Inside the News: Win or Lose, Colorado’s Lauren Boebert Once Again Confounds the State Press Corps

  • 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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Colorado voters would be forgiven if they woke up Wednesday startled by election results after consulting recent coverage about what they might expect.

Democrats flat-out routed Republicans up and down ballots across the state. The outcome led some political journalists to solidly declare Colorado a “blue state” and dispense with the idea that it’s anything but. Purple? Periwinkle? Not after Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Layered on top like cerulean icing was a too-close-to-call race on the state’s Western Slope. The upshot could boot ultra-MAGA Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert off the public payroll for Democrat Adam Frisch, a former Aspen city councilman. At the time of this writing, with media reporting Boebert up by fewer than 500 votes and ballots still uncounted, some wondered if the outcome could even help determine the balance of power in Congress.

In Colorado, journalists, pundits, and the experts they’d consulted to crystal-ball the campaigns along the way were in agreement: The midterm results writ large here, and the Boebert one in particular, were surprising. Previewing the election a day before the polls closed, The Denver Post published a headline that read “How hard could the Republican ‘red wave’ crash in Colorado?” [Narrator voice: Not at all, apparently.] A previous headline about the race for Colorado’s 3rd congressional district read “Why Colorado’s Western Slope likely remains Lauren Boebert country, despite a string of controversies.”

On Wednesday, one of Colorado’s most prominent journalists, Kyle Clark, who anchors the nightly newscast Next on KUSA 9News in Denver, issued an on-air mea culpa about his coverage of the consequential race. He repeated it on social media.

For Boebert — and some of those those who covered her — this was déjà vu.

Writing for Columbia Journalism Review in July 2020, Bill Grueskin reported how Boebert had “stunned the state” when she shellacked her GOP primary rival, incumbent Scott Tipton, that June.

Here are some excerpts from that piece, including some introspection similar to Clark’s from a different reporter who covered her primary:

On election night, June 30, Boebert won by more than nine percentage points, and “the local press corps was as fooled as the national,” recalls [Colorado Times Recorder founder Jason] Salzman. The press was aware of Boebert “because of her PR skills,” but “there was no indication she would win.” …

[The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s Charles] Ashby, known as the dean of the state capitol’s press corps, is hard on himself—offering the kind of candor and self-reflection we rarely see in political journalism. Speaking of Boebert, he says, “I didn’t do enough in the primary to vet her. That’s partly because of covid. And I had the legislative session going on. We’re short-staffed. I just don’t have the wherewithal to do everything I’d like to do.” Still, he adds, “I should have done more to know more about her. What I did was poor, given hindsight.”

Once elected, Boebert continued to tie members of the state’s press corps into knots with a kind of media-hacking strategy that emulated Donald Trump.

Around this time last year, Clark of 9News made appearances on multiple national TV shows to discuss how local journalists should handle the congresswoman and her “cruel, false, and bigoted comments.” The issue was that such comments would inevitably generate negative media attention — outrage — which she parlayed into fundraising and retailed as grievance to supporters. Clark’s own station, he acknowledged, held Boebert to a “lower standard” than other politicians who did not consistently make outrageous remarks.

Clark said he might not have a solution to how best to cover her antics in a post-Trump environment — and he challenged his colleagues in the press to help him come up with one.

“I think this time around,” he said on SiriusXM, “local journalists across the country must be more involved in figuring out a solution and a workable way to cover these politicians, and we need to do it publicly. We need to tell our communities ‘We’re struggling with this. This is what your elected representative does. How should we together figure out how to handle this?’”

On the same radio show, Clark also talked about the particular challenge for local newsrooms that are often under-resourced and staffed with journalists who aren’t covering politics full time.

Here was an excerpt:

“What happens is, is there’s a tendency to either ignore the things that these elected officials say or to fall in the predictable kind of both sides coverage — you know, here’s what Representative Boebert said and then here’s what somebody else says about it — as opposed to stating clearly, like, ‘This is bigotry … this is bigotry against people who live in our community’ or in other instances, like, ‘This is a lie. This is disinformation, which serves a purpose to mislead people.’ And I think a lot of local journalists are very uncomfortable calling that out in the same way that we saw national journalists challenged by this question five years ago. And it’s time for us in the backwaters — Denver’s no backwater — it’s time for us in the backwaters to step up and take responsibility for how our journalism can have an impact.”

I’m not sure any consensus ever gelled around a particular answer to Boebertism.

And when I’d pinged local TV newsrooms in her district about their own thoughts on the topic, I only heard back from one person. An assistant news director and anchor in Grand Junction said he believed “‘flame throwing’ petulance” that only seeks to divide (and rally the Trump base) is “counterintuitive to the greater good.” But the stations, he said, hadn’t talked about how they should cover their representative. He called it both an interesting topic as well as a “confounding” one.

As Boebert continued making a name for herself as a cog in the Trump/Marjorie Taylor Greene MAGA machine, journalists sought to get a sense of why she resonated (or didn’t) in her largely rural western Colorado district. To do so, in what was perhaps an unprecedented move, 15 journalists from eight local news organizations teamed up on a collaborative story for The Colorado Sun in which they fanned across the congresswoman’s district last summer to talk to her constituents about her.

Throughout the 2022 campaign, other state and national journalists trekked through “Boebert Country” checking the pulse of voters or muckraking about her personal history, and yet apparently didn’t learn enough to forecast a close race — much less her potential defeat. As baffling as Boebert was for the press, so too, it seems are the people she represents as was evident in an apparent inability for journalists to get a good read on voters and what mattered to them in 2020, what matters to them now, and what changed in the interim. (Some outlets did report in October on a poll a Democratic firm conducted that showed Frisch in a statistical tie with Boebert. One of them came with this caveat: “The 3rd District on Colorado’s Western Slope overwhelmingly favors Republicans, and the race is not considered competitive by national experts” and noted that FiveThirtyEight was giving Boebert “a 98% chance of winning a second term.”)

A glaring irony is the way journalists wrote about Colorado’s race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Joe O’Dea, projecting to voters that it was close. [Narrator voice: It was not.] A headline writer for The New York Times couldn’t seem to figure that out even after the ballots came in.

On Wednesday evening, Boebert’s race was still confounding journalists as they processed county ballot returns that came in by data dumps a few thousand at a time.

At 5:05 p.m., Clark reported a social media news bulletin: “Democrat Adam Frisch is poised to upset Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert in CO-3, based on a 9NEWS analysis of remaining ballots, which are largely in counties where Frisch holds strong leads.”

A half hour later, Dave Wasserman, a renowned election-data politics quant at the national Cook Political Report, warned that anyone who’s “proclaimed they’ve seen enough” in the race “doesn’t know how to interpret election data.”

It was enough for one Pueblo media personality to tweet an emoji of a rollercoaster. And that seems a fair portrayal of what it might have felt like for some Coloradans to have Boebert as a representative — however her fate turns out.

Local media link up to ‘better cover the Hispanic community’ in the Roaring Fork Valley

This summer, several local news organizations serving the Roaring Fork Valley surveyed 155 residents in English and Spanish in hopes of understanding what Hispanics thought of local news and to assess potential coverage gaps and how to mitigate them.

Last week, journalists from some of the publications gave a presentation about the findings.

From The Aspen Times:

Respondents varied in socioeconomic status, educational backgrounds, and age demographics. However, for gender orientation, women disproportionately participated in the survey, making up 76% of those who responded.

From the findings, most individuals surveyed were satisfied with their ability to access news. The majority of the survey takers were familiar with most local newspapers and relied on at least two local papers for information.

While “satisfactory” comes with a somewhat positive connotation, collectively, the local news media are aiming to set the bar higher when it comes to reporting on issues that impact the Latino community.

Dig into the full survey results here. The group has come up with seven proposed solutions moving forward. Find them here.

Billionaire newspaper owner tries to ‘revive’ his $8M tax lawsuit against the state

What’s a perk of being a local billionaire newspaper owner? You probably don’t have to worry about scrutiny of your many businesses, your political activity, or the ways in which you seek to shape your state’s public affairs. At least from the excellent reporters you’ve hired and employ to scrutinize the affairs of others, anyway.

Perhaps that’s why readers of news organizations owned by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz didn’t read in his publications about an $8 million tax lawsuit he filed last year against the state. Thankfully, The Colorado SunThe Denver Post, BizWest, and The Indy in Colorado Springs found the lawsuit and its attendant potential consequences worthy of coverage. A judge rejected the Anschutz suit last summer.

But this week, the reporter who initially broke the story for the Sun, Daniel Ducassi, published a story at Law360 about efforts to revive the suit. From the site that covers legal affairs:

A Colorado appellate judge on Tuesday repeatedly pressed the state over why billionaire Phil Anschutz wasn’t entitled to an $8 million income tax refund, questioning its position that pandemic-era changes to tax law could not be applied retroactively on state returns.

Anschutz and his wife are seeking [a] refund on their personal tax returns, arguing that when Congress amended federal tax law in the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the change entitled the couple to claim excess business losses for 2018 on their state tax returns as well as their federal returns. That’s because Colorado’s tax law has language tying it to the federal code. But state tax officials denied the refund and a trial court judge sided with the state, dismissing the Anschutzes’ lawsuit and deferring to the Colorado Department of Revenue’s interpretation that the changes would only apply going forward.

So, now on appeal and back in court, we’ll see whether a lawsuit the Sun reported has “big financial consequences for the state” rises to the level of newsworthiness from a publication trying to build trust with Coloradans by marketing itself as the in-state gold standard for “real journalism.”

A Colorado journalist talks about her dyslexia

Mabel Gonzalez, a journalist for Bucket List Community Café in Denver, recently published a first-person piece about her journey to journalism with a learning disability.

From the essay:

When I started college at Metropolitan State University of Denver and wanted to become a journalist many people around me questioned why I wanted to enter a field that exclusively has to with reading and writing.  I have dyslexia a learning disability that affects the areas of the brain that process language. It affects my reading, speech and writing skills.  So many of my friends and family thought it wasn’t the best decision for me to enter this field. But I believe that my past experiences have pushed me to help and share diverse stories to a bigger audience. 

She’s now writing for Bucket List Community Café, which describes itself as an “online community journalism site for Denver,” and has been making some moves.

“I wanted to be part of the generation that would change journalism and the way it brought the world to us and how we view people who are different,” Gonzalez wrote. “Working with Bucket List Community Cafe brought me the opportunity to meet others and share diverse stories within the Denver community.”

The outlet is one of 33 Colorado newsrooms in the running for a $5,000 matching grant through the #newsCOneeds campaign, and founder Vicky Collins recently returned from an Independent News Sustainability Summit in Austin. There, the site was among 500 publishers, editors and funders working to come up with new models for sustainable online community journalism.

“We are now producing podcasts and are almost full for our fall internship cohort with students from CU Boulder and MSU Denver,” Collins says. Read more about Collins and her outlet here.

More Colorado media odds & ends

➡️ Next week, Nov. 16-18, Denver will host the annual convention of the National Association of Hispanic Publications. Check out the compelling convention agenda here.

🏒 Peter McNab, a “beloved Colorado Avalanche broadcaster,” died this week at 70 after a battle with cancer, according to The Associated Press. Westword rounded up recollections about him and his career.

📰 Steamboat Pilot journalist Dylan Anderson highlighted what he called a “fake newspaper bashing Polis and Democrats in Colorado, which is like others found around the country sent by Republican backed groups.”

✒️ Martín Carcasson, who runs the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University, published an article this week in National Civic Review about the “dual crises in democracy and journalism” that are “occurring in communities across the country.”

👻 Democrat Sonja Macys, who initially flagged that several Swift Communications-run Ogden newspapers in Colorado were not surfacing the names of Democrats running for office on their homepage search engines the week before the election, won her race for commissioner in Routt County.

7️⃣ “The field of criminal-legal reporting has long housed some of journalism’s worst impulses,” a new Free Press report states. The organization offers seven tips for journalists from restorative-justice practitioners.

📡 Prior to Tuesday’s results, Westword wondered about the extent to which “talk-radio election deniers” would affect Colorado’s elections.

😽 In an election night speech, the losing Republican candidate for governor, Heidi Ganahl, thanked conservatives on talk radio for covering her message “when the mainstream media wouldn’t,” said 9News anchor Kyle Clark.

💸 Why Denver marketing agency SE2 won’t be “paying Twitter anymore to boost SE2’s own tweets.” (A year ago, the agency quit spending money on Facebook.)

📌 Check out the Colorado News Mapping Project and fill out the form to add a source to the map or let us know if we should update something already on it.

😬 Former Denver Post politics reporter Alex Burness, now at Bolts magazine, said: “I’d say much national coverage on Colorado’s US Senate race dropped the ball. The reporting, suggesting O’Dea is a maverick + this one would be tight, often came off as superficial, disconnected from the ground. And in the end it was called for Bennet 40 min. after polls closed.”

🏆 The OutThere Colorado team has “officially accepted the ‘Blog of the Year’ award as part of Outdoor Media Summit’s 2022 People’s Choice Awards in North Tahoe, Nevada.”

🌥 Colorado’s Sunshine Law “does not require members of an elected public board to discuss the censure of a fellow board member in an open meeting, a judge has ruled,” according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

💯 As CU Boulder’s journalism department marks its centennial anniversary, the school is celebrating “the thousands of alumni currently working in the media industry, many of whom are on the frontlines of news — reporting from the field for NPR, from the Celtics’ sidelines and from inside the White House for Fox News.”

🆕 The first issue of a new Colorado-based magazine called Trails is slated to publish in February 2023 and “will begin shipping to subscribers shortly after that. Subsequent issues will publish quarterly (every three months) after that.”

📍 Bookmark this: “Reimagining the public square: What’s happening in Colorado’s information ecosystem right now.”

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.