Wayne Laugesen Vs. Rich Tosches: A Colorado Springs Media Showdown

Update below:

Wayne Laugesen and Rich Tosches are well-known figures in the Colorado Springs press: Laugesen (pictured) serves as the editorial-page editor for the Colorado Springs Gazette, and Tosches, a former Gazette columnist, writes regularly for the Colorado Springs Independent, the city's longtime alternative weekly. But the pair probably won't be hanging out together anytime soon -- not after the publication of a Tosches column in which New Mexico-based activist Mikey Weinstein implied that a reference in an e-mail Laugesen wrote was anti-Semitic. For his part, Laugesen denies the charge and expresses frustration that Tosches didn't contact him to get his side of the story.

Laugesen and Tosches are colorful figures who've shown up in a number of Message columns over the years. Laugesen was at the center of a September 23, 2004, offering focusing on an unusual story dating from his stint as a staffer at the Boulder Weekly; when a Boulder couple was ordered to reinstall some antique windows they'd removed from their residence partly for safety reasons, the journalist thrust himself into the story by destroying the windows himself. In addition, he turned up in a December 20, 2007 effort to talk about his move from the Weekly to the Gazette, whose editorial policies were more in line with his libertarian views. Tosches, meanwhile, spoke up about the end of his nine-year run as a popular Gazette columnist, and a much shorter stay at the Rocky Mountain News, in a February 19, 2004, Message, his 2005 hiring as the so-called "Rocky Mountain Ranger" by the Denver Post, and his 2007 decision to leave the Post when the paper chose to retire the Ranger position.

Since then, Tosches has kept busy as a golf writer for as well as a columnist for the Independent, where he writes under the whimsical "Ranger Rich" moniker. But laughs were secondary in the aforementioned Laugesen salvo, "Gazette's Un-Funny Editorialist," which saw print on May 29. In it, Tosches recounted some of Laugesen's more curious career achievements, including the window-smashing escapade and the fondness with which Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh viewed at least one of his articles; in 2001, McVeigh sent a 1999 story Laugesen wrote for Soldier of Fortune magazine to Fox News in response to a request to "describe his motivations" for his lethal actions.

However, the lion's share of "Un-Funny" revolved around passages Laugesen included in an enormous series of e-mails that went back and forth between him and Colorado Springs resident Richard Baker, an outspoken atheist who enjoys sparring with Laugesen, a proud Catholic (see an accompanying More Messages blog for more -- much more -- on this subject). Laugesen declared, "The Christian haters who've written me seem to believe some conspiracy theory that has Christians conspiring against everyone including the Jews. So who has combined government and religion? Is it the Christians or the Jews? Clearly Jews have done this and Christians have not. Jews overtly control the government of a western nuclear superpower. Christians do not."

Laugesen later told acquaintances that the "western nuclear superpower" he had in mind was Israel. But Weinstein, the head of an organization called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, who caused a stir in recent years after accusing the Air Force Academy of religious descrimination for what he saw as a bias in favor of evangelical Christianity, doesn't buy that. He feels that Laugesen actually meant that the United States is under the thumb of Jews. In addition, he was upset by several other Laugesen lines that mentioned him by name: "You do, in fact, comb thousands of years of history to find episodes in which atrocities were committed in the name of God and then stand there with a who farted look and point to the Christians. That's what you do, Rick. You and Mikey are on an all-out crusade to get the Christians." This claim frosted Weinstein, and no wonder; his wife is Christian, and he claims that 96 percent of his foundation's members are, too. To make matters worse, he says he received a number of death threats after the e-mail containing this assertion began circulating. (The Laugesen-Baker exchanges were copied to oodles of individuals in the media and activist communities.) An attorney representing Weinstein subsequently contacted the Gazette, demanding that Laugesen "knock it off," in Tosches' words -- and he did, snapping a string that stretched over more than a month.

Given the oddities of this tale, it's wholly understandable that the "Un-Funny" column makes for a weird read. Strangest of all, though, is the complete lack of a response from Laugesen, who's upset about not having had a chance to weigh in. When asked if Tosches reached out to him, he replies, "Not once. There were no messages left anywhere. And I would have spoken to them. I believe they wrote a full-page story trying to make me out to be anti-Semitic, and I take offense to that -- and it's patently, provably untrue. My entire adult life as a journalist, I have defended Israel, and I've frequently defended the Jewish community in Boulder and other cities." (His maternal grandfather was Jewish, he points out.) And although he understands why Weinstein was bothered by being accused of waging a crusade against Christianity as a whole, he insists that he was indeed speaking of Israel when he referenced a "western nuclear superpower." According to him, "I have long referred to Israel as a part of the West, as part of Western culture. I don't think that's really debatable."

And Tosches? He feels the piece simply reflected Weinstein's take -- and he offers two reasons why he didn't give Laugesen a shout in advance. "If you try to write a story about anything the Gazette does, they clearly have an advantage, because they attempt to publish daily, whereas my paper publishes once a week. And quite frankly, I didn't want to get beat on my own story. I know if I'd given them a day or two heads-up, they would have written a terribly erroneous, slanted article, spinning the story the way they wanted to.

"I had a discussion with the editor and publisher of my newspaper about this," he goes on. "I said, 'You know, this is how journalism works. You've got one side of the story, and then you go to Laugesen and whoever is their publisher this month.' And they both said, 'They'll deny the denial before we even print it.'" Besides, he emphasizes, "This was a column. I have a little more leeway in a column," and he used it to bring up what he sees as another example of Gazette insensitivity to Springs citizens who aren't Christians -- a 2004 promotion in which bibles were delivered to all of the paper's subscribers along with the day's edition.

"Un-Funny" stirred plenty of conversation in the Colorado Springs journalism community and beyond, as witnessed by a response from Boulder Weekly publisher Stewart Sallo that the Independent ran in its June 5 issue. The famously combustible Sallo, who's Jewish, acknowledged that he's had many disagreements with Laugesen over the years, as he's had with plenty of other people in his employ. Still, he dismissed the idea that Laugesen was anti-Semitic, calling him "a loving father and husband, a good friend, a courageous journalist and a man of the highest integrity."

He's a prolific e-mailer, too. And as this incident shows, that's got its drawbacks. -- Michael Roberts

Update, June 20: Wayne Laugesen sent an e-mail earlier today responding to a reference in the blog above. Here's that note:

Hi Michael:

Not that anyone probably cares, but I wanted to comment on this statement:

An attorney representing Weinstein subsequently contacted the Gazette, demanding that Laugesen "knock it off," in Tosches' words -- and he did, snapping a string that stretched over more than a month.

If you look at the string of e-mails I sent you, you'll see that I offered Mr. Baker the last word at least a full week before the lawyer penned his letter. The e-conversation was rambling, and I had to go to San Antonio for a week. I thought that was a good time to end it. The lawyer wrote to us after that. I saw the letter long after my last e-mail to Rick. If the lawyer had written me before I ended the conversation, I would have gone out of my way to continue it.

Again, it's not a big deal at all. I just want you to know that I would never stop e-mailing one of our readers because some lawyer for a notorious late-term abortionist in Kansas threatened me. Not a chance

-- Wayne

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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