Bill Ritter Blasted in Page One Denver Post Editorial

The editorial writers at the Denver Post didn't soft-peddle their displeasure with Colorado Governor Bill Ritter for issuing a November 2 executive order effectively allowing unions to organize bargaining units for state workers -- a move that bypassed the legislature, which is presently dominated by his fellow Democrats. In a November 4 salvo entitled "A Colorado Promise Broken," an anonymous scribe representing the Post editorial board likened Ritter 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 declared, "We're concerned this may be the beginning of the end of Ritter as governor" approximately one year into his four-year term.

Yet arguably more intriguing than the Post's general views on Ritter's actions was the decision to run the editorial on page one, and to leave out elements that are key to understanding why the governor did what he did, for better or for worse.

Way back in the day, front-page editorials turned up quite regularly at the Post, and many of them were every bit as vitriolic as the paper's most recent one. A 2002 Westword feature about a plan to expand Denver parks quoted a 1912 screed in which the Post's Frederick Bonfils excoriated then-Mayor Robert Speer, declaring, "You will be known as the most inefficent and corrupt mayor Denver ever had..."

As the years passed, however, newspapers became increasingly concerned with creating separation between opinion pieces and typical news articles that aim for objectivity -- and as a result, the page-one editorial concept began falling by the wayside at publications like the Post. According to a 2005 column by Rocky Mountain News media analyst Dave Kopel, only one editorial made the Post's cover between 1946 and October 30, 2005, when the paper went up-front with its support of referendums C and D, a pair of measures the editorial board felt were necessary to stave off a "fiscal hurricane." (In the end, C won voter approval, while D went down to defeat.)

Why did the Ritter editorial earn such placement? Perhaps because the Post had been so effusive in its praise of the governor earlier this year after he vetoed House Bill 1072, described by the paper as legislation "advocated by labor" that would have made "it easier to organize union or agency shops." Although Ritter was under tremendous pressure to sign the measure from big-wigs in charge of the Democratic National Convention, the paper's February 5 editorial encouraged rejection using the same sort of language that surfaced recently: "We urge him to veto it and pass the word to the legislature that special interest legislation isn't good for Colorado -- and he's not going to be anyone's toady."

The November 2 executive order doesn't duplicate HB 1072, but they share enough components to have raised the Post's hackles under any circumstances -- and Ritter's back-door handling of the situation undoubtedly magnified the editorialists' sense of betrayal. But the November 4 attack fails to mention either Ritter's veto of the earlier bill or the Democratic National Convention, which virtually every political observer feels was the driving force behind his decision. These omissions are as dubious as the choice to quote unnamed "experts" who suggest that "collective bargaining can add as much as 30 percent to the cost of doing business." Citing so extreme a figure without informing readers about its source smacks of spin and naked political partisanship.

Both these charges were leveled at the Post following its 2004 endorsement of George W. Bush via an editorial that spent as much time ripping the current pres as praising him. The October 28 edition of the Message tackled this topic, noting that many observers believed Post owner Dean Singleton, a personal pal of Dubya, had his fingerprints all over this quizzical development -- and Singleton didn't exactly break a sweat denying it. Betcha plenty of Dems believe Singleton's responsible this time around, too.

Of course, the Post is known in these parts as the editorially liberal paper, as opposed to the editorially conservative Rocky Mountain News. But while the folks at the Rocky generally seem comfortable with their reputation, Post types sometimes chafe at being pigeonholed -- and they can use their smackdown of Colorado's Democratic governor on the cover of the Sunday paper immediately before an off-year election as proof that they shouldn't be stereotyped. By going above and beyond to attack Ritter in the most public way imaginable, though, the Post editorial encourages speculation about the paper's real motives that could well undermine the point the board wanted to make in the first place. -- Michael Roberts

Update: The Dean Singleton connection noted above is the explicit topic of an item by former Post columnist Jim Spencer launched on November 5 at the Colorado Confidential site. In it, Spencer writes explicitly about "Dean Singleton's front-page editorial," and quotes Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer, who says Singleton was informed about the executive order in advance and reacted very negatively. In addition, Spencer alludes to Singleton's not especially positive dealings with unions at a number of his newspaper properties. Check out the Colorado Confidential effort here. -- MR

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts