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Freedom of the press under fire in Colorado

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Freedom of the press is under fire again — but this time from an unlikely source. The office of Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) pressed rural media outlets in his state to remove two stories because it disapproved of the source that originally reported an otherwise benign story.  

The controversy began in September after Polis announced the formation, via executive order, of a new office called the “Office of Future of Work,” which the governor says will “prepare workers for the jobs of the future” due to “technology, cost of education and a shifting need for skills.” Polis also stated that the Future of Work office will research the Rocky Mountain State’s evolving economy to help the administration shape its policy initiative. 

One writer, Derek Draplin, penned a story for a nonprofit media outlet called The Center Square. Drapin wrote about the governor’s plan, quoting supporters and critics alike.

One critic was a Colorado GOP spokesperson who mocked the governor for creating another regulatory bureaucracy with “undefined goals, broad powers, and a name straight from the brain of George Orwell.” In a political world of increasingly sharp elbows, the comment was relatively tame. In the end, the published story was factually correct and about as straightforward as they come. 

The Center Square allows its content to be reprinted, so two rural publications picked up the story. No surprise there, given the state of the newspaper business in which resources are limited due to falling ad revenue and, therefore, depleted staffing, especially in rural places.  

The first of the two small papers was the Kiowa County Press in Eads, Colo. (population 609). The other was the Chronicle-News in Trinidad, Colo. (population 8,100). 

So it was curious that Gov. Polis’s spokesman, Conor Cahill, asked the two small publications to remove the articles — not because there was some egregious error that warranted such a request, but because the original source, The Center Square, is owned by the Franklin News Foundation, which “supports and funds public-interest journalism at the state and local levels,” according to its website. Its mission is “to hold government accountable through objective, balanced, citizen-focused public journalism with a taxpayer sensibility.” 

Cahill’s argument is that this mission makes The Center Square biased to the right and therefore not objective. The governor’s spokesperson also said the Franklin News Foundation has donors that have included groups funded by Charles Koch Foundation and therefore can’t be reputable. Cahill said he was “alarmed” that the story “was being reprinted by reputable news outlets in the state.”

The editors at the respective small newspapers rightly refused Cahill’s request to take down the story, citing the lack of factual errors. The Center Square penned a follow-up story on Cahill’s request, which was picked up by the Denver Post and Associated Press. 

Working over the refs is common in journalism — but only if a bad call has been committed and is apparent for everyone to see. 

“It’s quite a big ‘ask’ to request that a story be taken down, especially when you’re not pointing out inaccuracies in the story,” Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, told The Washington Post. “Ultimately, it’s the newspaper’s decision about what they want to publish.”

Making baseless requests, premised on some funding that may have been provided to publications, could set a dangerous precedent if publications actually begin to acquiesce to such demands. 

For example, here’s how The Washington Post describes the political leanings of its owner, Jeff Bezos, in an August 2013 story: “Campaign finance records show that Bezos has mostly given to Democratic candidates for federal and state office, including Washington’s two senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.” 

Does that mean President Trump can point to the political party that Bezos seems to prefer as a reason to take down every factual story published in the Post about him or his administration? Of course not. 

There’s a great irony in Polis’s spokesperson asking for the story to be removed. The request ended up drawing infinitely more attention to the story than it would have received had it been left alone to be read by a fraction of the readers who are now aware of it. 

Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill and co-host of “WOR Tonight with Joe Concha,” weeknights on 710-WOR in New York. Follow Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV.

Tags Associated Press Colorado Denver Post Donald Trump Jared Polis Jeff Bezos Jeff Bezos Maria Cantwell Patty Murray The Washington Post The Washington Post

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