Plenty of info consumers believe that the press regularly slants the news in one direction or the other, but definitively proving this thesis isn't easy. Left-wing readers of the Bernard Goldberg tome Bias, which contends that most outlets are liberal, may find the author's arguments to be merely anecdotal. Likewise, conservative viewers of OutFoxed, a documentary that charges Fox News with being a de facto PR machine for the George W. Bush administration, are apt to consider the conclusions drawn by filmmaker Robert Greenwald to be either hugely overstated or utterly bogus.
Campaign donations seemingly offer evidence that's less susceptible to dispute. If a reporter, editor or executive dips into his wallet on behalf of a candidate or cause, his objectivity on that issue must immediately be called into question, right? Yet evidence that coverage in Colorado has been swayed as a result of such actions is decidedly mixed.
Take Dean Singleton, whose MediaNews Group owns the Denver Post. Singleton is also on the Post's editorial board, but his opinion doesn't necessarily trump the views of those serving with him. "I contributed to George Bush in 2000, and the Post endorsed Al Gore," Singleton says. "And I contributed to [Republican Senator] Wayne Allard in 2002, and the Post endorsed Tom Strickland," Allard's Democratic opponent. He chuckles as he adds, "I don't think anybody can draw a correlation to my contributions, because I think that in virtually every case, the Post has editorialized against who I contributed to."
There are several exceptions to this rule. In 1996, Singleton gave $500 to Allard in his first race against Strickland; in that election, the Post backed Allard. Two years later, Singleton tossed $500 into the "victory fund" of Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who won the Post's endorsement as well as the election. Also in 1998, Singleton and Ryan McKibben, who was then the Post's publisher, publicly supported a ballot proposal to authorize the expenditure of taxpayer dollars to build what became Invesco Field at Mile High. Not only did the Post vigorously editorialize in favor of the plan, but it forked over $10,000 to a lobbying group dubbed Citizens for a New Stadium. Strangely, the Post's donation to CFANS, recorded on the Colorado Secretary of State's website, www.sos.state.co.us, is dated November 4, 1998 -- one day after the pro-stadium measure passed. The Post disclosed this donation in an article published early the next month.
For Michael Petrelis, a San Francisco-based activist who's tirelessly tracked donations by media representatives for the past six months, this acknowledgement, belated though it seems, is the crux of the matter. "When I first started my research, I really felt it was not okay for reporters to be making any sort of donations," Petrelis says. "Since then, I've been educated about how donations are really a part of First Amendment and free-speech rights. So my official position is yes, reporters and editors can make donations. But what I call for is transparency, meaning full disclosure about the donations in the papers and on websites, so readers can decide if there's been any influence."
Because few media organizations meet this standard, Petrelis uses his own site, www.mpetrelis.blogspot.com, to document donations. He was inspired to do so by the ethics policy adopted by the New York Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. In a section labeled "Voting, Campaigns and Public Issues," the mammoth document states that staffers "may not campaign for, demonstrate for, or endorse candidates, ballot causes or efforts to enact legislation. They may not wear campaign buttons or themselves display any other insignia of partisan politics." Furthermore, workers "may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate or election cause. Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides."
Indeed, the online revolution has made tracking political donations simpler than ever, and Petrelis used the technology to his advantage. Resources such as PoliticalMoneyLine, accessible at www.tray.com, revealed the vast scope of political giving among Times representatives. He discovered that dozens of past and present employees bequeathed dollars to a wide range of mostly liberal objectives, and so did a great many relatives of Arthur Sulzberger Jr. , publisher of the Times. Because Petrelis widely distributed his findings, the information found its way into publications such as the New York Post, a Times rival, and spurred a response from Sulzberger himself, who explained that many of the donations were made before the ethics policy was enacted.
More recently, Petrelis heard directly from Knight-Ridder chief exec Tony Ridder, who reacted to revelations about contributions submitted by personnel from his company, as well as questions about a 1999 donation to George W. Bush credited to him. In an August 31 e-mail to Petrelis, Ridder recollected that "my wife gave $2,000 to the Bush campaign and half of it was attributed to me. Since then, neither one of us has contributed to a political campaign, nor will we contribute again as long as I'm CEO of the company." Ridder subsequently pledged to "tighten our ethics policy, so there can be no ambiguity about newsroom personnel, publishers or corporate executives with newsroom oversight responsibilities contributing to campaigns that our newspapers are covering."
A draft of the Denver Post's ethics policy, finalized earlier this year, was nearly as tough as Ridder's words; it effectively put the kibosh on driving a car featuring a candidate's bumper sticker. The present version allows much more wiggle room, to the relief of staffers who thought the original restrictions were draconian. For instance, employees are advised to "take great care" before joining a political advocacy group in order to "avoid conflicts of interest." Nonetheless, the only person directly associated with the paper who donated to a candidate for national office of late was Singleton, who dropped $2,000 into Bush's coffers in August 2003. He says the Bush donation, as well as those to Allard and Campbell, were motivated mainly by "friendship." He characterizes the amounts he gave as "tokens. I'm not a major contributor. I've given for personal reasons."
Singleton insists that he wouldn't have done so if he controlled the Post's content. "I think it would be improper for anybody who covers the news or makes day-to-day editorial decisions at the Post to make political contributions," he says.
Judging by the PoliticalMoneyLine records, most Colorado journalists agree with this general philosophy -- but Morley Ballantine, who edits the Durango Herald, appears to be an exception. Since 2001, she's dished out $12,500 to Emily's List, an organization that aids female candidates who are also pro-choice Democrats. She has also made separate contributions to prominent women running for office in other states, such as Washington's Patty Murray and Maryland's Barbara Mikulski. Ballantine, who in July received an award for her work in support of abortion rights from Planned Parenthood, didn't return calls seeking comment.
Business-siders, by and large, are freer with their cash than are their editorial counterparts. In 1998, former Post publisher McKibben, who's presently on the payroll of mega-billionaire Phil Anschutz, donated $500 to the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Bill Owens, who won the Post's endorsement. As for Kirk MacDonald, who heads the Denver Newspaper Agency, which has overseen business operations for the Post and the Rocky Mountain News since the joint-operating agreement linking them was put in place, he's given $4,000 to Republican senatorial candidate Pete Coors, $1,000 to Ken Salazar, Coors's Democratic opponent, and $1,000 to the Republican National Committee over the past eighteen months. Because MacDonald has no role in determining editorial material at the Post and the News, he says, "this is not a gray area. Any perceived conflict would suggest a lack of understanding of the JOA. In the context of the JOA, I'm like any other private-sector CEO who makes contributions not only to political candidates, but to charitable organizations and non-profits." For instance, MacDonald also supports the National Sports Center for the Disabled and the University of Colorado's Webb-Waring Institute, on whose boards he sits.
Another noteworthy local media giver is Roger Ogden, president and general manager of Channel 9, the Post's broadcast partner. Rather than targeting a specific candidate, however, Ogden allotted $2,000 for the National Association of Broadcasters Television and Radio Political Action Committee (TARPAC). Other area media donors to this committee include two representatives from Channel 2, news director Tom Sides and vice president and general manager James Zerwekh, whose contribution was made in late 2003, prior to his arrival in Denver.
The www.nab.org website describes TARPAC as a bipartisan group; it's devoted to goals such as "preventing expansion of low-power FM stations into commercial radio stations' third adjacent channel of interference protection," "fighting increased content regulations and excessive fines for indecent content," and "opposing a 1 percent gross revenue tax on all radio and TV stations that would subsidize candidates' political ads." Because these are topics on which television operations might report, "donations to them should be disclosed, too," says blogger Petrelis. "I don't think there should be a distinction between them and candidates or causes."
In the same way, Petrelis prefers not to differentiate between local outlets and their corporate masters, and the connections aren't tough to trace. Only one employee from the Rocky Mountain News -- a copy editor who gave $250 to the Democratic National Committee in 2003 -- turns up on PoliticalMoneyLine in regard to the ongoing campaign, but oodles of folks from E.W. Scripps, the Rocky's parent company, are represented. So, too, are many big shots and assorted underlings affiliated with Gannett (Channel 9), Tribune (Channel 2), Viacom (Channel 4), McGraw-Hill (Channel 7), Fox (Channel 31) and Clear Channel (KOA, KHOW and six other Denver-area radio stations). Some of them have nothing to do with editorial decision-making; others do.
Oh, yeah: No one from Westword has made a donation to a federal candidate or cause during the latest election cycle. Furthermore, just one person affiliated with New Times, the paper's owner, is listed as a donor -- a copy editor with the now-shuttered Los Angeles New Times, who gave $500 to Emily's List. Otherwise, the closest connection is a $2,000 contribution to John Kerry by Dan Savage, whose syndicated boinking-advice column, Savage Love, appears regularly in these pages.
Granted, the main reason no Westworder has made a major political contribution lately is probably because none of us can afford to. Modest salaries=ethical responsibility? Maybe so.
At the Rocky, meanwhile, a memo from managing editor Deb Goeken reflects the paranoia stirred by increased scrutiny upon media-figure donations. Goeken's topic was a September 28 concert at the Fillmore Auditorium featuring Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles that's intended to raise funds for senatorial hopeful Salazar. "If you buy a concert ticket, you will be listed as a Salazar donor," she wrote, adding, "since our long-standing policy precludes all newsroom employees from making political donations, none of us will be able to attend."
This edict means there won't be an Internet trail leading to the Rocky. As such, readers will have to search for media bias the old-fashioned way -- by reading between the lines.
Making copies: A recent University of Colorado-Boulder graduate, Brian Lucas didn't have a lot of background in journalism when he and a group of CU-bred associates conceived TechDenver, which he calls "a technology meeting place for decision-makers in Denver." Since launching the startup, accessible at www.techdenver.com, about six months ago, he's built a substantial audience; he estimates that the site attracts approximately 40,000 unique visitors per month, and that number is growing. Along the way, he's learned plenty of lessons, the most painful of which took place last week. Lucas had to changes horses in the middle of the information stream after numerous data-swiping incidents so severe that they can't really be described as plagiarism. "Duplication" is actually a better word for it.
Lucas became aware of the problem after receiving an e-mail from representatives of Internet News, a portal at www.internetnews.com that provides national tech reports, as well as stories tailored for markets such as Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. (The site is owned by Connecticut-based Jupitermedia.) The message pointed out that several TechDenver stories that ran under the byline of staffer Ferhad Bazyar had their origins in Internet News reports. Check out the lead of an August 19 Internet News article credited to Erin Joyce and Paul Shear: "With traders' eyes locked on their computer screens, fingers twitching as they awaited the GOOG ticker to move, Google floated into the public markets Thursday at $85 and immediately jumped to $100 on the Nasdaq stock market." Now, here's the first sentence from the version attributed to Bazyar: "With traders' eyes locked on their computer screens, fingers twitching as they awaited the GOOG ticker to move, Google floated into the public markets Thursday at $85 and immediately jumped to $100 on the Nasdaq stock market."
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To paraphrase Truman Capote's famous insult about Jack Kerouac: That's not writing -- it's typing.
When Westword contacted Lucas on September 8, he had taken the questionable Bazyar material off-line and said he was "investigating" the allegations. Because the crime wasn't exactly a mystery on par with, say, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lucas made his determination within hours. An "official retraction notice" was posted on TechDenver's home page that read, "It has been brought to the attention of TechDenver that several stories submitted for inclusion by a particular author in TechDenver's ŒNational News' section had similarities to other news services, including internetnews.com and cnet.com. After this was called to our attention, we pulled these stories for further review. We offer our apologies to these organizations and are working to ensure this does not happen again."
Of Bazyar, who was not available for comment, Lucas says, "The author is no longer associated with our website." He maintains that TechDenver is changing the way it will present national information. As he puts it, "We're going to be aggregating news sources and have links directly to them. In the future, all the links will be directed to other sites, but we'll still be a resource site for people."
This approach is a little harder than cutting and pasting, but a lot more honest.