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PoliticsWest Gangs Up With Gang of Four

mark andresen

Most political websites cater to distinct ideological biases. Perhaps the only philosophy shared by contributors to The Corner, from the right-wing National Review, and the left-listing Daily Kos is a disinclination to give the other side equal time. In contrast, former Denver Post business editor Stephen Keating aimed for evenhandedness with PoliticsWest.com, a Post-sponsored site aiming to capitalize on Denver's selection for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In addition to lining up content-sharing agreements with Politico.com and NewWest.net, he launched a homegrown blog called Gang of Four that pits conservative pundits such as Post columnist David Harsanyi and opinion-page contributor John Andrews against progressives like syndicated scribe David Sirota and the Post's Diane Carman.

"It goes back to the idea of the West being in play in 2008 and Colorado changing some political control over the past couple of years," Keating says. "We wanted to capture that on the blog — bring together people who had strong voices and let them take each other on."

Have they ever. Harsanyi and Sirota recently got into a fevered in-print squabble that ended only after Sirota took a temporary break from his Gang of Four contributions. Not that Sirota's absence alleviated all of Harsanyi's headaches. He's taken heat in other quarters for writing negatively about unions even though his status at a union shop — the Post — probably protected him against the sort of sacking experienced in June by fellow columnist Jim Spencer. Spencer, meanwhile, is writing regularly for the Gang despite having had his head handed to him by the site's owner.

Tensions like these can result in lively debate or sound and fury that signifies nothing. Carman feels that some of the Harsanyi-Sirota exchanges have come closer to the latter than the former. "Before the blog was launched, we had conversations with the various participants and editors," she recalls, "and I said I didn't want to be a party to something that degenerated to a level of talk radio. I don't want to be producing something that I would never read myself."

The first Gang items date back to June, and their impersonal tenor was to Andrews's liking. In his view, "the Gang of Four blog gives us the opportunity to model for readers the approach of disagreeing without being disagreeable." This attitude has made Andrews popular with the other members of the Gang. Sirota calls him "my favorite writer" among the regulars, and Spencer often guests on Backbone Radio, an Andrews-hosted program that airs at 5 p.m. Sundays on KNUS/710-AM; he'll next be heard on the September 30 edition.

As for Harsanyi and Sirota, they say nice things about each other when prompted, albeit in fairly terse fashion: Sirota's "an intelligent political observer," Harsanyi says, while Harsanyi "makes a good contribution," according to Sirota. On the blog, however, their respective jibes went well beyond friendly ranking from the get-go. In an August salvo, Harsanyi accused his opposite number of oscillating between "the Sirota of thoughtful debate and Sirota the activist — one who'll say anything to smear a conservative." Around the same period, Sirota compared Harsanyi to Spider Rico, a character from the first Rocky movie whom the Italian Stallion pummels in the ring in reaction to an illegal head-butt.

Still, such counter-punching was a mere prelude to a September 6 dust-up. The previous day, Sirota excoriated a right-to-work initiative put forward by Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, putting an "R" after his name to designate his party affiliation. Shortly thereafter, Harsanyi pointed out that "Aurora council members have no political affiliation" and suggested that the "R" was there because the writer simply "made it up." Sirota shot back with evidence that Frazier is a member of the Colorado Black Republican Forum, and accused Harsanyi of libeling him.

Two Harsanyi posts later (including one in which he wrote that Sirota had "threatened to sue me"), Sirota announced that he was taking a leave from the Gang of Four. He says he's doing so because of a looming deadline for a book tentatively titled The Uprising, as well as the time involved in launching his new column through Creators Syndicate, which is making his work available to newspapers that published writings by his late friend Molly Ivins. He reluctantly admits that the Harsanyi matter played a role, too, but only in terms of workload. "I figured it wouldn't be fair to drop in and then drop back out again if there was the expectation that there would be a lot of back-and-forth," he allows, before promising that he'll be returning to the Gang in a few weeks.

Until then, the most prolific affiliate is probably Spencer, who pens prose that appears on three Internet destinations: Colorado Confidential, the site that hired him after the Post shipped him out; his signature operation, SpencerSpeaks.com; and Gang of Four. However, a post he wrote for the first two, titled "Union Bashers Push Big Lie: Divided We Stand," which went live on September 6 (yes, the same day of the David vs. David throwdown), only appears on the Gang site as a link, for reasons related to the opening section. "This column comes with an upfront disclaimer," Spencer wrote. "I recently lost my job because I had no union protection." A respondent subsequently suggested that all Post columnists were exempt from the contract negotiated with the broadsheet by the Denver Newspaper Guild. "You are wrong," Spencer replied. "One who loves to bash unions is covered by the collective bargaining agreement."

No mistaking that allusion: Harsanyi is in favor of Frazier's right-to-work initiative, but his position is included under the Guild contract. Guild administrative officer Tony Mulligan understands the confusion. "There was a period where the company wrongfully presented columnist jobs as exempt," he says. After the Guild discovered this error, affected columnists were given the option of joining, including Spencer, who declined. Why? "There were a few things that were available to me as an exempt employee that weren't available to me as a union employee," Spencer explains ruefully, adding, "Apparently, job security wasn't one of them."

By the time Harsanyi came aboard, all columnists automatically fell under the contract, though they weren't forced to sign with the union thanks to the Post's open-shop policy — and he chose not to. Nevertheless, had the Post attempted to get rid of him in June, it would have had to go through union procedures, and managers clearly weren't interested in taking this tack. When the paper failed to meet budget-reduction goals through a buyout, supervisors made up the difference by exclusively booting non-union types such as Spencer.

On September 13, Colorado Confidential's Erin Rosa published a piece subtly implying that Harsanyi's opposition to unions is hypocritical because he receives "negotiated benefits such as health insurance and annual pay increases without paying union dues." Harsanyi doesn't buy that. "If I could, I would opt out," he says before praising Spencer with the same strained politeness he displays at the mention of Sirota.

Spencer employs a comparable tone when the topic turns to the Post, which isn't paying him for his Gang contributions; his Colorado Confidential salary is meant to compensate. In a July essay, Spencer confessed to being "pissed off" about his firing. So why the hell is he writing for a Post-related website, especially for free? "What I get is some exposure, which at this point in my career is very important to me," he says. "I think I'm helping myself as much as I'm helping the Denver Post."

Sirota's motivation is similar, and he hopes that upon his return, his jousting with Harsanyi gets beyond the Jane-you-ignorant-slut stage. "Sometimes I think David becomes hypersensitive, and I sometimes get hypersensitive, too," he says. "But I think we both realize that doesn't make for very good reading."

Harsanyi concurs. "At times our ideological differences have degenerated into something that's too personal and not very interesting for the common reader," he acknowledges. "We need to work on that."

With everyone cognizant of potential dangers, Keating is confident that the Gang, and PoliticsWest.com as a whole, will strike the right balance. "It's like a party where you invite interesting people and hope they have a good conversation," he says. "You don't want them to start pushing and shoving."