A purported 2006 memo from the Colorado Democracy Alliance, an organization that funnels money to liberal candidates and causes, looks benign at first glance. It's mainly a roster of names and contact info for cash-happy heavy hitters such as Tim Gill, Pat Stryker and Rutt Bridges. But a closer look reveals a few oddities. One list is labeled "Operatives (Strategic, Overt & Covert)" — language that sounds as if it was lifted from the screenplay of Get Smart. And a box opposite info for Colorado AFL-CIO political director Carolyn Siegel contains the following notes: "Minimum wage — wedge issue management — increasing CO union power: 'Educate the Idiots' campaign, Target: minorities, GED's, drop-outs..."
When the conservative website Face the State published an item about the "Idiots" memo, along with a sheaf of other CDA-related documents, on October 1, the folks behind the right-leaning Drudge Report took notice — and the prominence of the Drudge link that followed caused the smaller operation's web hits to accelerate at a dizzying pace. According to Face the State managing editor Brad Jones, "We got over 100,000 page views in less than 24 hours" — a total he describes as "exponentially larger" than the number of visits the site racks up on the average day. The onslaught didn't crash the www.facethestate.com site, but it slowed the server to a crawl. "Getting picked up by Drudge is like drinking from a firehose," he says.
Had things gone differently, Jones would have been lucky to get a sip. Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, says he received the collection of CDA communiqués, including the "Idiots" memo, in February or March. And he cheerfully admits to shopping them around to Channel 7's John Ferrugia, the Rocky Mountain News's Lynn Bartels and the Denver Post's Jessica Fender before contacting Jones.
In the end, Channel 7 and the Rocky chose not to run any stories based on the material, and the Post only began drawing upon the Caldara trove after the Face the State/Drudge combo brought the "Idiots" jottings to a national audience. The Post's October 3 overview piece was accompanied by "Memo Referring to 'Idiots' Called Fake," a sidebar in which the AFL-CIO's Siegel said the papers in question looked "bogus" to her. Then, after printing another tie-in on October 6, the paper issued October 7's "Leaker of Alleged 'Idiots' Memo Speaks," a front-page offering that named Isaac Smith as the person who'd sent Caldara the pages in the first place. Smith said he'd "come into contact with the documents" while interning for Bridges' defunct Bighorn Center, whose office was located next door to the CDA on the 17th floor of downtown's Wells Fargo building. But although CDA legal adviser Mark Grueskin identified many of the documents as genuine, he called the "Idiots" memo a forgery.
This sequence of events raises a slew of questions, with the largest of them pivoting on the distinctions between what Jones refers to as "old-line media" and the newfangled type. Did the three mainstream outlets mentioned above initially decline to report about the documents because of journalistic qualms? Was Face the State more willing to move forward despite uncertainties about the "Idiots" memo's authenticity because it furthered the outfit's agenda? And how much of an impact did the memo's sudden Internet ubiquity have on the Post's subsequent coverage?
Plenty, Jones believes. "We forced the Denver Post's hand," he says. "We forced them to run a story that they were choosing to sit on for whatever reason." As for why the Post had been reluctant to pull the trigger, he places the blame on "a culture that no longer puts a priority on investigative reporting or in-depth breaking news and that routinely takes veteran political reporters off their beat to cover God knows what. They no longer seem to have the resources and the confidence, really, to handle a story of these proportions."
Oh, yeah — Jones also brings up another old favorite: media bias. He says there's "a bit of a dual standard" when it comes to Dems and Republicans — a contention he tries to back up by contrasting the CDA coverage with the targeting of Alan Philp, director of the conservative Trailhead Group, who got into hot water over dubious political ads a couple of years ago. "The media jumped with glee to cover anything and everything related to Trailhead," he maintains, "but they certainly didn't jump on this."
Colorado Republic Party head Dick Wadhams echoes Jones's assertions. "Generally, there's always a higher bar for Republicans and conservatives than there is for Democrats and liberals when things like this emerge," he argues. Not so in his case, however. He decried the "Idiots" memo in the Post sidebar even though he still hadn't seen it at this writing. Nevertheless, he believes it's the real thing, because the memo's sentiments correspond with his view of "liberal, elitist Democrats" who "don't have anything but disdain for anyone who doesn't match their income or education level."
Gary Clark, managing editor for the Post, shrugs off such spin, suggesting that "in Dick Wadhams's mind, the answer to every question is media bias." In fact, he says, Fender had always intended to write about many of the CDA documents that Caldara provided. It just took her a few months to nail down what he sees as a meatier tale than the one that struck the Drudge Report's fancy. In Clark's opinion, "an organization that managed to skirt various election laws and coordinate strategies for various causes is a hell of a political story." He acknowledges that Face the State's pieces had an effect on the timing of the Post's efforts, but only in the sense that the paper moved up its planned publication by a couple of days rather than holding the first article for Sunday. Moreover, he wasn't terribly impressed by the site's work. "They didn't have a coherent story," he says. "They were just throwing sausage against the wall."
Channel 7 station manager Byron Grandy, who served as the station's news director at the time Caldara contacted Ferrugia, doesn't feel the Post deserves a Pulitzer for its October 7 "Idiots" package, either. "It seemed kind of thin to me," he says, expressing no regrets that his station passed. The same goes for Rocky managing editor Deb Goeken. Via e-mail, she dismisses bias claims by noting that earlier this year, reporter Bartels broke the story about another memo that reflected badly on Dems; it spoke about a "foot on throat" campaign to squash Republican senatorial candidate Bob Schaffer. But in this case, she writes, "we decided that it was impossible to verify to the Rocky's standards whether the so-called 'smoking gun' document was legitimate" — and "once we had made this latest decision, we weren't going to change our minds when a blog that has no standards for verification reports it."
Them's fightin' words for Jones, who insists that he spent a lot of time with Smith before determining that the "Idiots" memo was bona fide. Still, Caldara doesn't understand why journalists at Channel 7 and the Rocky let their doubts about this single document dissuade them from digging into the rest of them. "If they couldn't authenticate the 'Educate the Idiots' memo, they didn't have to use it. That memo was just a few pages in a hundred pages of incredible stuff that the Colorado Democracy Alliance did authenticate," he says. To him, it remains "a huge frickin' story" — and if telling it would be a little more difficult without the grabby hook of the "Idiots" memo, "isn't that the media's job?"
It is from Clark's perspective. He implies that the Post will be looking even deeper into the CDA as the November election grows nearer. But when speaking about the "Idiots" memo, about which the Post has written twice thus far, he concedes that "I have no way of knowing if it's a forgery or not."
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In this media environment, such distinctions seem to matter less and less with each passing day.
"They no longer seem to have the resources and the confidence, really, to handle a story of these proportions."