Colorado lawmakers sided with police over media about keeping radio chatter secret

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Photo by John Herrick

In a state capitol where Democrats control the House, Senate, and governorship, lawmakers sided with law enforcement agencies on efforts to keep some police communications secret, irking advocates for open government, media, and transparency.

For the third consecutive year, Colorado lawmakers have rejected proposed legislation to address the trend among law enforcement agencies to fully encrypt their radio traffic. A weakened version of House Bill 20-1282 died Wednesday on a 6-5 vote in the House Transportation and Local Government Committee. The bill differed from unsuccessful 2018 and 2019 measures that would have required state and local agencies to broadcast dispatch communications without encryption, except for tactical and investigative channels. The 2020 version instead focused on trying to make sure at least local news organizations could listen to encrypted transmissions.“This is a far bigger issue than media access. This is about real-time public awareness,” testified Jeremy Jojola, an investigative reporter for 9NEWS in Denver.

Jeffrey A. Roberts at the CFOIC reports “more than 30 law enforcement agencies in Colorado” have gone the encryption route, “making it harder for journalists to cover breaking news and quickly let the public know about potentially hazardous incidents.”

More about the hearing:

Law enforcement agencies and local governments were well represented at the committee hearing, with several officials telling legislators their entities encrypted radio transmissions to protect officer safety and victims’ privacy. “Criminals monitor police traffic – there’s no question about that,” said John Jackson, city manager of Greenwood Village and a former police chief. “Victims’ information is highly sensitive and put out. Suspects, witnesses, whatever you hear, simply doesn’t need to go immediately to the public. Does anyone have the right to listen to emergency radio communications as they occur?”

The Boulder Daily Camera recently editorialized about this anti-transparency trend in Colorado, writing, “Encrypted radio traffic makes it difficult or impossible for reporters to learn of significant police activity in a timely manner, and it undermines their fundamental role as government watchdogs. If reporters are in the dark, so are members of the public, whom the police are supposed to serve.”

As Columbia Journalism Review reported last year, a “national study published in 2017 found that police PIOs zealously try to control the narratives about their departments.”

Last year, Denver police wanted to sell un-encrypted scanners to local media outlets for $4,000 that came with an agreement about how they would use them. Local media waved them off. “Denver police were unable to provide a single example of Colorado media’s access to the scanner ever interfering with law enforcement activities or putting an officer at risk,” Denver Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo said at the time. Police activities “filtered through the eyes of the public relations team will never provide the public with an understanding of how police in this city operate when no one is watching,” she added.

Meanwhile, more reporters testify at the Capitol…

Over the years, this newsletter has been chronicling the instances in which journalists testify during legislative hearings at the statehouse. We’ve seen a newspaper editor testifying in favor of open records laws, TV journalists testifying about bills they’re covering, and an AP editor testifying about the importance of media literacy. (Other reporters have testified about other things that slipped passed my coverage, so that’s not a comprehensive account.)

This week, other journalists than Jojola also testified about the police encryption issue— to no avail. Here’s a roundup from the CFOIC, which supported the bill, of what some others said during the hearing:

Lori Jane Gliha, an investigative reporter at FOX31 in Denver, cited a December shooting outside a Denver elementary school. “This is the exact type of incident that we should be able to report to the public through our push-alerts,” she said. “If you have students or constituents in this area, you’d want to know. But the Denver police department never put out an alert on social media to warn people to stay away from the area or explain what was happening.”

Noelle Phillips, breaking news editor for The Denver Post, said it took Broomfield police about 45 minutes one afternoon last month to inform the public via social media about an active shooter at a Walmart. “Had we been able to listen to scanners, we would have had better information on the shooting, which would have informed our decisions, not only on how many staffers to send to the scene but also how to play the story on our website and social media,” she testified.

“Our role as journalists is to keep the public educated, aware, empowered, to ask questions on behalf of the public and to hold those in power accountable for the decisions that are made and the actions that are taken,” Gliha said. “If we don’t know about certain things that are happening in our communities in a timely manner, we can’t do our jobs and we have to rely on what law enforcement decides is newsworthy, when they decide it’s newsworthy.”

I would call those informed testimonials. Apparently they weren’t enough.

Chuck Schumer wants answers from The Denver Post’s hedge-fund owner

The U.S. Senate’s minority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, penned a piece of correspondence this week to the president of Alden Global Capital. That’s the hedge fund Denver Post journalists have accused of being responsible for mass newsroom layoffs. It was not a love letter.

Among other concerns, like the New York City-based firm’s “history of drastically cutting staff at newspapers and selling off real estate and other assets in order to generate profit,” Schumer raised something else: The identity of the private-equity firm’s investors. “According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC),” Schumer wrote, “approximately 80 percent of Alden’s clients are unnamed non-United Statespersons.” He asked the fund if it would commit to “sharing more information on the identity or background of these clients.”

The same hedge fund recently acquired a majority stake in the Tribune Publishing company. In his letter, Schumer said he is concerned about the future of “the thousands of employees at vital newspapers.”

Julie Reynolds, an investigative journalist who has been reporting on Alden, writes Schumer is joining “a growing chorus of lawmakers across the country who are expressing concern over Alden’s decimation of local newspapers.” As for Alden’s investors, she write, “In the financial world, ‘non-United States person’ can refer to offshore corporations,” adding the hedge fund has “a number of ‘feeder funds’ that are based in the Cayman Islands and in turn own other funds. But it’s also possible that foreign individuals have invested in Alden’s holdings — and, because of Alden’s unprecedented levels of secrecy, there’s absolutely no way to tell.” Journalists have referred to the Post’s owner as “vulture capitalists.”

Earlier this year, Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette wrote a letter to the U.S. assistant attorney general, saying the Department of Justice didn’t do its job as an anti-trust regulator in green-lighting a merger of the nation’s two largest newspaper chains.

Congressional letters like these tend to generate headlines and can sometimes increase public pressure and scrutiny.

A 9News reporter says he’ll keep reporting on hate— even after a group showed up at his door

Investigative reporter Jeremy Jojola of Denver’s KUSA 9News is the kind of courageous local journalist behind all those bold and cinematic accolades about the spirit of the Fourth Estate. Over the past year or so he’s been holding people in his community accountable by reporting on what he’s called a “small but growing minority who hate and are racist and are emboldened to wear their beliefs like a badge.”

That kind of reporting has come at a personal cost. In December, he told of ugly threats that came his way across a keyboard and screens. Now, though, they’ve washed up in person at the door of his Denver home. And the reporter has had to take action through the courts.

From Michael Roberts at Westword who obtained copies of what he writes are temporary protection orders filed by Jojola:

“The most recent incident that causes me to ask for a Civil Protection Order involves Respondents, who are known and active members of [a] white supremacist group, stopping by my residence uninvited, while my wife and two-month-old child were home alone,” Jojola writes. 

The narrative goes on to detail other unsettling activity directed at him via people linked to a Denver Facebook group. “Although none of these posts specifically threaten violence against me, it demonstrates an unhealthy obsession with myself and vehement disagreement with my reporting,” Roberts quotes the court documents stating. Read the entire troubling story here. Jojola isn’t quoted in the Westword story, but once the item hit the web, Jojola wrote on social media, “I’ll continue to cover hate crimes and white supremacy in Colorado.” (Following Westword’s reporting, a group mentioned in the report went after Westword.)

Denver has a haunted history with white-supremacist violence against media figures. In 1984, white supremacists murdered Denver talk-radio host Alan Berg. The excellent “Lost Highways” podcast at History Colorado has an expertly handled edition about that here. One of the men involved in the assassination died in prison.

Just this week, an investigative reporter at KING-TV in Seattle — like Denver’s 9News it’s also owned by TEGNA — wrote how the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office told him he was a target of a “gun-toting neo-Nazi group” about which he had been reporting. “KING 5 assigned a 24-hour armed security team to follow us wherever we went,” he wrote. “Other security measures that I don’t want to reveal were swiftly put in to place.”

The FBI arrested four people they called “violent extremists,” including one in Seattle, The Seattle Times reported, “after an investigation into threats mailed to people in Western Washington, including a journalist and racial and religious minorities.”

The Maverick Observer is live in the Springs— but not really

About a month ago, I reported in this newsletter some details about a soon-to-launch digital site whose founder, Tim Hoiles, who used to be part owner of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, was going to use to stir the pot in the state’s second-largest city.

Certain businesses in the Springs are “controlling what happens at City Hall,” Hoiles said at the time, adding that he believes developers have too much power and there is too much boosterism about the city in local media. “God forbid we take a firm stand and say something bad about Colorado Springs,” he said.

Now the site is live. Here’s the mission statement:

The Maverick Observer is an independent free-thinking group of individuals interested in the day to day activities of our Colorado Springs elected officials and the happenings in our town. We hope to entertain you, bring some humor to your day, and infuse you with a sense of community and togetherness.
We started The Maverick Observer with one idea – write on a myriad of topics to educate, inform, engage, stimulate, activate, and connect with honesty, integrity and above all else a standard of dignity and honor. We hope along the way to entertain you, bring some humor to your day, and infuse you with a sense of community and togetherness. We won’t discuss politics only, though quite a bit is happening in this area, instead we will focus on food, drinks, music, independent views, and reviews. We want to connect with you and engage all of you in the topics of the day – discussion on the hottest tacos or the latest doings of the City Council.

More background on Hoiles, written by Hoiles, exists on the site here, following this disclaimer: “I must be careful to not let my ego control my thoughts and bravado.” (The narrative includes a quote from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.)

So far the lo-fi site is a mix of aggregation and original writing: A piece by Roxanne Seither about a short-term rental tax debate at the Capitol involving a Springs lawmaker; a piece by Anna Brown that looks at how the Springs shapes up against a national backdrop of cycling accidents. A police blotter is just the local police department’s Twitter feed. There’s a food and drink section dedicated to recipes. A “short take” editorial focuses on the city’s new parking meter hours. There’s a roundup of city council issues, and some cross-pollination with Complete Colorado, a digital information site of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute.

UPDATE: After this story hit the Web, Angela Gilpin, wrote on behalf of The Maverick Observer to say the site us a not-up-to-date version. She says an up-to-date version of the site is coming soon.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Steamboat Pilot had a big takeout called “Hard Reality” about how the cost of monthly rent in the area is causing problemsThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on how a pack of wolves in Moffat County is complicating debate about an upcoming ballot measure where voters will decide whether to reintroduce wolves to Colorado. The Summit Daily News localized the Coronavirus by reporting on how officials are preparing for itThe Loveland Reporter-Herald wrote about local school constructionThe Longmont Times-Call reported how “nearly 80% of instructors at Front Range Community College are paid a fraction of what their full-time colleagues make for teaching the same classes.” The Gazette in Colorado Springs wrote about how locals sent a “final salute” to a Pearl Harbor survivorThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins wrote about a new tool drivers are using to avoid getting blocked by long waits for passing trainsThe Durango Herald covered a potential historic designation for a local landmarkThe Boulder Daily Camera reported how the Coronavirus was impacting local university programs abroadThe Denver Post had a big piece looking at Denver International Airport on its 25th birthday.

Sex Assault on Campus: The Battle for the Public’s Right to Know with Jon Krakauer

On Thursday, Mar. 19, the best-selling author, who is based in Boulder, will be the star of this year’s Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s Sunshine Week panel at the University of Denver. From the event listing:

Krakauer will be joined by Missoulian newspaper editor Gwen Florio and Montana media attorney Mike Meloy for a discussion about whether federal and state laws designed to protect the privacy of students’ “educational records” are used improperly to shield how publicly funded institutions function. 9NEWS investigative reporter Jeremy Jojola will moderate the 6 p.m. event …

Tickets are free for individual members of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and CFOIC donors, $25 for non-members and $10 for students. Membership in the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition is included with the purchase of a $25 ticket. Space is limited so please get your tickets early.

“While researching his best-selling book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Krakauer battled Montana’s higher education commissioner for access to records explaining why the Montana commissioner of higher education reversed a disciplinary board’s decision to expel a star quarterback accused of rape,” the CFOIC writes. “In 2019, the Montana Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the accused student’s privacy right trumped the public’s right to know.”

Learn more here. Get tickets here.

How the Gazette’s editor gained a new perspective about journalistic objectivity 

Vince Bzdek, the editor of the largest daily newspaper in southern Colorado, walked onto the campus of his alma mater last week, arriving, he said, “with my dander up.” He set himself down in the front row for a talk by Lewis Raven Wallace, author of a new book The View from Somewhere: Undoing the myth of journalistic objectivity. I had assigned the book for my current Introduction to Journalism course at Colorado College and invited Wallace to come lead a class discussion once students finished it, and to give a public lecture in the evening.

Bzdek walked in the room that night, he recently wrote, “full of self-righteous indignation” and “prepared to defend the idea that The Gazette’s success and distinction depends on a both-sides approach to journalism, that our credibility rests entirely on the idea that we will deliver the news to you as unbiased and impartially as we can.” During a Q-and-A portion, the editor spoke up. He said he worried about journalists taking sides and how those who watch MSNBC have their own truth and those who watch FOX seem to have another. “As a journalist,” Bzdek said, “I worry, then, that nobody will believe in truth. And I just wonder what you think of that.”

Here was Wallace’s response:

“I think that the perception of this sort of increase in subjectivity is in itself in some ways a function of perspective … and … as a trans person, seeing mainstream media and knowing that there wasn’t some sort of fair objective approach to reporting on trans people and some objective truth about trans people that was being reflected, and it would take activism and advocacy and the push and pull to change that.

And then I think looking at the history of the black press as well as a lot of black journalist critics of mainstream white-run journalism have been saying for a long time … ‘It’s my truth versus your truth; we see this differently.’ And so the competition of truths is not new, but that doesn’t mean the corporate sort of punditry problem isn’t a real problem. But I think the competition of truths is something that one can almost be more comfortable with if you’ve always known that it was happening, right? Because it just has been throughout the whole time we’ve had democracy and the whole time we’ve had journalism. And we’re OK. I mean, we’re not great, but we’re OK.

But I do think, in some ways, that to me is a separate question about corporate control and consolidation and the loss of actual reporting as opposed to punditry. So I think reporting can be subjective or even opinionated or even from a particular perspective, but that it’s a very different thing than just yelling at each other. And the sort of performance of just yelling at each other as journalism, I do think is something that kind of diminishes trust and the perception of what journalism is and who does it and all that kind of stuff. But I think that the strategies for a return to trust aren’t about a return to a sort of objective perspective— that that that’s not actually how we regain trust at this point.”

He also said a whole lot of other insightful things before and after that. On Sunday, Bzdek published a column in The Gazette about his experience listening to Wallace’s talk.

Here’s what he wrote at the end:

The exercise of listening to Wallace was really, for me, a journalistic one. I have a new perspective now, which is exactly what the best journalism brings you. It’s not supposed to reinforce or undermine your beliefs for you, it’s supposed to open you up to ideas you weren’t aware of before. In the end, I think Wallace’s message was that the most important thing, really, is curiosity, that curiosity might be the best framework for a revival of journalism and a return to truth … that the goal, really, should be “endlessly seeking to know more.”

I reached out to Wallace a few days later to get his take on the impact he seemed to have had in our little corner of the world here in Colorado Springs as he continues to tour the country talking about his book, work on a podcast, and finish a Harvard Nieman fellowship.

“I’m so happy about any opportunity to engage in a real and vulnerable way with people who are asking these same questions: what journalism do we need in the 21st century? How should we be thinking differently?” Wallace said. “And I think it says a lot about Vince from the Gazette that he came in with such an open mind, too. All of us can use a dose of that because in spite of all the handwringing about division and polarization, it is still possible for us to change and be transformed by each other. I really believe that.”

Speaking of … why one Colorado journalist said he wouldn’t vote in the presidential primaries

In 2017, as it appeared likely Colorado would have new laws allowing unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in party primaries, I surveyed some of the Capitol press corps for Columbia Journalism Review about whether they might take advantage of it. I found them split on the question of political journalists voting in primaries.

Prior to Tuesday’s elections here, senior columnist and reporter Kevin Duggan wrote a first-person column for The Coloradoan in Fort Collins about why he wouldn’t exercise his franchise. From the piece:

In my opinion, journalists should not participate in primaries for the same reason we don’t put campaign signs in our yards or slap political bumper stickers on our cars. Our political views should be kept to ourselves to avoid the appearance of bias and questions about whether we can objectively report on parties, candidates and issues. To participate in a primary would show support for a political party in a public way. No one would know how I voted, unless the Russians have found a way to figure that out. But whether I voted in the Democratic or Republican primary would be a matter of public record. And that’s a problem. Someone could take that information and use it as evidence that I am a liberal or a conservative or something else and therefore cannot be trusted to objectively report on any number of topics.

The issue seems a perennial newsroom debate around primary season. Nationally, the Poynter Institute, a top-flight journalism think tank, took it on recently in a much-trafficked piece by Kelly McBride whose bio describes her as “one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics.” A “news leader who encourages her staff to avoid a primary is ignoring the difference between personal objectivity, which is impossible, and objectivity of the reporting process,” she wrote. “This in turn accelerates the oversimplification of journalism values.”

This week, The New York Times had a piece about what some of its journalists think about political impartiality. Philip B. Corbett, The Times’s standards editor, said, “I think voting is a baseline action as a citizen. I wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting that our journalists shouldn’t vote. But we don’t need them to go any further than that.” One of the paper’s reporters, Peter Baker, had a different take. “For me, it’s easier to stay out of the fray if I never make up my mind, even in the privacy of the kitchen or the voting booth, that one candidate is better than another, that one side is right and the other wrong,” he said. (Here’s how that thinking translates to the printed page.)

As an unaffiliated voter, I exercised my option to cast a ballot in the presidential primary for the first time in perhaps a decade. “Cast your whole vote,” Henry David Thoreau once said, “not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”

*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. Image by Johnny Silvercloud for Creative Commons on Flickr. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE