The Post Takes Opinions Above the Fold

Rather than mincing words, a November 4 editorial in the Denver Post sliced and diced its subject, Governor Bill Ritter — and Post kingpin Dean Singleton supplied the blade and did much of the carving.

Two days earlier, on a Friday afternoon (a day and time when politicians often take controversial actions, since the citizenry is generally paying more attention to the impending weekend than to news developments), Ritter issued an executive order permitting state employees to join a union. The document's provisions aren't as broad as those in House Bill 1072, a union measure he vetoed in February, but "A Colorado Promise Broken," a broadside credited to "The Denver Post editorial board," made no mention of such distinctions — and neither did it allude to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, whose organizers have been imploring Ritter and his fellow Democrats to make Colorado appear more union-friendly. Instead, the editorial likened the guv to Jimmy Hoffa, called him "a toady to labor bosses and the old vestiges of his party — a bagman for unions and special interests," and suggested that his actions put him at risk "of becoming Colorado's first one-term governor since Walter Johnson in 1950."

What really made the editorial stand out, though, was its placement on page one, where only two other Post editorials have appeared since 1946 — a November 2000 plea to Al Gore and George W. Bush not to drag out that year's disputed election, and an October 2005 love letter to referenda C and D. (The first referendum, which freed approximately $3 billion tied up under TABOR Amendment rules, passed; the second, authorizing the state to borrow another $2.1 billion, did not.) Singleton, the Post's publisher and head of Denver-based MediaNews Group, one of the largest newspaper companies in the country, is the only person with the power to set aside this chunk of prime real estate for an editorial, and he confirms that he did so for reasons similar to those that had motivated him two years ago.

"We believed the state would be in dire straits had C failed, and we thought giving our view on the front page was the right thing to do because C was so critical to the future of Colorado," Singleton says. "And commenting on the governor allowing special interests to dictate his actions based on the issues we will have to discuss and debate over the next three years is just as important. We think the wrong turn he made here could have bigger implications than the failure of C could have had."

The use of the word "we" isn't coincidental; Singleton says that "A Colorado Promise Broken" reflects the opinions of the entire editorial board, not simply him. But this contention is unlikely to convince critics such as Jim Spencer, a former Post scribe whose November 5 column (published on the Colorado Confidential website) refers to "Dean Singleton's front-page editorial" in its subhead. Likewise, Evan Dreyer, a onetime Post city editor who now serves as Ritter's spokesman, identifies Singleton as the man behind the diatribe. "I don't believe that Dean sat at the keyboard and typed out the editorial," Dreyer concedes. "But I believe that he had the ear of his editorial-page editor, perhaps dictating some specific language." As evidence, he reveals that "Dean has used some of those exact words and phrases in personal conversations with the governor."

Such accounts imply that Dan Haley, the Post's editorial-page editor, served as a de facto stenographer for his boss. Singleton and Haley insist otherwise, portraying the editorial as a collaborative effort that they assembled and shaped, with Haley doing the actual composing, prior to running it past other boardmembers. Things might've gone differently in the event of a dispute, however. "If the editorial-page editor strongly disagreed, we would probably have had a parting of the ways," Singleton says.

When told about this comment, Haley says, "I don't think that means he would have fired me. I think that means he probably thought I would quit — that's my guess. But we didn't have a disagreement on this issue." Haley adds that "Dean didn't pressure me to do anything I didn't want to do."

According to Dreyer, Ritter informed Haley and Singleton about the impending executive order on November 1, the day before it went public. (Rocky Mountain News editor/publisher/president John Temple and Rocky editorial-page editor Vince Carroll also received an advance heads-up.) Singleton "was immediately critical within two minutes of the conversation," notes Dreyer, who began hearing rumors of a front-page editorial shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, he says he was unpleasantly surprised by the salvo's "baseless hyperbole," as well as what he characterizes as several key omissions: "One, this is not collective bargaining. Two, there is no binding arbitration. Three, the governor retains full budget authority, as does the Joint Budget Committee and the legislature. If there's anything the legislature and the JBC don't like, they can take it out. And Colorado has very strict constitutional and statutory limits on spending, and they remain in full force."

This argument doesn't persuade Singleton, who sees Ritter's order as a betrayal of the faith placed in him by Colorado's voters and the Post, which endorsed him in 2006. "This governor had campaigned as being a moderate and pro-business, and he was elected with enormous business support," he stresses. "But we believe the governor badly went off track. Talk to anyone in the business community; they're enraged. I must have talked to five or six business leaders in the last three days, and their reaction is, 'I feel used. I went out and raised money for this guy because I believed he would be a moderate governor, and he turned around and screwed me.'"

Dreyer is among those who suspect that Singleton's anger at Ritter is rooted in an intense dislike of unions. Singleton denies that, saying he would have objected just as strongly had the governor kowtowed to any special interest, not just ones affiliated with organized labor. But he's gotten crossways with unions on numerous occasions throughout his career. During the late '90s, MediaNews purchased the assets of the Long Beach Press-Telegram rather than the paper itself — an approach used as pretext to toss out a union pact in existence for more than fifty years. More recently, in California, MediaNews merged the Alameda Newspaper Group, a collection of papers governed by union pacts, with several newly purchased non-union papers — and because ANG employees represented a minority of the new firm that resulted, the union contract was junked.

Do these moves mark Singleton as a union-hater? Not in his eyes. While tensions are evident at papers such as Pennsylvania's York Daily Record, where guild workers created a music video called "MediaNews Blues" — lyrics include "I'm feeling so low, now that I know/She's sending my money to Denver" — he describes his overall relationship with unions as "amicable." (Singleton cites examples such as recently finalized labor deals at the Denver Newspaper Agency, where a new contract won overwhelming approval, and Minnesota's St. Paul Pioneer Press.) As for the ANG dust-up, he's unapologetic. "Whether you're union or non-union is determined by the size of the surviving company," he emphasizes. "We did what the laws say you do — and you're not anti-union if you're following the law."

Whatever the case, the November 4 editorial put Ritter on the defensive, and the following day, he spent as much time trying to control the damage as he did touting a climate-change initiative that was supposed to be his main focus. An afternoon appearance on KHOW didn't do the trick, since host Dan Caplis was consistently critical, but the governor received a warmer reception on AM 760 from Jay Marvin, who was offended by the editorial. "Mr. Singleton has a lot of nerve," Marvin says. "These are not the days when William Randolph Hearst sat in his castle in San Simeon and decided who was going to be the president or who we were going to go to war with. The people of Colorado are going to decide who should be governor, not Dean Singleton."

That's fine by Singleton, who rejects Hearst comparisons "out of hand" and contends that he was merely trying to start a dialogue about Ritter's order. "We thought it was important enough that the Post needed to give its view," he maintains. "Time will tell whether the future will prove to be as the Post's editorial page thinks it will. The reader is free to agree or disagree or say 'I don't care.'"