire of a sheriff — before the reporter’s story even ran.

What happened? After getting a call from Sun reporter Jesse Paul, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith penned a lengthy public Facebook post. In it he accused the reporter of “just fishing for soundbites on the subject of ‘sanctuary counties,'” and of “trying to paint me into a box,” among other things. The sheriff, who had some particular characterizations of the conversation, wrote how he was “anxious to see how he condenses 40 minutes [of] conversation into a one phrase comment or answer.”

Smith did get quoted in the Sun story. Here was the treatment:

Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, a Republican opponent of the bill, says he thinks it’s appropriate for law enforcement to sometimes push back on a judge’s ruling. But he’s not in favor of a blanket decision to not follow through on an extreme risk protection order or to ban using the tool. Larimer County has not declared itself a sanctuary county and Smith is against the concept. But he’s worried about many parts of the legislation that he feels are open questions: How will the combination of civil court proceedings and criminal search warrants work? What if someone whose guns are ordered seized has a gun safe? What if that person is violent? What if the court makes a mistake? “Here’s the reality,” Smith said, “just because the legislature passes something doesn’t make it infinite wisdom.” He added that “there’s certainly room for the discretion and the application of law and for sheriffs to challenge that.” Smith thinks [State Attorney General Phil] Weiser’s comments that sheriffs who don’t follow a judge’s ERPO order should resign reflects the attorney general jumping into the political arena.

The sheriff’s Facebook post, catnip for certain constituents, drew more than 1,000 interactions, including nearly 200 comments and nearly 400 shares. By contrast, the Sun’s story, posted on its Facebook page, drew about 120 interactions, about 50 comments, and 30 shares. I’ve written in the past about sheriffs in other states — North Carolina and West Virginia— posting items on Facebook about their correspondence with reporters and riling up their followers prior to a story coming out. In both cases the topic was about guns.

Sheriff Smith didn’t respond to an email asking his thoughts about the Sun story once it came out; his assistant said he has a busy schedule. The reporter says he was disappointed in the Facebook post and wishes the sheriff expressed his concerns while he had him on the horn. “I had no idea he was unhappy with how our conversation went,” Paul says. “For what it’s worth, I found the interview really helpful and informative and am very appreciative of his time and help on the story.”

He also said he left a pair of voicemail messages for the sheriff, including one on his cell, right after he saw the post, hoping to talk about his concerns, but he didn’t hear back. “I was most frustrated with his characterization of me falling ‘silent for almost 30 seconds,'” Paul says about a particular line in the Facebook post. “I was trying to balance my cellphone and type on my computer at the same time, which resulted in my accidentally hitting the mute button on my phone. I also was concerned with his characterization that I wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying and that I came to the story trying to paint him into a box. I can assure him neither is true. I’ve written extensively on the red-flag bill policy and was hoping to tackle a political angle associated with the bill — one that since has become a national story — which I might not have made clear enough at the start of our conversation. I hope to follow up with him to hear his concerns and move forward.”

ColoradoPolitics —> Denver

Last month, we learned here how ColoradoPolitics recently lured John C. Ensslin, an old hand from The Rocky Mountain News who had been reporting on the East Coast, back to Denver to cover city politics. And now the publication just hired Neil Westergaard, formerly an editor of The Denver Business Journal and The Denver Post.

ColoradoPolitics is the politics vertical of Clarity Media, which is owned by conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, who also owns The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The Washington Examiner as well as The Broadmoor hotel and a lot of other stuff. The site’s weekly print magazine component replaced The Colorado Statesman when Clarity bought it in 2017. In 2016, for Columbia Journalism Review, I profiled the Gazette’s editor and what he was doing with ColoradoPolitics. The lede back then:

Question: When local newspapers are scaling back and laying off journalists, how does The Gazette in Colorado Springs expand its public affairs reporting statewide with a handful of new hires? Answer: “It helps to have a billionaire own your paper.” That’s how Vince Bzdek, The Gazette’s new editor and former online politics editor of The Washington Post, explains his hiring spree including the poaching of two statehouse reporters from rival papers for a new digital team and website called ColoradoPolitics.com.
Now, Mark Harden, CoPo’s editor, is framing these new hires as a bright spot in the dark times of newspaper retrenchment. “It’s deeply gratifying these days to be working at a news outlet that’s growing, not contracting,” he wrote in a column about the new hires. Jason Salzman has more details on this publication’s newer focus on Denver at his progressive-oriented website, The Colorado Times-Recorder.

The Estes Park Trail-Gazette fronts its mission

Last week I had the pleasure of appearing alongside KUNC’s Erin O’TooleThe Colorado Sun’s Dana Coffield, and Zach Clemens of The Estes Park Trail-Gazette for an engaging panel discussion on journalism at the Estes Valley Library. While in town, I perused a copy of the local paper, which I did not realize is owned by Media News Group, née Digital First Media, née Alden Global Capital, née The Nothing. It’s a small, hyper-local newspaper, and one other thing I learned:

That mission, in case you can’t read it:

Estes Park Trail-Gazette’s mission statement: Is to print the truth, no matter how ugly, surprising or sad. We seek to find the good and praise it, and, intending no harm on the innocent, to shine the bright light of transparency and accountability on the wrongdoing of individuals and organizations that serve this community. By so doing, this paper gives voice to all members of the community, and their respective stories.

Not bad! Here’s something else I learned, though. The New York hedge-fund-controlled newspaper is hiring a reporter. The starting pay? Less than $12 an hour.

How a college newspaper handled April Fools’ Day

In this world nothing is certain but death, taxes, and a college newspaper celebrating April Fools’ Day. The Rocky Mountain Collegian, the independent publication of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, did not disappoint. From an item in its April 1 online edition headlined “JMC offering class in writing fake news, conspiracy theories”:
The Colorado State University Department of Journalism and Media Communications announced it will offer a writing class in Fake News and Conspiracy Theories next fall. Debbie O’Hara, the professor slated to teach the class, says teaching journalistic integrity and objectivity sets students up for failure after graduation. “Telling journalism students that their job is to search for the truth and tell people’s stories is a waste of time,” O’Hara said. “What newspapers and TV stations are looking for are people who will lie to the American public.”

Yuk-yuk-yuk.

The prank story goes on to offer details of a class that teaches “both fake news and conspiracy theory writing, so graduates will be prepared to create confusion and anger on either side of the political spectrum. Topics from how to make politicians look bad to how to fake a tragedy will be covered.” And it quotes the “managing editor of Colorado Liberal Media Times” saying “It’s really about destroying America and democracy overall.”

Sheesh. Lest the paper fall prey to serious charges of promulgating for-real fake news, though, the item came with this editor’s note: “This is a satire piece for April Fools’ Day. Real names may be used in fictitious/semi-fictitious ways. Those who do not like reading editor’s notes are subject to being offended.”

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The theme of the day for a number of newspapers this weekend was schools. Under the headline “Past Bursting” and the image of a swinging wrecking ball, The Greeley Tribune ran a front-page story about voters potentially being asked to approve a nearly half-million-dollar bond to build and renovate local schools. Out on the Western Slope, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel had a big Sunday takeout about a new curriculum for a local school district that’s bringing “elation” from teachers and studentsThe Longmont Times-Call reported on local teens holding a workshop for LGBTQ student rightsThe Steamboat Pilot had a story about a new program where students can drink coffee and share their feelings at schoolThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered an arrest in a local shootingThe Summit Daily News carried a photo of the aftermath of an avalancheThe Gazette reported on a controversy involving conservation easementsThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins profiled a local athlete recovering from a brain injuryThe Boulder Daily Camera covered traffic congestion issues facing the cityVail Daily reported how a local developer is asking the town of Eagle to annex land near a riverThe Durango Herald reported how avalanches buried train tracks in 60 feet of snow and how the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is punching through it. The Denver Post told readers how Colorado, no longer the frontier of legal weed, is now playing catch-up when it comes to cannabis laws.

Study: When newspapers fold, partisanship rises?

An anecdote about one of Colorado’s own newspapers made the lede of a Scientific American piece this week:
Last month, staffers at The Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, experienced the latest low point in the American newspaper business: days after mourning the loss of their editor, Kevin Kaufman, their owner (the hedge-fund-owned Digital First Media) announced another round of painful layoffs. The past few decades have been similarly tragic for American local media: longstanding newspapers, big and small, have closed in unprecedented numbers; Americans are turning away from local news sources and towards online and nationally televised programs to learn about politics; and even local television news is focusing on national partisanship and politics, as Sinclair Broadcasting acquires more affiliates.

“At the same time, American voters and political elites are more polarized than ever,” the piece went on, and later cited its research that found counties with a newspaper closure “split their tickets about 1.9 percent less than the comparison group. This difference is more than enough to swing an election outcome.”

And while the Digital First-owned dead tree newspaper got the lede, a Denver-based cryptocurrency-backed digital startup got the kicker. “Locally-oriented journalists may need to experiment with novel business models, such as the online-only Colorado Sun, in order to survive,” the Scientific American wrote. “There is a serious effort underway to save local news, as shown by the Knight Foundation’s recent $300 million, five-year commitment, and our research shows yet another reason to prioritize these efforts. If people want to fight back against the polarization that has infected our politics, part of the answer may be on their doorstep.”

Did media learn from coverage of Columbine?

Twenty years after journalistic narratives surrounding the school shooting at Columbine collapsed, Denver magazine 5280 asks, “Why hasn’t the news media adopted significant changes in its coverage?” and finds “There is no simple answer.” From the piece by Kasey Cordell:

Journalists talk about … ethics a lot. We have courses devoted to them in undergraduate and graduate programs, along with classes in media law, copy editing, design, investigative reporting, and writing for digital mediums, but few course catalogs have a listing for “How To Cover A Mass Tragedy.” Instead, conversations about how to be sensitive to survivors, families, and when to release information (and how much) about perpetrators are typically left to colleagues and mentors in newsrooms.

Those conversations are evolving. Some well-known journalists, like Anderson Cooper and, locally, Kyle Clark, have publicly supported practices that reduce perpetrator visibility and minimize the use of shooters’ names and photos. Although none of the outlets we spoke with have a formal, written policy regarding how to cover a mass shooting (nor does 5280), they all said they talk about it—a lot. Everyone from Colorado Public Radio to the Denver Post to KDVR Fox31 to the Colorado Sun to the New York Times noted that each shooting is handled individually—and with a great deal of sensitivity. “We live in these communities, too,” Brian Gregory, news director at Fox31 and Colorado’s Own Channel 2, says, so empathy and respect are top of mind when weighing how to cover mass shootings. “You don’t just want to give reporters a handout,” Patty Calhoun, longtime editor of Westword, says. “That’s not going to help. It’s really case by case, but we’ve built up a long, long, long history on how to cover these events that seems appropriate. Our business isn’t just, Here’s what’s happened; we try to say why. And for that, you might have to go deeper.”

So, any advice on that? The article ends with a new reporting model for “how researchers—and many advocacy groups—would like the media to cover mass shooters.”

Weekly HR report: Newsroom personnel file

Last week we learned Editor Amy Maestas is leaving The Durango Herald. This week, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Managing Editor Mike Wiggins announced he’s moving on. Also leaving the paper is reporter Erin McIntyreUPDATE:

Reporter Amy Hamilton, who is also leaving the Sentinel after 13 years, is doing so to become a technical editor for Navarro Research and Engineering. Kate Schimel left High Country News to become topics editor at Colorado Public Radio.

Colorado’s White House hopefuls cause an East Coast columnist disclosure — and potential recusal

This week, a piece in The Washington Post by columnist Dana Milbank headlined “Bernie Sanders has emerged as the Donald Trump of the left,” carried a necessary disclosure at the end: “This columnist’s wife, Anna Greenberg, works for John Hickenlooper, a Democratic presidential candidate.” According to a December Associated Press item, the former Colorado governor hired Greenberg as his pollster.

Now, if Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet also ends up running for president this year, he’ll create an even bigger disclosure issue for the D.C. paper’s Empire State rival, The New York Times. His brother, James Bennet, runs the editorial page of the nation’s flagship newspaper overseeing all its opinion coverage. If Michael Bennet runs, a Times spokeswoman told Vanity Fair that James Bennet “will recuse himself from any work generated by the opinion desk related to the 2020 presidential election. He will not discuss, assign, or edit any editorials, op-eds, columns, or other opinion pieces that are substantially related to candidates or major issues in the campaign.” Ouch. That sounds like a lot of work to miss. Guess we’ll see whether his bro gives him a vacation. (As this newsletter was going to press, Colorado Independent columnist Mike Littwin broke the news that Bennet was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but is intending to run for president if he’s cancer free after surgery.)

How to get a copy of Colorado’s new guidebook to Sunshine Laws

The book is out. You can now order copies of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s latest “Guide to Colorado’s Open Records and Open Meetings Laws” that covers “what you need to know about access to information from state agencies and local governments in our state.” Why is it useful? From the CFOIC site:
Whether you are a journalist or a member of the public, the 30-page guide is intended to help you understand and use Colorado’s open-government laws. Updated, revised and reorganized for 2019, it explains commonly cited statutory provisions and offers tips for getting the records and access to meetings that you’re entitled to under the law. Topics include the Colorado Open Records Act, the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, the Colorado Open Meetings Law and juvenile records.
Place your order here.

*This column 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 Kurt Bauschardt for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

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