By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
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By Michael Roberts
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"All I want is for the newspapers to admit that they have a liberal bias," announces Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a right-leaning think tank. "But talking to newspaper people about this is like talking to an alcoholic. It's obvious they have a liberal bias, but there's no way they can believe it."
Neither do the folks at Colorado Media Matters, a progressive website whose editorial director, Bill Menezes, insisted that the media is filled with conservative misinformation in a column published here two weeks ago. Yet Caldara believes he now has proof that in one instance, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News allowed the lefty views espoused on their editorial pages to color news coverage. "Unabashed Bias," an analysis assembled by Independence Institute director of operations Amy Oliver Pryzgoda and then-intern Jessica Littmann, claims that reporting about referenda C and D, a pair of 2005 ballot issues, was heavily weighted in favor of the proposals, which both papers strongly backed. (Referendum C let the state hang on to dough that otherwise would have been refunded under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, aka TABOR. Referendum D permitted the borrowing of up to $2 billion more.) Pryzgoda, with Littman's help, examined every news story about C and D that ran in the Post and Rocky between August 1 and October 31; she estimates that there were about 170 of them. According to the study, 57 percent of the pieces "favored supporters of the ballot measures, while 42 percent were neutral and only 1 percent were favorable toward opponents."
How objective is Caldara's group when it comes to this topic? "Not only do we admit our political bias, we advertise it -- unlike the newspapers," Caldara declares. Moreover, Caldara was a leading opponent of C and D, and he believes that C, which barely passed, might have gone down in defeat if the press had been more evenhanded. (Referendum D failed by a small margin.) But if his decision to commission "Unabashed Bias" smells like sour grapes, portions of the study are unexpectedly convincing. Arguably the most intriguing assertion involves Referendum D data the Rocky ran in a seven-part series titled "Budget Breakdown." Although the passages are intended to be purely informational, they are virtually identical to text that appeared in campaign literature circulated by Yes on C and D, an organization pushing the referenda.
For example, here's one campaign blurb: "Capital fund to repair dilapidated school buildings in poorer school districts; traditionally a 2-1 matching grant fund, the $147 million leverages into $220 million in total improvements."
Now, here's the Rocky item: "Capital funds to repair dilapidated buildings in the poorest school districts. Typically, each $2 of these funds are matched by $1 by local districts, which means $220 million in total improvements: $147 million."
Caldara considers this to be an example of plagiarism, but the usage doesn't quite fit the definition of this journalistic no-no. After all, campaigns offer promotional material to anyone who wants it, and would no doubt be thrilled if newspapers reprinted it verbatim. Attribution is another matter, though. The minor variations between the sentences -- like changing "poorer" to "poorest" -- don't qualify as original reporting. If Rocky writers and editors wanted to use these lines, they should have identified Yes on C and D as a source rather than implying by omission that the stats had been stripped of partiality.
John Temple, the Rocky's editor/publisher/ president, doesn't see things this way. When Westword reached him on September 21, well over a week after "Unabashed Bias" was made public, he hadn't looked at the report yet and saw no reason to make doing so a priority. "I've been really busy," he explained. "And it's study of coverage a year ago, by the very organization that feels aggrieved. After the election, Jon Caldara sent me a five-page, single-spaced letter outlining all his grievances, and I responded to him with my own letter. I know how he feels about this."
Upon learning of the plagiarism accusation, however, Temple agreed to eyeball the specific pages -- and his reaction hardly qualifies as a mea culpa. "Would I have changed it more if I had done it? Yeah," he maintained. "But there's no arguing with the essential facts." For that reason, he concluded, "I think it's bizarre that they think this is a big problem."
Post editor Greg Moore appears to feel the same way about his paper's efforts. When contacted by Westword for this column, he responded with an e-mail stating that he'd provided the only comments he had to offer about the study to John Aloysius Farrell, who penned "Paper Accused of Showing Bias" for the September 13 Post. (To date, the Rocky hasn't presented a similar article.) Moore told Farrell that "we put forth the facts on both sides of the issue in the fairest and clearest light possible" -- but while he conceded that he hadn't been able to fully "digest the report or review the methodology," he suggested that "dividing stories into for or against columns strikes me as subjective and unsophisticated."
To the "unsophisticated" charge, Pryzgoda laughingly pleads guilty. "I thought, 'No kidding,'" she says, "because I used an elementary-school ruler." She and Littman measured the total number of column inches in each article and then counted up the percentages that, according to the study, "pertained to one side or the other." Stories that were within "several inches" of even were deemed neutral.
The primitive technique, which Pryzgoda hopes think tanks elsewhere will replicate, actually wasn't a bad way to go about the task. Granted, sections of the study that complain about the Post publishing a pro-C and D editorial on its front page and the Boulder Daily Camera ordering Caldara not to attack the measures in his column for the paper are more peevish than persuasive. But the findings as a whole generally support the Institute's contentions and provide a significant margin of error. "Let's say we were off by a factor of three," Caldara says. "So that means 3 percent of the stories favored opponents. Does that change a damn thing?"
Maybe not. Nonetheless, Temple doubts that Caldara and company have resolved the liberal-or-conservative-bias question. "The Independence Institute is allowed to invest in anything they want," he says. "But in my view, what an incredible waste of money."
Trouble in store: We've all seen them: men and women sitting at kiosks in supermarkets and box stores trying to cajole passersby to subscribe to the Rocky or the Post. Some are congenial and some are rude, but John Gorklo believes they all deserve empathy -- because, based on his experiences, they're doing an extremely tough job and are lucky to get back anything in return.
A retired minister living in Castle Rock, Gorklo thought he could earn extra income peddling the dailies at retail outlets, so he signed up to work one day a week for a slice of each sale; he says he gets about $42 of a $99 subscription and earns a smaller percentage for a $19.99 "weekender." But over the past few months, he's discovered that most people who still like newspapers already get one, and those who don't have no interest in reconsidering. "I sat at a Safeway in Superior for eight hours and didn't sell a single subscription," he notes.
To make matters worse, he continues, vendors are compensated for fuel by the sale -- and the reimbursement of $2 per subscription (paid with a $30 gas card after fifteen are sold) doesn't come close to covering Gorklo's mileage. He has to drive to weekly meetings in Denver to pick up his last check and get his next assignment, many of which take him far from home. On one occasion, he had to shlep all the way to Broomfield -- and although he sold a subscription that day, it didn't do him any good. When a subscription lapses, the paper is delivered for another ninety days and another bill is sent in the hopes that the customer will absentmindedly pay it. Gorklo reveals that if a vendor gets such a person to re-up during that three-month span or a subsequent thirty-day grace period, he winds up with zilch. "They benefit and give me nothing," he grumbles.
Gorklo didn't receive an assignment the week after complaining about this policy -- which probably saved him money in the long run.