‘Deep introspection’ on ‘race and racism’ at Colorado Public Radio

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Colorado Public Radio equipment on a press table at a political rally in 2020 (photo by Corey Hutchins)

More and more, news audiences are learning about the experiences of journalists of color as outlets again grapple with the makeup of their newsrooms and their approaches to coverage. “We’re finally feeling empowered to speak openly about racism in the newsroom,” wrote Soledad O’Brien in a recent column for The New York Times.

A response has sparked internal conversations within newsrooms, and not just at big national newspapers, either. “Across the country, journalists and staff are speaking out at public radio stations about failed attempts at diversifying newsrooms and troubling stories of racism in the workplace going back decades and stretching into the present day,” reported The Takeaway at WNYC on July 9. The show then zeroed in on the largest public radio station in Colorado.

Lee Hill, The Takeaway’s executive producer, opened up on the widely broadcast program about his time as the first Black journalist at Colorado Public Radio where he worked from 2011 to 2013.

“I think that people relegated any sort of diversity work to the only Black guy,” he said at one point. “I actually fell into a deep depression during my time there because I felt incredibly lonely,” he said at another. Hill talked about feeling “otherized.” He said he had “never felt so torn apart” by some who criticized his on-air delivery, and he felt damaged by the experience. “We need to reflect the country in the people we hire and the people that are making decisions. It’s just good business,” he said about newsroom diversity. “We are made better when we’re working alongside people who don’t always look like us or who have different life experiences.”

Here in Colorado, conversations had been bubbling at CPR about its coverage and organizational diversity since the wave of protests nationwide that followed another police killing of a Black man in America, this time George Floyd in Minneapolis. Hill’s segment also came after a series of tweets about CPR’s CEO and president, Stewart Vanderwilt, stemming from his time as general manager at KUT in Austin and what a then-24-year-old female journalist of color, Brenda Salinas Baker, described as a threat by him to her career for speaking out about racism in the workplace.

Last week, CPR held a staff-wide virtual meeting to discuss the developments; multiple people who attended said it was emotional.

Vanderwilt, who has been at the helm of the station since 2018, says he told attendees he’d offered what he believed was appropriate, though unwelcome, feedback to a younger journalist and he hadn’t taken into account a “significant power differential” at the time. “The power dynamic is real, and I am increasingly recognizing that,” he said in an interview.

In a published statement on the station’s site, Vanderwilt wrote that Colorado Public Radio had been “adding diversity to the news team and some other areas of the organization for the past several years.” He added CPR also had been considering plans for “new positions focused on these issues, diversity training staff wide and improved recruiting practices,” which he said “felt like positive movement” and he thought CPR was “addressing the needs of our staff and our organization. But we were circling the issues without first listening.”

More from the statement:

Hill’s story on The Takeaway, as well as feedback from our current staff, has led to deep introspection at Colorado Public Radio. These are hard lessons about the harmful effects of white privilege and implicit bias. Hill’s account provided a way into a conversation about race and racism we have been talking around, but not directly addressing.

As leadership, we acknowledge inadequate progress. We must do better. Our newsroom is developing a role to elevate our focus on race and social justice while baking in this focus for all news staff. We are surveying the sources and voices heard in our stories and will publish the results. These are just first steps that must also include how we recruit and support our talent in every department, how we approach our content and outreach; and how we understand and remove unconscious bias from our organization.

Colorado Public Radio is one of the few expanding large newsrooms in the state and is establishing primacy amid newspaper retrenchment and broader local news industry contraction. Part of its expansion, I should note, includes absorbing KRCC in Colorado Springs and partnering with Colorado College where I teach in the Journalism Institute.

This was the second time in a year statements from a journalist of color prompted a staff-wide meeting at the station. Vanderwilt declined to get into much of what staff had to say because he wants such meetings to remain a safe place for discussion. Those who attended described the meeting as passionate and intense. Many expressed anguish at hearing about Hill’s painful experience in the WNYC segment, said one attendee. Another said some aired frustrations within the company about diversity, inclusion in news coverage, and music stations. But it didn’t get ugly or personal. (This story is informed by more than half a dozen people at CPR.)

“In this day in age when we can talk about things without flying off the handle or telling someone ‘You’re wrong,’ that’s a victory when a whole bunch of people who may not always agree can sit and talk and listen,” said weekend host and reporter Vic Vela, who is Chicano.

But even listening to the discussion was difficult, says Donna Bryson, a Black reporter who spent years at The Associated Press and came to CPR when the station bought Denverite last year. “These are not easy conversations to have,” she says.

In an interview Thursday, Vanderwilt said, “I think the organization felt it hard,” when Hill revealed his experience on The Takeaway. And the CEO said he “absolutely” felt he should address at the meeting what radio producer Salinas Baker wrote about him on social media.

As for what CPR does going forward, “There needs to be diversity at every level of the organization, including at the senior management level,” he said. “I think we absolutely celebrate the people who have joined us, but we need to bring in more diverse perspectives throughout the org.” He said CPR has committed to “a role in the newsroom to elevate our coverage of race and social justice,” but exactly what that role is and how it works across all beats is TBD. “So that’s what the newsroom is working on now.” While CPR has been growing, he acknowledged it might have had its foot on the gas of the “business imperative” harder than on things it should do to make sure its culture and everything it does is in support of its vision to serve all Coloradans. “I think that discussion is really healthy and is pointing out that we can’t just continue in some status quo mode,” he said. “This is a change moment for public media. And I don’t think it’s an incremental change. It should be transformative change.”

Bryson says these kinds of internal newsroom conversations haven’t really been happening in the ways they are now. “Newsrooms are American,” she says. “And because they’re American, they’re racist.”

As for the work at CPR, she says it’s a process and won’t be settled in a single conversation.

“I do think that from where I’m standing now it looks like people are engaged and willing to keep talking and to keep trying to get better, and that’s really all you can hope for,” she said, adding generally, and not particularly about anyone where she works, “I think a lot of people would like to have a conversation about racism and then check it off — ‘We are done, we have solved racism’ — and that’s just not going to happen.”

Covering ‘Q’ in a Colorado candidate’s district

A storyline from Colorado’s recent primary elections that quickly attracted national attention wasn’t just that a young gun-toting female Congressional candidate on the Western Slope had deposed a five-term Republican incumbent.

The flashy, irresistible head-turner for national journalists was a video of the candidate saying newsworthy things during her campaign about a wildly bizarre conspiracy theory that has taken root on the political right. By now you might have heard at least something about this whole “QAnon” thing. If you haven’t, well then lucky you.

Here’s how The Associated Press handled its initial coverage:

When Lauren Boebert was asked in May about QAnon, she didn’t shy away from the far-right conspiracy theory, which advances unproven allegations about a so-called deep state plot against President Donald Trump that involves satanism and child sex trafficking. “Everything that I’ve heard of Q, I hope that this is real because it only means that America is getting stronger and better, and people are returning to conservative values,” she said.

At the time, Boebert was on the political fringe, running a campaign largely focused on her gun-themed restaurant and resistance to coronavirus lockdowns. She is now on a path to becoming a member of Congress after upsetting five-term Rep. Scott Tipton in Tuesday’s Republican primary. The GOP-leaning rural western Colorado district will likely support the party’s nominee in the November general election. Boebert is part of a small but growing list of Republican candidates who have in some way expressed support for QAnon.

And here’s how Denver’s 9News anchor Kyle Clark said the station handled the candidate-and-Q issue in TV coverage on Election Night: “Boebert embraced a conspiracy theory that Democrats and Hollywood stars drink the blood of children in a global pedophilia ring.” Yikes, right? Clark and others that evening had been discussing on social media how news outlets planned to cover the issue. (Here’s how a Colorado columnist described the theory in a piece urging conservatives to tamp it down: “The QAnon conspiracy posits that a well-positioned official nicknamed ‘Q’ has spent the past several years reporting on efforts to undermine Trump by ‘deep state’ officials pervasive throughout the government.”) The New York Times this week ran a story headlined “The QAnon Candidates Are Here” that included Boebert.

Even before the Times piece ran, KDNK, the public radio station in Carbondale inside Boebert’s district, on July 1 localized the Q factor among candidates for its audience via an NPR report that led with Boebert. Here’s how NPR described the conspiracy:

QAnon is a baseless conspiracy theory focused on an anonymous figure, “Q,” who posts to Internet message boards. Among the false beliefs is the idea that former special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed not to investigate President Trump but, rather, to investigate other people, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama, for various extreme allegations that have been thoroughly debunked. The theory also posits that those supposed investigation targets are wearing ankle monitors that track their movements.

“Boebert appeared on SteelTruth, a show hosted by QAnon believer Ann Vandersteel, during the primary campaign,” NPR reported. “In that interview, she said she was ‘very familiar’ with the theory and voiced support for it, though she didn’t say she fully believed in QAnon’s ideas.” Her campaign told NPR “I’m glad the IG and the AG are investigating deep state activities that undermine the President. I don’t follow QAnon.” In the clip in question, when the host first asks Boebert about “the Q movement” and if she’s familiar with it, Boebert says, “I am familiar with that … That’s more my mom’s thing, she’s a little fringe,” before making the remarks that have picked up steam in coverage.

Since June 30, it was only a matter of time until the largest newspaper between Denver and Salt Lake City, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, would have to explain Q to its readers in the context of a very high-profile candidate the paper will be covering until the November election. The newspaper in 2017 had become ground zero in a local anti-media movement, and a state senator representing its circulation area made national headlines by calling it “fake news.” Three years ago, in a fantastic story in The New Yorker, Peter Hessler reported on the Sentinel and the troubles of a local newspaper in Trump Country.

On Sunday, the Sentinel ran a front-page story that checked in with locals about Boebert’s win, and it dipped a toe into Q coverage. The brief mention, however, carried a curious qualifier:

Here’s the section of the report:


QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory focused on an alleged “deep state” conspiracy against President Trump. Boebert has been criticized for comments her critics say have failed to distance herself from it. She reportedly said she hopes “that this is real” and thinks it means people are returning to conservative values. She said last week that in commenting on QAnon she called it “fringe,” but that part of her comments weren’t reported. She recently called QAnon “fake news” in a tweet responding to criticism from Democrats.

“I don’t follow QAnon,” she said last week. “The thing that I was referring to — anything that’s going to get conservatives to get involved with politics is definitely interesting and worth looking at.”

Reportedly wasn’t necessary. The author of the story, Dennis Webb, told me he just hadn’t seen the clip until I sent him a link to ask about it a day after his story ran. He had merely seen previous reports about the candidate’s remarks, he said, and unfortunately didn’t have enough time to delve into the QAnon issue for a story in which it wasn’t the focus. But a consultant for Boebert’s Democratic challenger had mentioned it, and he at least wanted to acknowledge it, he said, “knowing it was something we’d likely be revisiting and reporting on in more depth as time goes by.”

As national and international news outlets swarm on the Western Slope this election season for stories with Boebert and Q in the headline (SPOILER: The clip will dog her campaign; the campaign will call it overblown and coverage of it ‘fake news’), the local newspaper will have to act as an authenticator and sense-maker for its readers who will be casting ballots in the race, and who trust its coverage. Meanwhile, there likely will remain a narrative gap between how outside outlets frame this race and how the local press does. 

At the American Press Institute, Susan Benkelman this week offered advice to local newsrooms about how to handle QAnon coverage during the election, including how to describe the conspiracy — “avoid vague descriptions” — and how to report on it “without inadvertently encouraging the spread of falsehoods.” It is tricky, she wrote, “to strike the right balance when a candidate espouses conspiracy theories but later disavows them, as did the Colorado candidate.” Read the whole thing here.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Durango Herald reported how managers in the food-and-beverage industry are having trouble filling jobs because, as one said, “a lot of people who might be interested in working, frankly, can make more staying home with enhanced unemployment.” The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported how restaurants are deciding whether to stay open or close for goodThe Summit Daily News reported how an 11 p.m. curfew during the pandemic is causing debateThe Loveland Reporter-Herald tallied Larimer County’s COVID-19 count at 863The Longmont Times-Call reported on contaminated soil at an area oil-and-gas wellThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel ran its Boebert storyThe Denver Post brought readers the inside story of how the coronavirus spread through a northern Colorado beef plantThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins covered how the pandemic hit the economies of northern college towns hard when students leftThe Boulder Daily Camera reported how international college students were navigating a new restrictive immigration order by the Trump administration (before ICE removed a requirement). The Colorado Springs Independent’s cover story this week delves into workplace discrimination in the Pikes Peak regionWestword profiled rising Denver singer Wellington BullingsBoulder Weekly published winners of its 101-word fiction contest. The cover of The Aurora Sentinel carried a story about “11 ways during a pandemic lawmakers changed your life.”

It’s ‘bubonic plague’ season in Colorado headlines again

Living in Colorado, we’re used to many seasons. Sometimes even in a single day. But we also have some scary ones. There is “wasp season,” for instance, and then, as the weather warms, “Rattlesnake season” frequently appears in headlines.

But Coloradans have also grown accustomed to another one that makes the rounds in national coverage: “Bubonic plague season.” That’s whenever Colorado public health officials announce they’ve found the first case of a rodent testing positive for a disease that immediately calls to mind a medieval peasant cart piled with rotting corpses on a cobblestone street with distant church bells doom-tolling in the fog.

This week, headlines like these racked up from news outlets and sites:

CBS: “Squirrel in Colorado tests positive for the bubonic plague”
New York Post: “What the Colorado squirrel with bubonic plague means for US pet owners”
Britain’s Daily Sunday Express: “Bubonic plague outbreak in US: Case of Black Death confirmed in Colorado”
Business Standard: “In a first, squirrel in Colorado tests positive for bubonic plague”
“Black Death in America” blared the U.K. Daily Mail tabloid in an alert with an image of a squirrel with bulging red eyes.

Rather quickly, the fact-checking site Snopes weighed in.

In July 2020, media outlets reported that a squirrel in Colorado tested positive for bubonic plague, making it the first case of plague in Jefferson County. This claim is true, though experts caution that the incident is not cause for immediate concern.

The item goes on to say how animal-to-human plague cases are rare. People have died from the plague in Colorado, however. In 2015, The Denver Post reported how parents of a 16-year-old asked that his death from the septicemic plague, possibly contracted “through a flea bite or contact with a dead animal on the family’s property in the rural Cherokee Park area, northwest of Fort Collins,” be a cautionary tale. But it seems like every once in a while a new animal case in Colorado causes another wave of frightening national headlines. Last year, it was plagued prairie dogs.

“The. Plague. Is. Normal. In. Colorado. So. Calm. Down,” wrote The Colorado Sun’s Jesse Paul on Tuesday. (Paul had reported that Denver Post story five years ago.)

As far as national outlets go, ironically it was Slate, the digital news site known for its overtly contrarian takes, that had perhaps the most appropriate headline of the week: “You Do Not Need to Worry About the Bubonic Plague Squirrel in Colorado.”

More Colorado local media odds & ends

📺FOX 21 covered The Colorado College COVID-19 Reporting Project.
⌨️5280 magazine piece: “Q&A With Quentin Young, Editor of Recently Launched Colorado Newsline.”
☝️NiemanLab editor’s note: “A previous version of this article and map included the 16 newsrooms of States Newsroom, a nonprofit network of local news sites that previously received backing from the liberal Hopewell Fund and did not begin disclosing its donors until this year. Its sites cannot be accurately described as ‘hyperpartisan sites…masquerading as local news,’ and many of its staff are longtime journalists.”
📰The National Association of Black Journalists reports Westword is looking for a news editor.
😂A Colorado newspaper story delightfully identified a source on third reference as “Jolley, a rancher.”
💼The Boulder Daily Camera is accepting internships.
👀After Vail Daily’s parent company got federal PPP loan money, one reader says he “made my donation” to it by (wait for it) filling out his tax return.
💥Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene has “been selected as a 2020-2021 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow.”
😬WaPo reports “America’s newest newspaper baron is a hedge fund whose co-founder and chief executive has ties to President Trump’s most tabloid-worthy stories and whose publishing assets include the National Enquirer.” (The newspaper chain is McClatchy, and the new Longmont Leader is the only Colorado news outlet with McClatchy connections. “I don’t expect this sale to change … how we operate The Longmont Leader,” its publisher told me before the new owner was announced.)
☀️The Colorado Sun was a case study at a recent conference.
🏛️The Colorado Times Recorder has someone filing dispatches from Washington, D.C. (More on CTR here.)
🚰The Native American Journalists Association reports “The Water Desk is now accepting applications for our second round of grants to support independent and staff journalists, as well as media outlets, covering Western water issues and the Colorado River Basin.”
🗞️Sign of the times: “Someone commented on Sky-Hi’s Facebook page ‘defund the media’ …..sir, we’re a free newspaper.”

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