Why can’t The Colorado Independent get Statehouse press credentials?

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

The staff of The Colorado Independent features some of the state’s most accomplished journalists, including Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Keefe and columnist Mike Littwin, a hugely popular writer during his long tenure at the Rocky Mountain News and a shorter time at The Denver Post.

Editor Susan Greene herself was a Pulitzer finalist as co-author of a powerful Denver Post series on the loss and destruction of DNA evidence.

So why can’t The Colorado Independent get press credentials from the Colorado General Assembly and the Colorado Capitol Press Association? Despite numerous attempts, the online newspaper has been denied permission to place a reporter on the floor of either the Colorado House or the Colorado Senate.

ColoradoIndependentIt’s an issue that raises First Amendment concerns, argues Steve Zansberg, an attorney for The Independent (and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition). In a letter to state legislative leaders and the Capitol Press Association this week, he said the decision to deny The Independent the same access given other bona fide news media is “in all likelihood an unconstitutional abridgement of the freedom of the press.”  Zansberg asked that floor credentials be issued immediately.

The reason for the denial has to do with The Independent’s funding sources and whether it is truly an independent news organization and not an arm of a political operation. The rules of the Colorado Capitol Press Association, which has made recommendations on press credentialing at the Statehouse since 2008 (the actual power to grant access lies with legislative leadership), specifically bar applicants that engage “in any lobbying or advocacy, advertising, publicity or promotion work for any individual, political party or movement, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. or Colorado government…”

“The reason we’re allowed on the floor is that we’re supposed to be the one group here that is not advocating,” said Joe Hanel, a Durango Herald reporter and member of the Capitol Press Association’s Standing Committee on Correspondents. “We’re supposed to be disinterested third parties.”

Hanel said The Independent, then known as Colorado Confidential, claimed not to be associated with any political apparatus when it first applied for – and was denied – floor credentials in 2008. “We came to learn a couple of years later that our suspicions were correct,” he said. The online publication received much of its funding from foundations connected to Democratic Party backers Tim Gill and Pat Stryker, and the Washington, D.C.-based organization managing the newspaper even shared office space with another progressive organization.

“We have a group that, in the past, hid its funding from us and hid its organizational structure from us,” Hanel said. “It was part of a constellation of liberal groups that aim to improve the electoral climate for Democrats. Now we’re supposed to believe that’s all different.”

There was a time, Greene acknowledged, when The Independent could be viewed as a partisan voice, but it was re-launched last year as its own nonprofit, operated in Colorado and staffed by Colorado journalists including Littwin, Keefe and former Rocky Mountain News writers Dave Krieger and Robert Denerstein. Although the D.C.-based American Independent News Network continues to be The Independent’s fiscal sponsor as it seeks 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt status, “they have nothing to do with management, content, decision making or staffing of the site,” she said.

“When we re-launched, we seriously considered changing our name, but we didn’t because the name encapsulated what we want to be,” said Greene, who joined The Independent in January 2013.

The Gill Foundation and Stryker’s Bohemian Foundation still are “significant funders,” according to Greene, “but we also have other significant funders, including the Zell Family Foundation … and Sam Zell is no lefty.” If funding really mattered, she said, why not question Philip Anschutz’s ownership of The Gazette in Colorado Springs? “We have a major for-profit newspaper owned by someone who is as much a political player as anyone who may or may not be funding us.” (The Gazette is owned by Clarity Media, a subsidiary of The Anschutz Corp.)

Greene also addressed another issue raised by Hanel. When the latest incarnation of The Independent was announced last fall, Hanel said he received the news via an email from ProgressNow, a liberal grassroots organization. Greene said ProgressNow used an email address that included her name without her knowledge, and the organization has acknowledged “a mistake on their part.”

Hanel said about 100 journalists, including some citizen journalists and bloggers, have been issued credentials giving them access to the House and Senate floors while those bodies are in session. If a publication is not supported by advertisers or subscribers, “We say, who’s paying the bills?” Noting that many state legislatures do not allow the same “very liberal floor access” as the Colorado General Assembly allows, Hanel said he and other members of the Capitol press corps risk losing their own floor credentials if political operatives somehow gain access too.

“The lawmakers don’t want to see that, and it would make it harder for me to do my job,” he said.

What should matter most, Greene said, is The Independent’s commitment to good, serious journalism.  As an example, she cited an Independent investigative story last year that documented parolee Evan Ebel’s concerns about being released from solitary confinement before he allegedly murdered state prisons director Tom Clements. “All the traditional media said it was a gang hit … That was arguably the biggest new story, other than the floods, in 2013, and everybody else had it wrong.”

“If there is residue left of who we used to be years ago,” Greene said, “I don’t know how else to change peoples’ minds except to look at what we’re doing now.”

Legislative leaders are expected to make a decision soon on The Independent’s latest application for floor access, said House Majority spokesman Dean Toda.

(Note: The Colorado Independent is a CFOIC member organization, as are The Durango Herald, The Gazette and most newspapers in the state through their membership in the Colorado Press Association. The Anschutz Foundation is a financial backer of the CFOIC.)

Follow the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition on Twitter @CoFOIC. Like CFOIC’s Facebook page. Visit CFOIC’s legislature page to track bills in the General Assembly that could affect the flow or availability of information in Colorado.

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