Uncoordinated (or how the Colorado Independent reported the Buck rape story)

No real reporter likes to be the subject of a story he or she has written, but that is where some part of the rape story I wrote this week featuring U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck has gone and is going.

For better and for worse, in our partisan politics and media culture, controversial stories draw attention to the writer and to the outlet where it was published as well as to the subject of the story. In the weeks before an election, that kind of scrutiny intensifies. The Colorado Independent and I welcome that scrutiny. We don’t welcome uninformed speculation and smears.

Some fairly well-known journalists have told their version of how the story came to be written. That they did so without talking to anyone at the Colorado Independent, including me, is no shock. That they failed as journalists to make a phone call or send an email before writing stories about what they call suspect journalism is laughable and sad.

I’ve read at the Denver Post, for example, that progressive activist group ProgressNow and the Colorado Independent are “sister organizations.” I’ve read that when ProgressNow “shopped” this story to the mainstream media and found no takers, they spoon fed it to me. I’ve read that I was part of a coordinated effort to bring down Ken Buck.

Really?

That speculation is based on the assumption that ProgressNow and the Colorado Independent share financial backers. (Both organizations are non-profits.) That may or may not be true, but this is the most relevant fact concerning funding: I don’t know who funds ProgressNow and I only have a vague idea who funds the Colorado Independent. Frankly, I don’t want to know. The last thing I want to think about when writing a story is whether it will please a funder– or piss one off.

I do know–only because claims made by others about this story have forced me to find out–that we are not funded by the Colorado Democracy Alliance and we have no legal, financial or operating connection with ProgressNow.

If columnists and bloggers at the Denver Post and the National Review, for example, had called me, this is what I would have told them because this is the fact of how the 2005 Weld County rape story found its way to the Colorado Independent.

Late the night of Tuesday, September 21, I was surfing the Internet looking for story ideas. At popular politics blogsite Colorado Pols, I found mention of an event at which rape and incest victims were going to talk about their experiences and why they thought a complete ban on abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, is a bad idea.

Next day I tracked down one of the event organizers, Ellen Dumm, executive director of the progressive activist group Campaign for a Strong Colorado. She told me I had missed the event by a day. In that conversation or a subsequent one in which I asked for more information about the featured speakers at the event, Dumm told me she knew a woman who had been raped in Greeley a few years back and that the local DA, Ken Buck, had refused to prosecute. She said Buck had dismissed the charges as mere “buyer’s remorse” and I thought the case well worth looking into.

I know there can be many reasons a case isn’t prosecuted, but I told her I would love to talk to the woman. Dumm explained that the woman had felt somewhat burned by the coverage produced by the Greeley Tribune and other Northern Colorado media at the time of the assault. She wasn’t sure if the woman would speak with me. She said she would ask.

Days later, Dumm called and gave me the rape victim’s first name and phone number.

I ended up calling the woman early last week. She was congenial and engaging. She was nervous about telling her story, but she thought it was important.

I knew ProgressNow co-sponsored the original event I had missed because its name was on the press release. I don’t know why I called Dumm instead of ProgressNow Director Kjersten Forseth. Probably, I called both and Dumm is the one who called back first. I really have no idea.

I mention that now because during the course of my conversations with the victim, she mentioned that she had taped a private meeting she had with Ken Buck and she told me ProgressNow had the tape and that I was welcome to listen to it.

When I read that ProgressNow fed me this story, I shake my head.

This story isn’t about the Colorado Independent or about ProgessNow or both. I believed as I was reporting it and I believe now that the story I reported matters. For reporters still working this story, ask whether you think the way Buck handled this rape case matters. Whether you think he handled it well or handled it poorly, it’s the answer to that question that’s most worth writing about.

I don’t agonize over who gives me a tip. The background and motivation of the tipster is simply a matter of context in the story I write. Either the rape case matters or it doesn’t. The Colorado Independent strives to be transparent in its reporting, so ProgressNow is part of the story, but it’s not the story.

I called the sources on the story. They never called me. I called Campaign for a Strong Colorado because they had something I wanted: rape victims who would talk to me about what a ban on abortion would mean to them and other rape victims.

When I called ProgressNow, it was because the victim in the Weld County case told me ProgressNow had the tape of her meeting with Buck. What reporter wouldn’t follow that lead? I don’t think I even asked her why ProgressNow had the tape. I simply made a note to call ProgressNow.

The victim didn’t tell me about the tape right away, though. It was two or three conversations in that she gave me that nugget. By that time, I had already driven from Denver to Greeley to look at the 2005 police report. I had already interviewed the Greeley chief of police. I had already called the Weld County DA’s office several times and emailed staffers there as well. A public information officer called me back and told me she had told Buck I was working on this story and had given him my contact information. He never called me. I also phoned and emailed the campaign several times and never got a response.

In fact, I didn’t find out about the tape until late last week, at which point the story was mostly written.

I had never met anyone at ProgressNow or at the Campaign for a Strong Colorado prior to writing this story. I had never talked to anyone at those organizations prior to writing this story. I was not on their email lists. If I had been, I probably would have made it to the event I missed that started me working the story.

Nobody fed me anything. I called Dumm and said I was interested in rape victims’ experiences. It’s probable Dumm and Forseth’s familiarity with the Colorado Independent made them receptive to me. It is possible they Googled me or otherwise determined I might be sympathetic to the victim. I have no idea. I do know that if I had not thought the rape victim’s story was compelling, I would not have written about it.

I also know that I asked a lot of people in my life about the story before I published it. I asked, “Is it fair to go back five years to write this story? Is it fair to draw conclusions from one case?” I agonized over that question. At the end of the day, I thought Buck’s decision not to prosecute may have been reasonable—though I am not saying I think it was reasonable. I also thought, however, that he displayed a remarkably demeaning attitude toward this woman. I hate to call her a victim. To me, she’s a survivor, a fighter. She’s someone who was put in a position no woman wants to be put in, whether it was rape or not.

You can ask her if she was raped, or you can ask Ken Buck, but only one of those two people returned my calls.

When I read that I’m in bed with ProgressNow and that staffers there fed me the rape story, I wonder who is being fed a story now–or sold one–and why reporters buy it. I wonder if they have an agenda.

To the “longtime journalists” regurgitating that I wrote a “coordinated” story “hand and hand” with ProgressNow, if you’re going to write in the future about my reporting, call me first, because that’s what journalists do.

Got a tip? Freelance story pitch? Send us an e-mail. Follow The Colorado Independent on Twitter.

Like this story? Steal it! Feel free to republish it in part or in full, just please give credit to The Colorado Independent and add a link to the original.

Got a tip? Story pitch? Send us an e-mail. Follow The Colorado Independent on Twitter.



About the Author

Scot Kersgaard

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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