The press office for Gov. Jared Polis asked two Colorado newspapers, the Kiowa County Press in Eads and The Chronicle-News in Trinidad, to remove a story about Polis' new Office of Future of Work.
Asked why, the governor's press office told Colorado Politics that it wasn't because of the story, published Sept. 4, but because of the news organization behind it.
Formerly called Watchdog, the website has been tied to conservative donors, including the network of the billionaire Koch brothers. The site came under new leadership in 2017, changed its name to The Center Square this past May, and maintains it is now non-partisan.
“When we looked into this group and discovered that it was not an objective wire service, but instead a branded website funded by the Koch Brothers’ political organization, we were alarmed that it was being reprinted by reputable news outlets in the state," according to the statement provided to Colorado Politics by the governor's press office, which the office asked to be attributed to a spokesperson.
"The people of Colorado deserve quality, objective news they can trust so they can make their own informed decisions," the statement said. "Newspapers can publish whatever they want to, anywhere they want, at their own prerogative, but the public is served best when articles by partisan organizations are placed in the opinion section or branded accordingly.”
The Center Square's executive editor, Dan McCaleb, who wrote a story Wednesday revealing the governor's office take-down request, said Thursday that his publication participates in the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship project, "as many media outlets across the country do."
"There's a firewall between our news operation and our fundraising arm," he said. "As executive editor, I independently make all editorial decisions with input from the fine journalists who work with me. Our work speaks for itself and is readily available at TheCenterSquare.com and TheCenterSquare.com/Colorado for your readers to form their own opinions."
The original news story in question, written by Derek Draplin, was originally produced by the The Center Square on Sept. 4.
It quoted a tweet from state Senate Republican caucus spokesman Sage Naumann, who noted that the Office of Future of Work was the third new office established by the Polis administration since taking office this year.
“The Democrats’ insistence on creating a new layer of bureaucracy sure feels like a Monty Python skit," Naumann tweeted. "We may need an Office of Coffee because we’re getting tired of trying to keep up.” Naumann said.
He added that the new office came "complete with undefined goals, broad powers, and a name straight from the brain of George Orwell.”
Naumann wrote a commentary about the new office that Colorado Politics published Wednesday.
After the Kiowa County Press and The Chronicle-News posted the story, editors there were contacted by Polis spokesman Conor Cahill, telling them The Center Square "is not a reputable news source,” according to the follow-up story posted Wednesday on The Center Square website.
Cahill reportedly asked the papers to remove the story, without citing errors, according to his email to the newspapers obtained by The Center Square through an open-records request.
According to the Center Square report, the Chronicle-News declined to remove the story, while the Kiowa County Press' publisher temporarily suspended the article from its website, then republished it since there was no claim of a factual error.
Chronicle-News editor Eric John Monson told Colorado Politics partner 9News he initially thought the request from the governor's office was a hoax.
“Just kinda flabbergasted, disheartened and dismayed that would come from a state office,” he told the TV station about this reaction.
Monson said the paper vetted The Center Square previous to the request and will continue to use its content.
Chris Sorenson, the editor and publisher of the Kiowa County Press, also came as a surprise. He kept waiting for the governor's office to tell him about errors in it, that never happened.
"I hope the request to remove the article based on funding sources rather than facts was a momentary lapse in judgement," he told Colorado Politics Thursday. "I believe most news outlets take care to publish or broadcast stories that are both accurate and reflect a variety of views.
"The Kiowa County Press will continue to publish news, information and opinions from a range of sources that help our readers learn more about our community, state and nation. Representing only one point a view is a recipe to further divide communities. Our strength as a nation is the wide range of voices and opinions, especially the ones with which we disagree."
The Center Square wrote in its story Wednesday that it had not been contacted by the governor's office about any errors in the Sept. 4 story.
"The Center Square made several attempts via email and telephone to reach Cahill and Polis Communications Director Maria De Cambra to ask questions about Cahill’s requests and criticism, but neither Polis official responded," The Center Square reported Wednesday.
Watchdog, the website's predecessor, was denied Capitol press credentials in 2016, after a committee of Capitol press corps members, which vets all such requests, provided a recommendation against it to House and Senate leadership, which denied the credential that grants access to the House and Senate floors. (Disclosure: this reporter served on that committee, then as a representative of The Denver Post.)
In 2014, the re-election campaign for then-Gov. John Hickenlooper threatened a Watchdog reporter with arrest as the news organization pushed for copies of his tax returns, which he provided then to the Denver Post.
Publisher Chris Krug's former jobs included being publisher of the Chicago Pioneer Press newspaper chain, vice president for Shaw Suburban Media and a deputy editor at The Denver Post.
“The governor’s office is trying to use the power of the government to kill stories it doesn't like," Krug said on his website Wednesday. "And as part of that effort, the governor’s office is trying to taint the sterling reputations of journalists who dare to write stories it deems critical or negative."
Krug added, “The public has the right and deserves to make their own decisions about whether the happenings in state government are good or bad. It’s not up to a government official to police the news or try to withhold certain information from the public. The public also has the right to know why the governor’s office would overreach and ask editors to remove content it had published.”
Jeff Roberts, a veteran journalist and executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said the dilemma speaks to several larger issues.
The local newspapers could have done more to make clear where the stories came from, including the Center Square's history of covering the news from a conservative viewpoint, even if it's more recently rebranded.
The story in question, however, "was pretty straightforward."
He said public officials need much more than name-calling to ask a news organization to retract or remove a story.
"That's a very big ask, and I can see why a news organization would be offended by that," Roberts said. "They've already put some thought into what they've published. They've looked into it and made the decision that this particular story is something their readers ought to know about."
He said funding is one of the factors news consumers could look at to determine whether an outlet is credible, but the content itself is a primary consideration.
"If the public official has some issues with the accuracy of the story, I think that's first and foremost," Roberts said. "But there didn't seem to be any issues with that here. To mere call it disreputable without explaining why, I think, is not the way to go."
He said that as more niche websites seeks to share their content, mainstream media sourcesd need to have a broader conversation on labeling content offered as objective news from those sources.
Steve Zansberg, the Denver-based media lawyer who represents Colorado Politics, the Colorado Springs Gazette and other major media outlets in the state, said the response from the governor's office was "weird."
"It's certainly appropriate for anyone, a government official or otherwise, to bring to readers' attention errors of fact and seek a correction," he said. "But we should be very circumspect and we should not condone government officials deciding who is and who is not members of the legitimate press."
This updated was correct at name of one of the newspapers, the Kiowa County Press.