One of the stories we've followed over the years here at Colorado Pols has been the steady decline in both the quality and quantity of local political news reporting. In the early years of our writing about Colorado politics, the state benefited greatly from a competitive and robust local media, most importantly the competition between the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News.
After the Rocky's closure in early 2009, the immediate and arithmetic reduction in political news coverage was obvious. The surviving newspaper of record, the Denver Post, not only had a smaller and greener staff to work local political stories, but gradually became more susceptible to partisan influence in their news coverage through a variety of means. Editing and fact-checking began to suffer. To varying degrees, the same economic pressures squeezing Denver newspapers have affected smaller media outlets across the state, many of whom we've tried to promote the good work of outside their more limited distribution. Television political journalism in Colorado has seen deleterious turnover of highly experienced and discerning staff like 9NEWS' iconic Adam Schrager.
In 2013, the paucity of good journalism in Colorado had significant and lasting effects. In the time we've been covering Colorado politics, it was perhaps the worst year ever for objective facts. Our primary interest is not media criticism, but we've found it necessary more than ever this year just to keep basic facts straight in the permanent record. Of all the bogus storylines in the Colorado press we've had to debunk in 2013, one stands out.
The central issue of this year's legislative session was gun safety, with Democrats taking legislative action in the wake of mass shooting events in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado in 2012. Colorado, a Western state with a long tradition of gun ownership, served as a test of whether very limited and modest action on gun safety could be accomplished outside traditional urban Democratic strongholds. Colorado Democrats introduced a range of proposals, and it was clear from the beginning they were not all intended to pass. So-called "flanking measures" regarding guns on campus and assault weapon liability were intended to provide negotiating space for the highest priority bills, requiring standard background checks for most private gun sales and limiting magazine capacity to 15 rounds.
Opponents to these bills responded with an avalanche of false claims about their supposed consequences. Colorado legislators circulated bogus National Rifle Association talking points claiming that Democrats were trying to "outlaw private transfers of guns." But the most egregious falsehood spread by opponents of this year's gun safety bills, not just repeated but actively encouraged by members of the local media, and what we today christen the 2013 Lie of the Year in Colorado Politics, is this:
"If this law passes, almost all guns in Colorado will never be able to get a magazine again."
Those words were spoken by Jon Caldara, President of the Golden-based right wing Independence Institute. The Independence Institute, via legal director Dave Kopel, is leading the lawsuit against the universal background check and magazine limit laws passed in Colorado this year. When Jon Caldara spoke these words, we submit to you that he knew it was a lie–just as his "legal expert" on the matter Dave Kopel did.
There have been many attempts in retrospect to explain away the fact that the sky did not in fact fall on Colorado when House Bill 1224 took effect. On July 1st, when the law took effect, compliant magazines for guns were in fact already available for sale. As it turns out, Colorado is not the first state to limit the capacity of gun magazines! In fact, about two seconds of Googling reveals that many states have limits on magazine capacity. As proponents, impartial experts, and even Republican Attorney General John Suthers maintained all along, the clear language of the magazine limit bill does not "ban all magazines with a removable baseplate," or various other expansive criteria opponents read into it. Suthers laid this out clearly in a memo on enforcement of House Bill 1224. Eventually, even Kopel "agreed" to this language as binding, and the issue is no longer part of his litigation.
Unfortunately, numerous local media outlets, including the Denver Post and the state's highest-rated television station 9NEWS, ludicrously subsidized the bogus insistence by Caldara and Republican legislators that HB-1224 would "ban all magazines." 9NEWS' Kyle Clark ran a six-minute clip on these "potential unintended consequences," an eternity by local newscast standards, awash in hand-wringing speculation that Caldara might be right. The Denver Post ran a front-page photo of a case of pistols at a gun store, all labeled "not for sale after June 30th."
None of those stories were ever corrected. Brief later mentions of the "deal" ending litigation over the magazine limit's "vague" language said nothing about the prior speculation from the very same media outlets proving utterly baseless. Which makes sense, since they would have to admit that they were wrong well beyond the scope of a mere technical correction.
So what did this all actually mean? What was the damage done? In November, a poll of Colorado voters by Quinnipiac University found that 55% of Coloradans oppose "the stricter new gun control laws" passed this year. But the same poll found that 85% of respondents support background checks for all gun buyers. The magazine limit bill was more divided, but still had more support than opposition. In both cases, the gap between the public's perception of the "gun control" bills passed this year, and what was actually passed, is enormous. And given these nonsensical alarmist stories subsidizing these very same falsehoods, blame can straightforwardly be laid with our local media.
When you start applying this realization to political results this year, like the unprecedented recall of two sitting Colorado legislators and resignation of a third to avoid the same fate, the dismaying cause and effect becomes clear. This did real damage. We're not saying that Democrats couldn't have done a better job messaging their agenda, or could not have responded more vigorously to misinformation early instead of allowing it to go essentially unchallenged. But for the vast majority of citizens, all they know about these political battles is what they get from the news. And on this issue, with great consequence, the local news media failed the citizens.