When I became Speaker of the House in 2011, I was committed to building a strong working relationship with the mainstream media outlets covering the Capitol. I figured I could do this by always being honest and straightforward, never ducking questions, and making time for conversation with a reporter or two on the side of the House chamber or in my office.
Most appreciate my openness, though, it’s hardly a secret that the Denver Post and I haven’t seen eye to eye — though I’m certain that publisher Dean Singleton isn’t losing any sleep over my concerns about his paper’s journalistic integrity.
I once asked a member of our staff where he thought the relationship with the Post started to go south. He thought it probably had to do with the day Mike Littwin stormed out of an editorial board meeting (Mike wasn’t keen on my sense of humor-I apologized immediately), got worse when I didn’t bend to their demands on certain bills (not just civil unions) and tried to eliminate the sweetheart tax deal they have with the State of Colorado (more on that some other time).
Even so, for the most part, things were fine. We had an excellent communications staff at the state House, and we quickly learned which Capitol correspondents were interested in honest reporting – and which were interested in advancing a political agenda.
My overarching belief is that life presents everyone with a unique set of biases. We cannot expect reporters to be any different. They are, after all, the product of their cumulative experiences. All we ever asked for was a fair shake. Sometimes we got it. Other times we didn’t.
But true media bias goes beyond the way an individual story is written. Deciding what stories will be followed and emphasized is just as important, maybe even more important. In this regard, newspapers, television stations, news radio, and, increasingly, online news services serve an important public service. That service, reporting on the happenings at the state Capitol or in Washington, D.C., is critical to maintaining a well-informed public. When trust in that public service is breached, our system begins to fail.
Recent moves by high-profile Denver journalists from their print jobs to positions as Democratic partisans has necessarily called into question whether the integrity of Denver journalism can be maintained in light of the wide-open door from newsrooms to Democratic politicians.
I have been openly critical of Curtis Hubbard’s move to the Democratic political firm OnSight Public Affairs. OnSight is directly related to the campaign of Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper and is spearheading support for the middle-class tax increase recently endorsed by Hickenlooper.
My concerns are not at all based in a belief that Mr. Hubbard shouldn’t be allowed to improve his personal financial standing through a job change, my concern is rooted in the serious and sincere questions that have been raised about the motives and direction of editorials and reporting at the Denver Post while Mr. Hubbard was editor there.
In Colorado, we elect citizen legislators. Each of us has a career outside of the Capitol or is retired from a career outside of the Capitol. To ensure transparency and that the work of our career doesn’t conflict with our legislative work, we file personal financial disclosures, we report any gifts or honoraria that we might receive and we are required by rule to excuse ourselves from any vote that presents a specific benefit to our private work. As legislators, we are also strictly prohibited from lobbying legislators for two years after we leave office.
I raise this point to help put moves like that of Mr. Hubbard in context. I also raise this point relevant to Governor Hickenlooper’s hire of Max Potter, who wrote for and edited 5280 Magazine.
My experience with Mr. Potter is this: Governor Hickenlooper and I would meet regularly when I was Speaker. Often times we shared joint meetings with Senate GOP Leaders Mike Kopp and then Bill Cadman.
One day I walked into the Governor’s office for our meeting and Mr. Potter was there. The Governor explained that Mr. Potter was writing an article about him for 5280 Magazine and asked me if I would mind Mr. Potter sitting in to observe the meeting. I didn’t have a problem with Mr. Potter, the magazine editor, sitting in on the meeting, in fact, he ended up sitting in on multiple meetings that I had with the Governor – but there is no way that I would have been o.k. with Max Potter, future Hickenlooper media operative, sitting in on our meetings.
And therein lies the current credibility problem emerging for Denver’s mainstream media.
The Hubbard and Potter defections from reporting to partisan Democratic operatives are two very recent high profile examples, but the last five years there have been many, many examples of reporters leaving jobs in newsrooms to work for Democratic politicians. Whether it’s Ritter, Udall or Hickenlooper.
I don’t blame Hickenlooper – why wouldn’t he want to take advantage of their media connections? Fault rests with Hubbard and Potter. In order to maintain trust in news reporting and integrity in the public service the media provides, journalists must be willing to police themselves – but they don’t. It is flat out wrong for a “reporter” to attend private meetings and then go to work for the guy about whom you just wrote a “puff piece” as one of his partisan media operatives.
Perhaps the most devastating result of the Hubbard and Potter moves is that it will make elected officials more wary when talking with reporters or attending editorial board meetings. And that can only hurt the quality of our public discourse.
The Hubbard and Potter moves might be good for their personal pocketbooks, and bode well for their new partisan employers who reap the benefit of favorably slanted media coverage before, during and after adding these “journalists” to their staff. But the long term impact of these opportunistic hires will only serve to diminish the influence and tarnish the already battered reputation of Denver’s mainstream media.
Rep. Frank McNulty was Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives for the 68th General Assembly. He represents Highlands Ranch, Colorado.