Inside the News: New Book ‘Gangbuster’ Recalls 1920s Denver Media and the Ku Klux Klan

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

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In the Roaring ‘20s, the Ku Klux Klan didn’t just control the levers of political power in Colorado from the governor’s office down to the biggest-city mayor.

Klan members also corrupted the local press.

“The Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Times, both owned by the same company, had Kluxers in management,” writes Denver journalist and author Alan Prendergast in his new book “Gangbuster.”

Subtitled “One man’s battle against crime, corruption, and the Klan,” the book, published by Citadel Press, tells a page-turning story of a Prohibition-era Denver district attorney named Philip Van Cise and his anti-corruption crusades in the Mile High City. Local media dubbed Van Cise the “Fighting DA” as he took down local gang bosses like Lou Blonger and goons like John Galen Locke, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

A rip-roaring narrative that brings readers inside the underworld of Denver’s smoky backrooms, illegal card games, speakeasies, brothels, bootlegging operations, and well-attended evening outdoor-mesa Klan rallies offers a splintered look into the media landscape of the time.

“Walter Walker, editor and publisher of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, contributed cash and publicity to help establish the Klan on Colorado’s Western Slope,” Prendergast writes. (Walker later broke with the Klan and editorialized against it — but only after he was passed over for the position of Exalted Cyclops; a Klansman cop beat him up in the middle of Main Street for his later coverage.)

The Denver Post “blew hot and cold” on the Klan, the author recounts, and he reports how one hooded leader bragged about taking one of the paper’s owners out for an evening ride where he “made him a Christian.” Another anecdote has a Klan leader bragging about successfully threatening the paper to retract a negative story about the KKK and replace it with an item praising the bigoted white supremacist group — lest the newspaper building become “the flattest place on Champa street.”

One local Klan leader even had a “favorite journalist” at the Post who would pen awestruck accounts of meetings. But after negative coverage about a particular scandal involving pardons, the Klan governor at the time — a crooked former judge, all-around stooge and general scumbag named Clarence Morley — sued the Post for libel and lost.

The book recalls a time when reporters had fewer scruples about getting too cozy with those they were covering, such as helping investigators write down license plate numbers during stakeouts, or sharing information with law enforcement. “The cat-and-mouse games involving the Klan, the press, and Van Cise’s team, made good stories down at the Press Club,” Prendergast writes.

As for the local media environment of the mid-1920s, “a public official looking to spill secrets in Denver had many niche publications to choose from, including a Black weekly, a Jewish weekly, and a Catholic weekly. But of the major dailies in town, only one had shown any appetite for going after the Klan.”

That would be the long-defunct Scripps-Howard-owned Denver Express, which Prendergast calls the “runt of the litter” with a “puny circulation” of working-class readers — but un-compromised by the KKK. The paper launched a series exposing the identities of local Klansmen inside city government from Mayor Benjamin Stapleton to the city attorney, judges, the secretary of state, multiple police sergeants, a gaggle of cops, grand jurors, and more. The newspaper series, which became a finalist for the 1925 Pulitzer Prizes, led some of the paper’s top advertisers to boycott the Express at the behest of the Klan.

“Gangbuster” is a nonfiction biography about the hard-charging Denver prosecutor Philip Van Cise. It is not a book about the press in Colorado. But this newsletter happens to be, so I’ve chosen to excerpt portions of the book that fit this beat. Like this one about the “Fighting DA’s” post-prosecutorial career in private practice:

In 1932, the owners of the Rocky Mountain News retained Van Cise to defend the newspaper against a libel suit brought by Frederick Bonfils, the cantankerous publisher of The Denver Post. The cause of the action was an article in the News that had quoted liberally from a speech by Walter Walker, the state Democratic chairman. Walker had called Bonfils a vulture, a rattlesnake, and “a public enemy that has left the trail of a slimy serpent across Colorado for thirty years.” Bonfils wanted $200,000 for the blackening of his good name.

Van Cise had no love for the Post, Bonfils, or his late partner, Harry Tammen, a longtime pal of Lou Blonger’s. During the Klan’s rise to power, the dominant newspaper had been widely erratic in response, tweaking Morley for his pardons scandal but also spewing obsequious articles about [Grand Dragon] Locke that sounded like they were dictated by a press agent. The libel suit was a chance for some payback. Van Cise told the News executives that he would offer truth as a defense — in fact, it was his intention to amass overwhelming evidence that Bonfils was every bit as slimy as Walker had made him out to be and worse, that he had no good name to protect. It would be expensive, he cautioned, and he wanted a free hand to investigate the plaintiff’s entire sordid history. “If I’m going into this case, I’m going in it to win it,” he told them.

Roy Howard, the chairman of Scripps-Howard newspapers, agreed to Van Cise’s terms. The attorney set up a command center in a building next door to the News and hired a research staff to rake through the muck of decades of local scandal-sheet journalism. (“We’re yellow, but we’re read, and we’re true blue,” Tammen boasted.) The team quickly established that Bonfils had been referred to in print in far worse terms that the ones Walker had used; a list of 188 colorful names the publisher had acquired over the years included assassin, traducer, felon, cuttlefish, cootie-covered rat, ghoul, vermin, and devil’s paramour.

The researchers also uncovered The Denver Post publisher had …

blackmailed advertisers, threatened and assaulted competitors, and purportedly extorted money from Harry Sinclair, one of the principals in the Teapot Dome oil-leasing scandal, in exchange for dropping his paper’s aggressive coverage of him.

The publisher died before the case went to court.

Later, the Post would blacklist Van Cise; his name “was banished from the newspaper,” Prendergast writes, until a new editor came on years later to boost the paper’s credibility. Van Cise and his attorney son would even go on to later serve as the rival Post’s libel attorneys for a time.

“Gangbuster” is a work of narrative nonfiction, “a journalist’s book,” Prendergast writes in an author’s note at the end. “It’s a story that happens to be true.”

The book comes out March 28. Watch out for it in local bookstores or order online. Prendergast will be at The Tattered Cover on Colfax in Denver on March 31 at 6 p.m. to talk about it.

‘As a journalist you want to connect with your town’: Prendergast on his book

I caught up with the author this week to talk about “Gangbuster,” about Denver and Colorado’s media scene, and about what the press might learn from the 1920s today.

The following are excerpts from our conversation edited for length and clarity:

What do you think journalists in Colorado can learn from the way our press corps covered the rise of the Klan here 100 years ago?

I think we can learn from the tiny Denver Express. The dark side of it is the dismal job the larger papers did in trying to cover this. They either had Klan people in management or had their own agenda. Van Cise finds himself in a situation where he can’t move on the Klan in terms of criminal charges because the courts and police are so infested with the Klan, so his next best hope is to go to the media to try to help influence these coming elections. And I think he was moderately successful — obviously he didn’t stop them taking over the state — but he did expose a great deal of their hypocrisy and their corruption, and a lot of this was done through the papers.

What seems to me the things that resonate in this story that are pretty pertinent to what’s going on now is this polarization that we have — and even sort of different realities that people have. The Klan had its own newspapers, it had its own magazines, and it was possible to be a Klansman and totally buy into the conspiracy theories and their way of looking at the world without ever really stepping outside of that. And that’s really where we are now. I think a problem the media has is not having the authority that it might have had 100 years ago. So it’s difficult to get out of that sort of echo chamber. And that’s very much like what was happening then.

You immersed yourself in the 1920s Denver media scene for this book and have also researched and written about Denver’s current media scene. What are the biggest differences — besides that the internet exists?

I think part of it is that we’re more fragmented now. I think people used to have one newspaper they relied on for their local news. There are so many outlets now, and because there isn’t one that kind of has the power and reach that The Denver Post did back when it was ‘The Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire’ you’ve got to have so many different places that you go for news. If you really want to get some view of what’s going on in Denver I don’t think you can rely on one outlet anymore.

I think there’s more willingness now to have these different stripes of opinion or ideologies in these different media organizations. It’s hard for me to imagine something like the Klan rising up where there wouldn’t be all sorts of publications digging in and investigating and coming up with something. I think it was probably much easier to be passive in the ‘20s about that kind of thing.

It was probably fragmented back then, but the difference is having hundreds of thousands of readers versus a few hundred or a few thousand.

There’s an incredible amount of public corruption in your book. You’ve covered criminal justice here for decades. To what extent is Denver a corrupt city now and where should reporters be looking to expose it?

I think Denver, compared to a lot of large cities, is not so corrupt. Part of doing the books is to show how one person can make a difference with that. In this case, Van Cise didn’t suddenly stop all corruption in Denver but I think he helped put the city on a really different path than it had been. It could have gone the way of Kansas City or Chicago, which had these historic eras of corruption that went well past the time that Denver was experiencing it.

One reason for doing the book was to show how one person can make a difference. Van Cise worked with the media to expose the Klan, but he also shamed them to try to get them on board.

I think the greater problem now is just having enough people, enough bodies. This is something everybody in the media talks about: the fact that there’s nobody at a lot of these public meetings, there’s nobody watching the process of government. We have plenty of people covering the state legislature; we don’t necessarily have them at the school board meetings, we don’t necessarily have them at the local conservation district or whatever. And that’s, to me, disturbing because any place where you don’t have that scrutiny it’s a lot easier for corruption to thrive.

What do you mean by ‘Gangbuster’ being a ‘journalist’s book’?

I think what is revealing about the history and why we need to go back and look at the history as journalists is, number one, it gives us context for what we’re trying to wrestle with and trying to understand about what’s happened with this city. It’s not a bad idea to go back 100 years and look at what forces were at work then, and see what we can learn from that.

I think just as a journalist you want to connect with your town. That’s, to me, part of what got me onto this, is feeling that this history is too important to be left to historians. I mean, not to be too glib about that, but journalists are more interested in character and narrative and trying to figure out how this relates to what’s going on in the world around them. Being able to do it this way seems to bring across something that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

It’s not just written for journalists, but it’s the idea that a general public might find this more accessible than they would a standard history of Colorado or something like that. There are books out there about the Klan in Colorado but they’re not focused on this particular story, which to me was a more dynamic way of telling what it was really like.

Now, onto the rest of this week’s media newsletter…

A high school program is in peril, but Colorado student journalism is ‘strong’

Students at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora are bringing attention to a potential closure of an important newspaper program.

From Smoky Now, the school’s student news site:

As a student Editor-in-Chief in Smoky Hill High School’s newspaper program, being informed that the newspaper program will be cut in the upcoming school year due to a “lack of interest” is frustrating and incomprehensible. Every high school in America deserves the right to exercise freedom of press and speech and use an outlet to inform students of timely and current events. 

To raise awareness of this issue, the other staff members and I have been spreading the word around on multiple social media platforms in hopes of others acknowledging and addressing the ever-rising problem.

Carrie Faust, journalism advisor at Smoky Hill, wrote on Facebook that the “official word” from the school administration was that classes in the news program were a couple students shy of preregistration enrollment numbers. (There “are many classes in our building both this year and next which are below this number,” she added.) She said she asked if she could hustle and see if some of the 30 kids who chose each course as their second choice would like to change, “but was told the time for that had passed. So, now it’s up to the kids to convince our building that these courses are important.”

Marshall Zelinger, a political reporter for 9NEWS in Denver, wrote for the newspaper as a student at Smoky Hill, as did Denver Post reporter Jon Murray. “This class should not be dropped,” Zelinger said on social media. “If the reason is the number of students, consider recruiting.”

Dillon Thomas of CBS News Colorado, who also wrote for the paper, said on Twitter that he believed the school made a “bad decision” by eliminating the program.

Smoky Hill’s program is renowned among those who follow student journalism in Colorado. So, I wondered if what’s happening there is part of a trend or an outlier, and thought I’d check in about the state of high-school journalism in Colorado writ large.

“There are instances each year of a particular school going through issues like the one at Smoky Hill, but there are new programs being formed as well,” said Patrick Moring who serves as vice president of the Colorado Student Media Association.

While some school newspapers are struggling because of printing costs, he said the association is also seeing growth in online news programs. “As school funding is complicated at the best of times, you can see why many high school journalism programs are switching to online platforms,” he said. 

One example is Rampart High School where he teaches in Colorado Springs. The newspaper there faded more than 10 years ago, but more than 100 students are in the school’s weekly broadcast news and live sports broadcast programs. 

“I think what we are seeing is broad changes in journalism at the high school level,” Moring said, “but that student journalism as a whole in the state of Colorado is strong.”

Colorado Student Media Association Director Elise T. Carlson offered some stats.

“We currently have 126 member media from 58 schools,” she said. “We tend to end the year with 80-95 schools, in recent history.”

Carlson said print publications number at 14 across the state and online publications double that at 29. The rest are broadcast and yearbook pubs.

Kristi Rathbun, the association’s president, who teaches at Rock Canyon High School, says the existence of journalism programs in Colorado “is threatened in areas where there might not be as many elective offerings at a school or where schedule conflicts with other courses may occur.” Sometimes it just happens because of a lack of qualified staff to take on a program, she added. 

But while there may not be as many physical newspapers and news magazines being produced in schools, “our students are developing strong media skills in other areas,” she said.

More from Rathburn:

“In addition to basics of reporting, they are practicing (and excelling) in things like social media management and engagement, broadcast and film, environmental portraiture and photo journalism, branding and theme. They’re learning professional software and technical skills with hardware and equipment. While not every student we have will go on to pursue journalism specifically, (although many do), our journalism students are impacting their communities through the skills they get in their student media programs.”

Meanwhile, high school students and advisers in Colorado “are showing up on the national ‘stage’ via their work and representing our state (and its legal protections for student journalists) in ways that sometimes eclipse the pros,” she said. 

A Colorado newspaper owner is impacting a state budget forecast

This newsletter has repeatedly pointed out how news organizations owned by the conservative Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz had not reported on a consequential tax lawsuit Anschutz and his wife filed in 2021 against the state of Colorado.

That changed this week — and the development underscores just how important the story has been all along.

Marianne Goodland at the Anschutz-owned Colorado Politics reported on the way state economists are forecasting revenue and how the outlook might impact the state budget.

Here are the (pause for effect) very relevant portions of the story:

But there’s also a downside to the income tax outlook, tied to a lawsuit that is working its way through the courts. The plaintiffs are Phil and Nancy Anschutz, who sued the state over refunds tied to the CARES Act, refunds that are retroactive to 2018. The appeals court ruled in favor of Anschutz last November, although remanding the case back to the lower courts. The Anschutz Corporation owns Clarity Media Group, the parent company of Colorado Politics. 

While the case is still in progress, the Legislative Council forecast expects the state will have to pay.

“The state will be required to pay the state income tax refunds sought by the plaintiffs in Anschutz and those sought by similarly-situated taxpayers, and this forecast incorporates a downward adjustment of $40 million for individual income tax revenue in FY 2022-23,” the forecast said. “Any additional refunds issued pursuant to the decision will reduce revenue relative to the forecast and therefore pose a significant downside risk to the income tax revenue outlook.” The amount tied to the Anschutz lawsuit is $8 million; the rest of that $40 million would go to similarly-situated taxpayers. 

The [Office of State Planning and Budgeting] forecast also noted the Anschutz case, stating its expectations for individual income tax were reduced by $185.7 million for 2022-23 due to higher refunds, in part from the case.

It was in July of 2021 when Daniel Ducassi, then at The Colorado Sun, broke the story of the lawsuit. In the first paragraph of that initial story, he reported the case could have “big financial consequences for the state.” In the ensuing 20 months, other news outlets including The Denver Post, BizWest, The Indy, and Law360 found the case worthy of news coverage.

Now, it is noteworthy that the Anschutz publications were the first — and only — outlets as far as I’ve seen to report this aspect of the state budget forecasts and how their owner is impacting income tax revenue related to those forecasts.

UPDATE: Glad I wrote “as far as I’ve seen” up there ☝️. The Colorado Sun reported last December on the newspaper owner’s impacts on the state budget.

More Colorado media odds & ends

💸 Jesse Bedayn of The Associated Press wrote about a potential Colorado Open Records Acts reform bill that would reduce fees by 50% for news media, which lawmakers would have to define. As an anecdote he quotes an email from Colorado Sun reporter Jesse Paul to his editors about a bill for jail records: “You guys cool if I drop $245,000 on this?” (Sherrie Peif at the conservative Complete Colorado has pledged to “follow this bill through the process;” newspaper editors and others have opined about it. I appeared on a recent podcast to talk with our state press association’s CEO and a transparency advocate who support it.)

🧨 Sixty35 Media, the subject of last week’s newsletter, has produced an FAQ about what led to its current unfortunate financial situation. The news outlet will hold a public meeting at Ivywild in the Springs Thursday at 5:30.

📢 Brian Stelter profiled Denver journalist David Sirota, founder of the news site The Lever, and whose mere name tends to make plenty in Colorado’s news-and-politics scene go into pavlovian convulsions. “We all have a worldview,” Sirota told Stelter. “My worldview is that the rich have way too much power in this society, and it’s completely out of whack. My worldview is that government is plagued by corruption and that’s why we have policies that are unfair.”

👋 Doug Fitzgerald, with a background in journalism, sports information, and auto dealerships, introduced himself as editor of Pikes Peak Courier.

➡️ Last week’s newsletter reported The Colorado Springs Gazette was one of the few newspapers in the country to endorse Republican Donald Trump for president. A Gazette staffer pointed out that was only for 2020. The paper in 2016 didn’t endorse either candidate.

📖 If you missed the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s Sunshine Week panel about book banning, you can watch it here.

🥇 Grandview High School Senior Katie Fisher won the Colorado Student Media Association Dorothy Greer Scholarship for 2023. “She will receive a $3,000 college scholarship as she moves on to her next endeavors,” the CSMA reported. The runner up was Maya Dawson, a senior at Conifer High School who will receive a $1,500 scholarship.

💰 As Jim Benemann retires from CBS4, he has chosen the journalism department of his alma matter, Colorado State University, “as one of the fundraising recipients featured at his upcoming retirement celebration.”

🦊 “It turns out, this is a Colorado story,” wrote The Durango Herald editorial board about the national discourse surrounding the FOX TV channel and how it treats its audience.

🗣 Rachel Gabel, longtime agriculture writer and the assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazinewill be “the featured speaker at the Logan County Cattlewomen’s Banquet and Calcutta next month.”

🏆 Recently retired First Amendment attorney Marc Flink of Denver won the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s Jean Otto Friend of Freedom Award.

I’m Corey Hutchins, co-director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.