It's not often that an executive at a major daily newspaper declares his paper's ethical standards to be higher than those of the competition. But Rocky Mountain News editor/publisher/president John Temple comes mighty close in discussing Democratic representative Michael Garcia, who resigned as Assistant Majority Leader of the Colorado House on February 1 after allegations of offensive sexual conduct went public. "Perhaps they knew something I didn't know," Temple says of the conservative FaceTheState.com website and the Denver Post, both of which published pre-resignation Garcia stories. "But if they only knew what I knew, then their standards are lower."
Garcia's fall was spurred by an alleged January 7 encounter with a female lobbyist that recalls Paula Jones's long-ago trou-dropping accusations against President Bill Clinton. According to Face the State and Post accounts, the pair were part of a group that met at the Lancer Lounge to shoot pool — and when they were alone, Garcia sidled up to the lobbyist, exposed his penis and said, "Wouldn't this be real nice inside of you?" Whether or not a pool table was involved in this display remains a mystery.
News of the Lancer episode broke on January 31, and the following day, when a roundup titled "Dem Accused of Exposure, Lewd Remarks" appeared on page one of the Post, Garcia issued a statement describing press reports about his behavior as "highly inaccurate." For one thing, he insisted that he and the lobbyist had "engaged in consensual conduct." But upon conceding that even these actions were "inappropriate given my position in the legislature and the fact that the other party is a lobbyist," he resigned. (A lawyer representing Garcia didn't return a call seeking comment.)
Shortly thereafter, the Rocky joined Face the State and the Post in reporting this development online, and the paper offered expanded coverage in its February 2 edition. That day's articles skipped the eyebrow-raising proposition attributed to Garcia by the other outlets, for reasons that aren't entirely clear — but the Rocky compensated with "A Cautionary Tale for the Web Era," a column in which Temple explained the tab's delay in publishing the original claims and a whole lot more. Temple noted that the Rocky's ace legislative reporter, Lynn Bartels, had first learned of the lobbyist's assertions the previous week. But when she came to Temple with a draft of a proposed story early on January 31, before either Face the State or the Post had weighed in, he declined to publish it. Without a formal criminal complaint, witnesses to the Lancer scene, corroboration from women who may have experienced similar harassment from Garcia or direct verification by Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff that an investigation was ongoing (something Romanoff was precluded from offering under House rules), he regarded the incident to be "a case of 'he said, she said.'"
Subsequent decisions by Face the State and the Post didn't change Temple's mind. Indeed, his column argues that the traditional media shouldn't succumb to pressure from online "news organizations" (the quote marks are his) to move forward on items they would have held during the pre-Internet period until all the facts had been established. "Many stories reported on blogs are going to be true, even when so-called mainstream news organizations like the Rocky won't touch them," he writes. "But some are going to be false. And many times, you're not going to know the difference."
These observations presume that the Post pushed ahead with its Garcia reportage in part because Face the State had already put up a piece of its own. But editor Greg Moore, who wasn't directly involved in determinations about when and what to publish in this instance, denies that the site's article factored in to the Post's judgments. In his words, "We're not influenced by what other people do or don't do" — and he's even more blunt when asked if he feels that Temple subtly criticized the Post's principles in his column. "Come on!" he exclaims. "Just because John wants to bloviate about why they didn't do a story doesn't translate into that. There are stories they run, there are stories we run — and sometimes they converge and sometimes they don't. But once we found out that it had gotten to Romanoff's desk, it made it a pretty easy call."
For his part, Brad Jones, the managing editor of Face the State, takes umbrage at other implications in Temple's column, including the depiction of his site as a blog. "We're an online news source, not a blog," he says. "We separate our reporting from our opinion, we have a paid staff, and we take a proactive investigative stance." Likewise, Jones resents the insinuation that he'd sacrifice accuracy and journalistic credibility if given the chance to spatter political opponents. "There are blogs out there in Colorado that publish rumor as fact, and that's not what we do," he stresses. Although he acknowledges that Face the State promotes a "limited government, conservative, libertarian perspective," he says the site's ethical approach is very much like the one trumpeted by the Rocky even when reporting bad things about liberals — and as evidence, he points to a line in the site's initial item about the lobbyist. The passage reads, "Face the State is protecting the woman's identity, consistent with newsroom policy not to reveal the identities of alleged sex assault victims."
Temple didn't attempt to contact either Moore or Jones before writing his column, nor does he feel he should have. "I'm not going to waste my time interviewing other editors about their thinking process," he says. "I tried to lay out what I was looking for" — and he cared most about nailing down every aspect of the subject independently as opposed to simply repeating information found while web-surfing. Face the State "isn't a news organization to me," he allows. "It's something different, and it's okay for it to be out there. But in a case like this, I'm not going to publish a story that begins, 'FaceTheState.com says.' I'm not going to destroy somebody's career just because somebody else says something. Otherwise, you're a reed in the wind."
Bartels is dealing with her own brand of blowback. She's received e-mails from readers charging her with pro-Democrat bias for not running accusations against Garcia earlier, as if she had any choice in the matter. On top of that, she must deal with paranoia from the very politicos who would be expected to most enjoy Garcia's fall. "I've had several Republicans say to me, 'The rumor is, you're going to write a story about Republicans and their indiscretions,'" Bartels reveals, adding, "All I'll say is, there may have been one or two."
Don't expect the Rocky to publish such material without compelling proof of its veracity. And betcha Face the State won't go there, either.
Sectional healing: No, the Business section hasn't vanished from the weekday Post. On February 5, it began appearing as part of Denver & the West; only Sunday reportage will now run in a separate pull-out. Moreover, Colorado Sunday, a lifestyle-oriented section introduced in September 2005, is being reduced to a single page. Readers can find it — where else? — in Denver & the West on February 10.
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Post editor Moore mentions two reasons for the Business move. "One is the continuing pressure to save newsprint and space," he says, "and the other is that the section was virtually disappearing. Generally, we've been running a six-page section, and a page and a half of that was obituaries. We didn't want it to completely fly away." Even so, he emphasizes that "our commitment to business-news coverage is the same, and the number of people devoted to coverage is the same, too."
Regarding Colorado Sunday, Moore says he liked certain aspects of the presentation but admits that "it never achieved the type of section status I always hoped it would — and the editorial holes were horrific." He thinks the single page will retain the elements that worked best even as it allows for "a cleaner presentation."
The Post remains in cost-cutting mode, which makes sense given that last month, Standard & Poor's seriously downgraded the credit rating of its parent company, MediaNews Group. As a result, readers will have to work a little harder to find the work of business columnist Al Lewis, who made fun of the "incredible, shrinking Rocky" in a blog published just about this time last year.
Clearly, there's a whole lot of shrinkage going on.