We’ve been closely following the battle in the Colorado governor’s race over a last-minute smear campaign underway against the Democratic nominee, Jared Polis, stemming from a 1999 police report in which Polis was judged to be the victim in a criminal theft case. In the bogus retelling of this story, Polis is transformed from victim into perpetrator, and ads repeating this thoroughly-debunked falsehood were pulled down from at least two Denver television stations in the last week.
One of the local journalists taking point on the debunking of this smear campaign has been Kyle Clark of 9NEWS, who has used his popular Next program so tear into the false details with commendable vigor. Although Clark himself is afforded somewhat more colorful delivery on Next, his work is backed up by 9NEWS’ excellent political reporters like the Cronkite Award-winning Marshall Zelinger. And in the case of this latest ad smearing Polis, every fact-check of this ad without exception, 9NEWS and elsewhere, has condemned its over-the-top deception.
We’re not privy to all the details but it’s broadly understood that this smear was shopped to every available local mainstream media outlet, and none of them were willing to report it–at least not the way Republicans wanted. The story was therefore released by the right-wing Washington Free Beacon, a well-trafficked national platform but severely lacking in credibility compared to any of the reputable outlets the story was originally shopped to.
At the same time, the determination with which Walker Stapleton and Colorado Republicans have pushed this false story, barreling ahead over the outrage of every responsible party evaluating it, demonstrates that this particular attack is extremely important to Stapleton’s campaign strategy. In the age of mail ballots, the “October Surprise” attack has necessarily shifted a couple of weeks back in this state to a “Late September Surprise”–exactly the timing of this story’s release. For a campaign trending down in the polls heading into the final month, it does appear that this was their, in the vernacular, “Hail Mary” gambit.
We’ve written on a number of occasions in this space about the complex and pervasive growth of Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz’s influence on the public-facing side of Colorado politics. Long a GOP kingmaker and financier of Republican campaign organizations of all flavors, Anschutz’s purchase of the Colorado Springs Gazette, followed by his acquisition of the Colorado Statesman, provided Anschutz with a media mouthpiece that perfectly suited his political objectives. And in 2018, Anschutz’s “combined arms” have flexed their muscles in Colorado politics like never before.
This is just one small slice of Anschutz’s political giving in 2018, some $300,000 donated to the Republican “independent expenditure” committee which is then spent in direct support of Stapleton and other Republicans. There is plenty more–Anschutz is one of the biggest donors to Colorado Republican organizations and candidates at every level, and those investments are supplemented by “high touch” control over Republican political strategy.
Needless to say, having one of the state’s largest media outlets at your disposal as part of this strategy helps a lot. And there’s no denying now that’s what is happening.
A preview of this new politically weaponized Anschutz media machine came when the Statesman’s rebranded Colorado Politics site started disparaging a Republican political activist who successfully sued a political organization connected to Bob Beauprez that had attacked certain undesirable Republican candidates in the 2016 elections. It emerged that the “reporter” doing the attacking, longtime GOP operative Dan Njegomir, had been on the payroll of Beauprez’s organization along with the spouse of the Gazette’s editorial board editor.
Anschutz’s early backing for Walker Stapleton’s gubernatorial run dropped like a bomb when the Gazette published a controversial editorial in January essentially telling all the other Republicans to get out of the race. Although this editorial outraged a considerable number of base Republicans, it signaled clearly where the Colorado Republican establishment would land. And to the chagrin of a flock of GOP candidates, including Victor Mitchell’s spirited challenge, Stapleton dominated the primary despite failing to distinguish himself–and committing an ominous string of gaffes that foretold a difficult road ahead in the general election.
In response to the wholesale rejection by local media of the smear against Jared Polis dropped by the Washington Free Beacon in late September, the Gazette published another hotly controversial editorial, this time citing an anonymous source purporting to back up the allegations. This bizarre end-run around even the Gazette’s own newsroom was widely condemned (read former Gazette reporter Peter Marcus’ response at the link above), but again signaled the desperate determination to make this false attack stick.
And then this weekend, Anschutz’s media team went to work again–this time to attack 9NEWS’ Kyle Clark personally.
In response to a question from radio host Craig Silverman about Clark’s reporting on these ads, the head reporter of Anschutz’s political news outlet Joey Bunch calls Clark a “quasi-newsman” and “the Sean Hannity of 9NEWS”–which we’re pretty sure even from a conservative news outlet are still considered serious insults. But with journalists everywhere under siege and President Donald Trump’s gleeful defamation of the whole industry spurring the GOP base on, this is a slight that every one of Bunch’s journalist colleagues should rightly take offense to. And Clark did:
Have long read & respected @joeybunch’s work, especially his Insights column for @colo_politics. Was discouraged to hear him describe me as the Sean Hannity of #9News. This is a time when journalists should be careful about discrediting the work of other journalists. #copolitics
— Kyle Clark (@KyleClark) October 20, 2018
And of course, Kyle Clark is right. The ad in question wasn’t just debunked by Clark, it was debunked by everyone. 9NEWS isn’t the reason Denver7 and CBS4 Denver pulled the ad down, or every fact-checker at every outlet has condemned it. What Joey Bunch did do very well, though, is convey the massive frustration on the part of Republicans at the highest level that Walker Stapleton is going to lose. And to whatever extent it still matters among downtrodden news reporters, Bunch committed the dickest of dick moves–not just to a colleague but to a business partner of Anschutz, since 9NEWS republishes Colorado Politics stories on their site.
When the dust settles on the tumultuous 2018 elections in Colorado, there’s going to be a lot of reckoning to be done. One of the subjects candidly explored needs to be the combined role of Phil Anschutz’s millions and Anschutz’s media empire in coordinated pursuit of his right-wing political agenda. Two years ago, Anschutz’s funding of a broad range of far-right groups including hate groups resulted in a wave of very bad press shortly before the 2017 Coachella Festival, one of Anschutz’s entertainment empire’s biggest annual events. Combined with repeated instances of serious ethical breaches by the Gazette (and Joey Bunch personally), and Anschutz’s dual role in this state as top GOP funder and media emperor, a picture emerges that we believe hipster Coachella attendees would not want to share on Instagram.
It’s not an investment, or a legacy, to be proud of. The result in two weeks will show this better than we can say it.