A pro-Trump newspaper is targeting Coloradans through the mail. Have you gotten one?

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

A snowy mailbox. Image by Kate Ter Haar for Creative Commons on Flickr.

Have you seen a copy of a curious printed newspaper called The Epoch Times in a newspaper rack or in your mailbox? You’re not alone if you live in Colorado.

The Trump-backing New York nonprofit “with ties to a cult-like Chinese spiritual group called Falun Gong, whose leader has claimed he can levitate and perform healing miracles,” is popping up around this battleground state in the lead-up to a presidential election where control of the U.S. Senate is on the line, according to The Steamboat Pilot.

A few weeks ago, a Westword journalist found copies of what he called the “far-right conspiracist newspaper” in Denver Post newspaper racks at the Colorado Capitol. A woman in Denver said she found them in racks at 7-Eleven. Now, residents in Routt County are finding unsolicited copies in their mailbox. From The Pilot under a front-page headline “The real ‘fake news'”:

At first glance, the newspaper appears legitimate. Its professional-grade design and high-quality photographs give it the look and feel of mainstream publications like The New York Times or The Washington Post. But a closer look into the articles and The Epoch Times itself reveals troubling misinformation and an obvious political bias. …

Its website peddles fear-mongering conspiracies such as anti-vaccination theories and secret plots to take down the Trump Administration. An entire Facebook page associated with the newspaper is dedicated to Trump-friendly coverage of his presidency. …

Multiple Routt County residents said they have received an unsolicited copy of The Epoch Times in the last week. It is not clear if the newspaper is sending them to a specific audience. The Epoch Times executives, including its publisher and editor-and-chief, did not respond to requests for comment. …

All of the articles in the Oct. 17 edition that Routt County residents received frame issues in a way that are sympathetic or friendly to the Trump Administration. One article, titled “Farmers Welcome China Deal Expected to Boost US Farm Exports by Tens of Billions,” cherry-picks information on the trade war with China without acknowledging how it has hurt almost every other industry in the U.S., from manufacturers to Steamboat outdoor companies.

In August, NBC produced an in-depth report on The Epoch Times, which has been around for 20 years, and found it “now wields one of the biggest social media followings of any news outlet” with its pro-Trump platform. NBC interviewed multiple former writers for the organization and ex-practitioners of Falun Gong. “It’s like we were supposed to be fighting so-called liberal propaganda by making our own,” former writer Steve Klett, who covered the Trump campaign for The Epoch Times, told NBC, likening the operation to a Russian troll farm. He “said his articles were edited to remove outside criticism of Trump.”

Some readers in Steamboat appreciated getting the Epoch Times, and didn’t appreciate The Steamboat Pilot’s reporting on it.

“Congratulations are in order though; you did an epic job of unwittingly promoting The Epoch Times. I’m presently not a subscriber, but thanks to you I will be soon,” wrote one resident in a letter to the editor. Another said it’s the Pilot that’s the real fake news and defended Falun Gong as a movement not a cult. “I hope your lame attempt at manipulating us readers backfires enormously,” the letter writer wrote.

A follower of Falun Gong told me a small group of practitioners at the Epoch Times doesn’t speak for the millions of followers of what he called a peaceful spiritual group, and likening the movement to a cult originates with the Chinese Communist Party, which cracked down on adherents. (“Would it be fair to call Christians cult-like because they believe Jesus rose from the dead?” he asked.)

Coloradans in Avon, Broomfield, Fraser, and Colorado Springs have also said they found copies of the paper in their mailboxes in recent weeks. The direct push of this nonprofit’s printed product into Colorado is interesting, and I’m wondering how targeted it is. Have you seen copies of this Epoch Times material where you live? Ask around about it, and let me know what you hear.

Colorado Springs Business Journal vs. The Gazette in development coverage

For months, The Gazette has been digging into home-owner issues at a new residential development in Colorado Springs. One headline from the series: “Gold Hill Mesa residents fear retribution from community after reporting problems.” (The paper rounded up reader reaction to the coverage.) Here’s how it promotes its investigation:

Reports of sinking, heaving and flooding are scattered throughout the development of about 200 acres south of U.S. 24 and east of 21st Street, according to accounts from some residents, public documents, claims made in three lawsuits by residents, and inspection reports.

But Gold Hill Neighborhood LLC isn’t just pushing back, it sent out a news release saying it hired a Denver law firm (the same one that represents the Broncos) “to investigate potential claims against the Gazette” arising from reporting it argues “places Gold Hill Mesa in a false light.” Since the news of this lawyering up, the Gazette published two more stories, so the move didn’t exactly stop the presses.

Earlier this month, The Colorado Springs Business Journal took a different angle. It published a story noting in the lead how developers were “exploring legal action” against the Gazette, and focused its reporting on comments from the developer, an irked real estate agent, and a resident who complained the daily newspaper’s coverage “unfairly stigmatized” the neighborhood. The journal did not publish interviews with sources who had complaints about the development. It cited a developer rep saying the company was assessing its legal options against the Gazette.

“We certainly believe our reporting reflects solid ‘due diligence’ in covering a story of significant impact on existing and future homeowners at Gold Hill Mesa, as well as their neighbors,” Gazette editor Vince Bzdek told the CSBJ, in part, and he ran down the list of official sources relied on for the coverage. Watch this space if a lawsuit ever materializes.

A bilingual newspaper and magazine sale in Denver

The bilingual newspaper El Comercio de Colorado and CASA Magazine, which have been around for about a dozen years apiece and were published by Image Impressions, have been sold to a new Denver media company called Colorado Hispanic Multimedia Platform, according to a news release. Jesús Sánchez-Meleán, who has directed the two outlets for more than five years, owns the company along with a group of local investors.

From the release:

The sale, which became effective in the fourth quarter of 2019, will allow Image Impressions to redirect efforts for an expansion in their event division with the addition of new events and venues for the year 2020. Manuel Tejada, founder and president of Image Impressions said, “I am satisfied with the work we have done in reaching out to the Latino community for the past 17 years with our publications. We rose the bar in the quality and reach of the Hispanic printed and online bilingual media in the State of Colorado,” said Tejada. And he added, “I am excited about the opportunities that our expansion into the event industry will bring.”

“We will continue to be community leaders and advocates for the growth and inclusion of Latinos in all areas of society in our diverse state,” Tejada added.

Colorado’s attorney general probes satellite and cable companies

Imagine someone taking a TV antenna, straightening it out, and using it to perform some sort of proctological examination. That’s essentially what Phil Weiser, the state’s Democratic attorney general, has been doing to DirecTV and Comcast. The former DOJ telecommunications lawyer has been probing. Rooting around. Investigating whether these cable and satellite companies overcharged their subscribers at a time when certain Denver sportsball games weren’t being aired on TV because of a contract fight.

From Denver’s KUSA, which broke the news on Oct. 31:

“The Colorado Office of the Attorney General has received complaints regarding feeds that [DirecTV and Comcast Xfinity] imposes on its subscribers in addition to the monthly base price for a cable television service and internet package,” the letters said, noting each company charges a regional sports network fee while customers don’t have access to Altitude Sports. Altitude, the regional network that airs Nuggets and Avalanche games, is currently blacked out because of a contract dispute with the providers. The letters said DirecTV and Comcast may have engaged in “a deceptive trade practice” and warned of penalties up to $20,000 per violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act. The letters also suggested a wider investigation, saying the attorney general’s office “has opened an investigation of other fees and charges that providers impose on subscribers of television and internet services that have the potential to confuse and mislead consumers.”

This isn’t the first time Weiser has waded into telecommunications issues as AG. You might recall his (perhaps successful?) personal entreaty to the FCC on behalf of southwest Colorado over our state’s “orphan county” issue. He was trying to make sure some Colorado residents have the ability to get Colorado TV news over satellite in areas where they can’t because of the way media markets and the FCC intersect.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Denver Post found Colorado’s top eight public oil and gas companies are “leveraged to the tune of $33.6 billion” and “have spent $27 billion more than they have made the past five years.” The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel introduced readers to local police dogsThe Steamboat Pilot ran its Epoch Times piece on the front page. The Loveland Reporter-Herald reported how Larimer County is implementing a new screening tool for its county corrections boardThe Longmont Times-Call covered Boulder County’s invasive grassesThe Gazette spotlighted its series of stories from surviving World War II veteransThe Summit Daily News reported on a not-so-snowy NovemberThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins reported where the first $1 million in new mental health support is going. In “A long way from home,” The Durango Herald profiled a local homeless camp on a hillside a mile from food and waterThe Boulder Daily Camera fronted a Denver Post piece about how the relationship between CU and its fraternities is “nonexistent” 15 years after the hazing death of a pledge.

Editor: So far, fears unfounded in ‘Rangely America’

A week has passed since the tiny rural Rio Blanco Herald Times newspaper dropped a bombshell on its readers with a five-page investigation into a small-town police shooting in partnership with The Colorado Independent. It was a ProPublica-style nonprofit-and-local-news collaboration, and the northwest Colorado community is still feeling reverberations from a story town leaders weren’t too keen on the local paper reporting.

“A little apprehensive would be putting it mildly,” says Niki Turner, the paper’s editor, about the days leading up to when the months-long piece she worked on with Indy editor Susan Greene started rolling off the presses. “Susan pretty much had to talk me off the ledge every few hours for that last few days.”

Turner, who has been around the paper in some capacity for nearly two decades, says she’s watched a fair number of editors “pretty much run off” because they published a story that wasn’t considered “comfortable” to the powers that be. What would happen, she told me, is people would cancel subscriptions and advertisers would pull out. “There’s some ugly mail.” In small communities, people are über-connected and interwoven. Angering the wrong set of folks can cause certain fingers to plunge into certain pies.

One editor who predated Turner, she says, published an unfavorable story about a wrestling coach and wound up getting death threats. “We have not had any of that. … Overwhelmingly the response from everybody has been really positive.”

The story the Herald Times dug into, titled “Through the cracks,” examines the saga of a mentally-ill man named Daniel Pierce who moved to Rangely last year and was shot in the head by a police officer after a car chase. It’s a story as much about mental health in rural America as it is about the conduct of local law enforcement and small-town politicians posturing against the press.

Here’s an excerpt from the story citing Rangely Mayor Andy Shaffer and other town leaders:

Publishing this article, they said, would re-traumatize the officers involved, “dredge things up” and “stir up a can of worms for this community.” “It’s going to rekindle this whole thing that has went on… It’s not a favorable position for anybody,” Shaffer warned the newspaper. “From me to you in small town America, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s where it’s going and it’s not going to be nice for anybody.”

But Turner published it, turning to Greene and The Independent for investigative expertise and guidance while other small-town outlets might have left something like this alone. So far, Turner says, no can, no worms. Trolls remained under bridges. She went to the Rangely council meeting this week and said town leaders told her they appreciated the reporting, including the mayor. The paper picked up a half-dozen new subscribers, Turner says, which is a lot for the Herald Times in a week. The fears she had those days before publishing, were, so far, like most fears, unfounded. She has, however, heard chatter about some Rangely residents anxious the news could negatively affect tourism, and she says if she hears that directly she’ll have an answer: If someone is more concerned about the reputation of their community than the mental health of their community something there might be skewed.

Turner hopes the idea of smaller papers like hers looking to larger outlets for help with some extra journalism juice on impactful community reporting might be replicated elsewhere. “I think it needs to happen,” she says.

Hickenlooper to journalist: ‘you guys should be protecting me on stuff like this’

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper might have a relatively easy ride to the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Trump ally Cory Gardner in 2020, but he still might consider a seasonal vaccine for that pesky ol’ foot-in-mouth disease.

This week, journalists were writing about the release of an ethics report in a complaint against him, “which drew no conclusions,” and how the state’s Independent Ethics Commission will, according to The Denver Post, hold a hearing “into Hickenlooper’s travel and whether that travel violated the Colorado Constitution.”

Asked about the issue on 9News this week, Hickenlooper, who once said he had a suspicion he “could have been a good journalist,” told a reporter, “You guys should be protecting me on stuff like this.”

Regardless of what he meant, the comment did not land well and wound up the headline from the interview.

Robot reporter beat redux?

Last week we learned robots are helping write the high school sports news in Denver, even if they sometimes neglect important context — like the score of a game. (Westword followed up with a piece about this practice at The Denver Post here.) Now, a reporter is questioning whether robots are ripping off the work of Colorado reporters and really garbling it.

Let me introduce you to a bizarre site called TechBallad. Billed as a “gaming news” site, the first tipoff that this is not exactly a legit news source is its pitiful About Us page. Whatever this site is, it seems like it’s repurposing stories published in credible local news outlets in Colorado — and not always coherently. “When robots try to steal your story using a thesaurus to avoid detection, things go not well,” wrote Boulder Daily Camera reporter Mitchell Byars about one of the site’s attempts to rewrite a Denver Post story. Here’s an example of a different one.

From The Denver Post:

Illegal Pete’s to once again call Colorado home after Delaware court battle

Colorado burrito giant Illegal Pete’s will stay based in its home state, even after winning a legal battle with the state of Delaware, where it had planned to relocate.

Now, from TechBallad:

Unlawful Pete’s to when once again simply call Colorado house just after Delaware court docket struggle

Colorado burrito big Illegal Pete’s will stay based in its household condition, even following winning a lawful battle with the state of Delaware, where by it had prepared to relocate.

You might laugh, but the site rips off The Denver Post’s photo, too, without credit. What’s the point of this site? I have no idea, but I suppose someone somewhere believes there’s a way to make money from it. The Colorado Sun’s Eric Lubbers pointed out that the physical address listed for the website is “literally a public restroom at the San Antonio Riverwalk.”

Denver Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo says the paper is sending out cease and desist letters.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for more confusing ‘local news’ sites

The Lansing State Journal in Michigan had an eye-opening report out last month about dozens of “websites branded as local news outlets” launching throughout that state this fall “with monikers like Lansing Sun, Ann Arbor Times, Thumb Reporter and UP Gazette, promising local news but also offering political messaging.”

From Carol Thompson in The State Journal:

The nearly 40 new sites present a challenge for readers navigating a digital media environment that has unlimited space for publishing stories that are hard to distinguish as journalism, advocacy or political messaging. A Lansing Sun story describing Michigan’s well-padded road repair fund first caught the attention of Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. The angle seemed odd, considering the role Michigan’s crumbling infrastructureplayed in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign and the fall’s budget negotiations.

He was scrolling through his Facebook feed and saw the story promoted. Not recognizing the outlet, he clicked through to discover the vast network of related outlets “made to sound like local newspapers.”

Writing in The New York Times, Brendan Nyhan broadened the Michigan story out. From his piece:

Voters could easily become confused about the origins of information from these seemingly innocuous local-sounding outlets. In 2016, for example, websites in the Illinois network interviewed Republican candidates favored by a conservative state political committee, which then paid to mail print newspaper versions of the sites to voters without identifying them as political advertising.

A similar pattern cropped up in Tennessee, where a website called the Tennessee Star began publishing political news in 2017 without disclosing its funders or staff. … As the tactic has become more common, political leaders have also created or promoted seemingly independent local websites. For instance, a website called the California Republican, which appeared in 2018, describes itself on Facebook as providing “the best of U.S., California and Central Valley news, sports and analysis.” But it was paid for by the campaign committee of Devin Nunes, a Republican congressman from California …

The upshot to the NYT piece is that “all of these outside groups seem to be trying to capitalize on people’s trust in local news.”

So be careful out there. Make sure you’re maintaining your media literacy and be sure those around you are, too.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Routt County. 

*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. Image by Kate Ter Haar for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Your reference to this pro-Trump publication as a “newspaper” is highly inappropriate. Better to call it a publication or propaganda piece.

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