Colorado governor's staff urges newspapers to remove story

FILE — In this Aug. 28, 2019, file photo, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks during an appearance at The Energy Summit in Denver. The press operation for Polis, Colorado’s liberal Democratic governor, is being criticized after it asked two small town newspapers to remove from their websites a news story reported by what Polis’ staff deems a biased news organization funded by groups affiliated with the conservative Koch family.

The press office of Gov. Jared Polis asked two Colorado newspapers, the Kiowa County Press in Eads and The Chronicle-News in Trinidad, to remove a story about Polis’ new Office of Future of Work.

It wasn’t because of the Sept. 4 story, but because of the news organization behind it, the governor’s press office told Colorado Politics.

The website, formerly called Watchdog, has been tied to conservative donors, including the network of the billionaire Koch brothers. The site came under new leadership in 2017, changed its name to The Center Square this May and maintains it is now nonpartisan.

“When we looked into this group and discovered that it was not an objective wire service, but instead a branded website funded by the Koch brothers’ political organization, we were alarmed that it was being reprinted by reputable news outlets in the state,” says a statement from the governor’s press office, which asked that it be attributed to a spokesperson.

“The people of Colorado deserve quality, objective news they can trust so they can make their own informed decisions,” the statement said.

“Newspapers can publish whatever they want to, anywhere they want, at their own prerogative, but the public is served best when articles by partisan organizations are placed in the opinion section or branded accordingly.”

Center Square participates in the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship project, “as many media outlets across the country do,” said Center Square Executive Editor Dan McCaleb, who wrote a story Wednesday about the governor’s office take-down request.

“There’s a firewall between our news operation and our fundraising arm,” he said.

“As executive editor, I independently make all editorial decisions with input from the fine journalists who work with me. Our work speaks for itself and is readily available at and for your readers to form their own opinions.”

Steve Zansberg, the Denver-based media lawyer who represents Colorado Politics, The Gazette and other major media outlets in the state, said the response from the governor’s press office was “weird.”

“It’s certainly appropriate for anyone, a government official or otherwise, to bring to readers’ attention errors of fact and seek a correction,” Zansberg said. “But we should be very circumspect, and we should not condone government officials deciding who is and who is not members of the legitimate press.”

The original news story in question, written by Derek Draplin, was published by The Center Square on Sept. 4.

It quoted a tweet from state Senate Republican caucus spokesman Sage Naumann, who noted that the Office of Future of Work was the third new office established by the Polis administration since he took office this year.

“The Democrats’ insistence on creating a new layer of bureaucracy sure feels like a Monty Python skit,” Naumann tweeted. “We may need an Office of Coffee because we’re getting tired of trying to keep up.”

The new office came “complete with undefined goals, broad powers, and a name straight from the brain of George Orwell,” he said.

Naumann wrote a commentary about the new office that Colorado Politics published Wednesday.

After the Kiowa County Press and The Chronicle-News posted the story, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill contacted the editors there, telling them The Center Square “is not a reputable news source,” according to the follow-up story posted Wednesday on The Center Square website.

Cahill asked the papers to remove the story, without citing errors, according to his email to the newspapers, obtained by The Center Square through an open-records request.

The Chronicle-News declined to remove the story, while the County Press’ publisher temporarily suspended the article from its website, then republished it since there was no claim of a factual error, the Center Square report says.

Chronicle-News editor Eric John Monson told Colorado Politics partner 9News he initially thought the request from the governor’s press office was a hoax.

“Just kinda flabbergasted, disheartened and dismayed that would come from a state office,” he told the TV station about his reaction.

Monson said the paper vetted The Center Square before the request and will continue to use its content.

The Center Square wrote in its story Wednesday that it had not been contacted by the governor’s press office about any errors in the story.

“The Center Square made several attempts via email and telephone to reach Cahill and Polis Communications Director Maria De Cambra to ask questions about Cahill’s requests and criticism, but neither Polis official responded,” The Center Square reported.

Watchdog, the website’s predecessor, was denied Capitol press credentials in 2016, after a committee of Capitol press corps members, which vets all such requests, provided a recommendation against it to House and Senate leadership, which denied the credential that grants access to the House and Senate floors. (Disclosure: This reporter served on that committee, then as a representative of The Denver Post.)

In 2014, the reelection campaign for then-Gov. John Hickenlooper threatened a Watchdog reporter with arrest as the news organization pushed for copies of his tax returns, which he provided then to The Denver Post.

Publisher Chris Krug’s former jobs included being publisher of the Chicago Pioneer Press newspaper chain, vice president for Shaw Suburban Media and a deputy editor at The Denver Post.

“The governor’s office is trying to use the power of the government to kill stories it doesn’t like,” Krug said on his website Wednesday. “And as part of that effort, the governor’s office is trying to taint the sterling reputations of journalists who dare to write stories it deems critical or negative.

“The public has the right and deserves to make their own decisions about whether the happenings in state government are good or bad. It’s not up to a government official to police the news or try to withhold certain information from the public. The public also has the right to know why the governor’s office would overreach and ask editors to remove content it had published.”

The dilemma speaks to several larger issues, said Jeffrey Roberts, a veteran journalist and executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

The newspapers could have done more to clarify the source of the story, including the Center Square’s history of covering the news from a conservative viewpoint, even if it’s more recently rebranded.

The story in question, however, “was pretty straightforward.”

Roberts said public officials need much more than name-calling to ask a news organization to retract or remove a story.

“That’s a very big ask, and I can see why a news organization would be offended by that,” he said. “They’ve already put some thought into what they’ve published. They’ve looked into it and made the decision that this particular story is something their readers ought to know about.”

Roberts said content is the primary consideration for news consumers.

“If the public official has some issues with the accuracy of the story, I think that’s first and foremost,” he said. “But there didn’t seem to be any issues with that here. To merely call it disreputable without explaining why, I think, is not the way to go.”

As more niche websites seeks to share content, mainstream media sources need to have a broader conversation on labeling content offered as objective news from those sources.

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