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Bill Menezes, the editorial director for Colorado Media Matters, doesn't pretend to be ideologically objective -- and neither does his organization.
"We make it very clear on our website and anywhere else where we talk about Colorado Media Matters that we are a progressive research organization that is aimed at reporting and correcting misinformation in the media that promotes a conservative point of view," Menezes says. "The news media nationally -- and, as we're finding out, locally -- is crowded with conservative messages that are being put out there to push discourse further to the right. And that makes even moderately progressive points of view seem extreme by comparison."
These comments fly in the face of familiar conservative allegations of liberal media bias. To Menezes, however, such assertions are more fantasy than reality. Even though he concedes that most of the folks he worked with as a career journalist were politically progressive off the clock, he believes that the lion's share tried not to let their personal predilections color their coverage. The problem, then, is what he calls "the myth of balance. Balance in journalism is making sure you give either side a chance to comment -- but that doesn't necessarily forestall misinformation. If a conservative source is providing misinformation and reporters or editors don't point it out and correct it, there's a serious gap. And we try to fill that gap."
So does Media Matters, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that launched Colorado Media Matters as its first spinoff in July. Media Matters' creator is former journalist David Brock, who destroyed his reputation as a right-wing scalp hunter by publicly confessing that his supposed exposés of President Bill Clinton and Clarence Thomas-accuser Anita Hill were built upon dubious information or flat-out inaccuracies. He attempted to atone for his sins with Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, a 2002 memoir that hit many bestseller lists. Then, two years later, he created Media Matters with monetary assistance from prominent lefties such as former TCI president Leo Hindery Jr. and James C. Hormel, a San Franciscan who once served as ambassador to Luxembourg.
Colorado Media Matters has similar support from deep-pocket types; among its main backers is the Gill Foundation, named for Quark founder Tim Gill. Although Brock won't talk about startup costs or CMM's annual budget, he says, "We have adequate resources for the project, and it's intended to exist in perpetuity, not just a few months." Not that the presence of willing donors was the only reason Media Matters branched out here. Brock cites the state's manageable number of media markets; "a mix of issues that are on the national agenda as well," including immigration and civil rights; "an ideologically competitive environment" that's home to Focus on the Family and conservative think tanks; and what he calls "some really interesting progressive activity" highlighted by ProgressNow.org and blogs such as ColoradoConfidential.org, a new and ambitious site that frequently links to Colorado Media Matters. "We wouldn't have wanted to go into a place where there were no friendly allies to be had," Brock admits.
To head up the Colorado office, Brock and his associates chose Menezes, who knows the area media scene from the inside. Following a stint with the Associated Press in Kansas and a five-year run as a Miami stockbroker, he came to Denver in 1995. After working for the Rocky Mountain News and trade publications such as Wireless Week and Multichannel News, he was hired as an assistant business editor at the Denver Post by Al Lewis, a onetime Rocky colleague who'd changed teams. Seven months later, he took a gig at Carmichael Lynch Spong, a Minneapolis-based public-relations firm with an office in Denver, and he says he would have stayed there for the long term had Media Matters not offered him an opportunity "so compelling I couldn't turn it down."
Shortly thereafter, Menezes took advantage of the funds at his disposal to assemble a staff that currently includes twelve employees, six of whom are full-time researchers -- and he reveals that there are a couple more positions still in need of filling. Several of these workers are charged with carefully monitoring local TV and radio broadcasts, newspapers and more with an eye toward rooting out conservative falsehoods, and they collectively claim to have found plenty of them in CMM's first seven weeks or so of existence.
The Post's David Harsanyi, who's the most conservative of the columnists presently scribbling for the Denver dailies, was the first journalist to be spanked. On July 20, CMM took him to task for "Chill Out Over Global Warming," a June 5 column in which he described Colorado climatologist Roger A. Pelke Sr. as being "skeptical" about the concept -- an assertion that Pelke quickly refuted in a blog. Since then, the site has gone after obvious foes such as radio yakkers Mike Rosen, Bob "Gunny Bob" Newman, Peter Boyles, Dan Caplis and Dr. Joseph Michelliof Colorado Springs, who posted an apology on the Colorado Media Matters site after he was chided for referring to minimum-wage earners as "dumb and incompetent." But the CMM minions have criticized less likely media types, too, with none more surprising than Channel 9's Adam Schrager, an outstanding reporter who hosts a feature in which he evenhandedly examines charges made in political advertising. Rather than meekly accepting Colorado Media Matters' reprimand, Schrager strikes back.
"You can choose to educate the masses or inflame them," Schrager says. "They've chosen the latter -- and I know this is going to sound sanctimonious, but we've chosen the former."
The August 21 story that brought Schrager and CMM into conflict concerned a Survey USA poll of likely voters in the 7th Congressional District, where Democrat Ed Perlmutter, whom many observers view as the frontrunner, is running against Republican Rick O'Donnell for gubernatorial hopeful Bob Beauprez's old seat. In the piece he offered to viewers of Channel 9's 5 p.m. newscast, Schrager stated that the candidates were unexpectedly deadlocked in the poll, with each getting the nod from 45 percent of the participants. However, in the web version of the same item, accessible at 9News.com, Schrager noted that while "the district is nearly divided evenly among Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated voters," the survey sample was made up of "44 percent Republicans, 33 percent Democrats and 21 percent independents." (These figures add up to 98 percent. No mention of the other 2 percent.) Schrager went on to quote Survey USA director of election polling Dr. Joseph Shipman, who insisted that the poll was accurate even though the percentages in the sample didn't perfectly replicate the proportions of registered voters in the district.
To CMM, the disparity between the TV and online versions of the report raised a red flag -- hence the item's headline: "9News' Schrager Failed to Note Republican Slant of 7th District Poll Sample." In reply, Schrager notes, "I had more space online, so I expanded. But the pollster said the poll was accurate. And when the pollster says it's accurate, what more am I supposed to do?" On top of that, Schrager goes on, CMM didn't do the same kind of demographic comparisons in relation to three other polls from that period whose results were more favorable to a trio of high-profile Dems, Bill Ritter, Angie Paccione and John Salazar. "It's the hypocrisy that bothers me, to be blunt," Schrager says -- but he's also upset that CMM seems to see little distinction between him and the Rosens of the world. "Those people offer opinions for a living. I don't," he allows. "So when I'm lumped in with them, there's an intimation being made that, frankly, I don't appreciate, and I find professionally offensive."
Menezes doesn't see why he should. He argues that Media Matters, in both its local and national permutations, focuses on facts that can be documented instead of indulging in name-calling and personal attacks. As a result, he hopes that CMM will be viewed as more than a typically partisan organization attempting to advance its agenda via spin and subterfuge. "It's going to take time," he maintains. "We have to establish our credibility with everybody as we continue doing what we're doing. And over time, we believe the media, and especially the public, will respond."
That will be easier to accomplish on one side of the fence than the other.