Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Chapter 3: The interference builds

The most dangerous threat to the integrity of the Fourth Estate comes not from obvious missteps by owners such as Anschutz, like the Clearing the Haze debacle in 2015. Those are simple to identify and easy for readers to dismiss as untrustworthy.

No, the most insidious threat that activist newspaper owners present is in everyday news stories. It is in stories that most readers would never pick out as altered or lacking, stories that fail to mention key details or make important connections, that don't paint the full relevant picture for civic-minded news consumers who care, for example, how local tax dollars are spent.

Those are the stories that too often can slip by unnoticed, and therefore, they are the most dangerous.

City for Champions was one such storyline, and it's particularly relevant when considering Anschutz, Clarity Media, and The Colorado Springs Gazette.

City for Champions is a Colorado Springs development proposal to use state tax rebates to jumpstart four city projects - a medical research facility at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; a U.S. Air Force Academy visitors' center; a U.S. Olympic museum; and a downtown sports stadium and event center.

The project was the brainchild of a select group of elite Colorado Springs businesspeople and stakeholders, including Bill Hybl, Steve Bartolin, (ret) Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, Pam Shockley-Zalabak, and other power brokers. It was unveiled in July 2013 by Bach at a press conference.

Behind the scenes, the Denver-based Anschutz Foundation - a nonprofit organization that awards grants to other nonprofit organizations - put up $75,000 toward the city's $300,000 tab for lawyers to draw up the plans. So did the El Pomar Foundation and the Downtown Partnership, signifying that many city leaders saw the City for Champions proposal as an investment in the future.

The Colorado Springs Gazette's front page on
Feb. 2, 2014.
On Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, the cabal behind the City for Champions proposal were probably feeling good about the banner headline in The Gazette that blared, "Private donors stepping up," over a story that reported much of the proposal was going to be funded by wealthy philanthropists. (The catch was that there were no such philanthropists, at least at that point, who were willing to be publicly identified.)

The headline was the result of clever manipulation, and was aided and abetted by Gazette management, according to former Gazette City Hall reporter Monica Mendoza. She was hired to take over after Chacon was reassigned to night cops, and aside from also experiencing the same pattern of constant badgering from Bach's office that began with Chacon, she said that City for Champions was a particularly troubling issue.

It wasn't the first time that a coalition of city officials and special interests, including Bach, former city attorney Chris Melcher, and other City for Champions backers were able to coordinate the timing of news articles, Mendoza said.

But not everyone agreed with the City for Champions plans. Immediately, the plan was panned by residents who were angered that the city would undertake a big taxpayer-supported proposal without citizen input.

The biggest critics were from City Hall. Then-City Council President Keith King and then-Councilman Joel Miller blasted the proposal. Other council members also objected. They feared that local taxpayers would be on the hook to fund a downtown sports stadium, and that the stadium would later be turned over to a private owner, who many speculated would be Anschutz.

The idea isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. Anschutz owns a number of sports stadiums across the country, including the Staples Center in Los Angeles and the StubHub Center in Carson, California. He was once dubbed "The man who owns L.A." by The New Yorker, and he's negotiated plenty of complex arena financing deals with other government partners across the country.

And the City for Champions financing plan called for spending about $200 million in local public money on the proposed downtown stadium and events center.

Proponents, including the Sports Corp. - a nonprofit organization that, among other things, organizes The Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and The Broadmoor Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb - launched a massive media campaign to sway public favor in support of the proposal. (Oh, and Steever sits on the Sports Corp.'s board of directors.)

King and Miller set a city council meeting agenda item for Feb. 3, 2014, to talk about the financing of City for Champions. The Friday night before the meeting, City for Champions backers called Hight and said they would reveal information about the private donors for three of the projects in the proposal. Mendoza was asked to talk to them on Saturday for a special Sunday story, she recounted.

"We're getting it exclusively," Mendoza recalled Hight telling her at the time.

But no new information was revealed. The organizers emailed Mendoza a one-page statement and an interview with El Paso County Commissioner Dennis Hisey, who was a de facto spokesman for the City for Champions project at the time. Hisey reiterated that three of the four projects would be paid for with private donations, but provided no details about who would be the financial sponsors.

In other words, there was no news.

Regardless, City for Champions got a banner headline that Sunday in The Gazette, just one day before King and Miller were set to pose questions about the entire project at a public hearing in City Hall.

"It really upset me," Mendoza said. "It seemed that the City for Champions organizers pulled one over on the paper. But what really upset me was that the editor should not have allowed it."

The entire City for Champions story "made me uncomfortable from the beginning," said Mendoza, who left The Gazette in April 2015 and is now a reporter with The Denver Business Journal. "The Anschutz Foundation gave money to the city to hire the attorneys to write the application" for state tax money to fund the City for Champions proposal.

"From there, the city project was pushed by The Gazette's publisher," Mendoza said. "For example, when the City for Champions organizers came into The Gazette's conference room to talk to me and another reporter, they had a Powerpoint presentation. Steever had set up the meeting. He didn't ask the organizers questions like a reporter would. He spoke almost in unison with the organizers about how great the project was going to be."

"I never experienced anything like that in my 20 plus years as a reporter," she said.

After City for Champions became a political football, Councilman Miller became the subject of at least a dozen Gazette editorials that painted him as a naysayer obstructionist. And it all started when he questioned City for Champions, Mendoza noted.

A full-page ad in support of City for
Champions in the Aug. 17, 2014 Gazette.
Then, full-page color City for Champions ads began running in The Gazette - at least eight of them between May and August of 2014. The ads were sold for a huge discount of $250 each under a trade account with the Sports Corp., instead of the more typical cost of $7,000, according to Stacy Brack, a former Gazette advertising sales executive who said she viewed company documentation related to the ads.

Trade accounts are pre-approved and must be something that benefits The Gazette, Brack explained. For instance, the local minor league baseball team, the Sky Sox, often trades for Gazette banners at its baseball stadium.

Brack viewed the ads as public relations for the City for Champions project, underwritten by The Gazette.

"The Gazette has no benefit from this," Brack said. "So basically, one of the red flags about this ad is, typically with trade advertising, if it's a Sky Sox ad or if it's sponsored in some way, The Gazette may request that their logo be placed on the ad. With City for Champions, there's no logo or signage being placed anywhere. So my question is, what is The Gazette receiving as a benefit for running the trade advertising?"

That's one of the many questions I would like to ask Steever. Or McKibben. Or Anschutz. But I've never had the chance. It is also a question Gazette readers may want to keep in mind when evaluating what they're reading in the paper, and whether a particular topic is connected to Anschutz or his business interests.

"It's very abnormal," Brack said of the City for Champions-Gazette ad account with the Sports Corp. "I've never seen this done in the eight years I've been in advertising."

When asked what she made of the ads and the trade account, Brack said the only logical explanation is that it benefits Anschutz directly somehow.

"I think that basically it's significant because City for Champions is a direct benefit to The Gazette's owner, Philip Anschutz," Brack said, but emphasized that she was speculating. "My feeling is that the newspaper has just become a mouthpiece for Philip Anschutz and what his business agenda is. He wants the public to think it's a good thing, that it's a positive change for them, no matter if it affects their taxes or not, no matter how it affects the city. We're changing public opinion by ownership of the paper. And by doing so with advertising, that just promotes propaganda that's his at a very low rate, that's a fairly unethical journalistic thing to do."

Combine the cost of the ads Brack knows were run - and there could have been more - with the $75,000 the Anschutz Foundation ponied up for the original City for Champions proposal, and Anschutz has invested at least $130,000 toward backing the project.

To date there has not been any formal discussion that Anschutz would take ownership or be involved in the City for Champions sports stadium and event center (at least, not in the public record). In fact, the city has been fairly quiet about that fourth project. But the Sports Corp. City for Champions information page says the stadium is projected to cost $92 million and open in 2019.

Whether or not City for Champions will prove a worthwhile investment for Colorado Springs is yet to be seen. It could end up being a solid economic driver, and help create jobs and tax revenue. But if The Gazette's owner, a billionaire with well-documented financial interests in other sports arenas in multiple countries, also has a financial interest in the project, then that's something the taxpayers of Colorado Springs deserve to know.

It's possible, of course, that Anschutz is investing in the project out of the goodness of his heart. But if he is, why give away tens of thousands of dollars in free advertising when The Gazette itself didn't seem to be on solid financial footing? Why not just fund the project directly, since Anschutz himself is worth over $12 billion? If the Sports Corp. is right, and the stadium is only going to cost $92 million, that's peanuts to a businessman with such assets.

It doesn't make any sense. Unless Anschutz saw it as an investment instead of charity. Then it makes perfect sense: Use The Gazette to drum up public support and shout down those who would undercut the deal, just as Brack suspects. Control the flow of information, and control public opinion.

"It's 1984-ish," Cotter said. "It's trying to control information. The good thing is that Philip Anschutz cannot own every publication in the United States."

Mendoza also heard directly from Wayne Laugesen, the editorial page editor, that Anschutz took a personal interest in The Gazette's content.

In August of 2014, Laugesen strolled by Mendoza's desk to ask if she was covering a local ballot initiative that had to do with a city stormwater proposal.

"I've been given a direct order from Phil to write in support of it," Laugesen said. Mendoza recalled it because the incident seemed odd, almost like Laugesen was boasting that he was getting orders straight from the owner. She wrote down afterward what had transpired.

"You get direction straight from Anschutz?" she asked Laugesen.

"Yeah, I get about two emails a week from him," Laugesen told her. "Some are commenting on editorials. Some are giving direction."

He then showed Mendoza some of the emails from Anschutz.

"I remember him saying on at least a couple of occasions, 'I was told to take Joel Miller's head off,'" Mendoza recalled.

Now, a wealthy newspaper owner taking a direct interest in his paper's editorial board stances is nothing new, and there's nothing wrong with a paper taking a clear position on public issues. But what this incident illustrates is two things: First, that Anschutz took a direct and ongoing interest in local issues and what The Gazette was doing about them, and second, that he intervened personally in at least some of the paper's operations.

And if Anschutz felt no compulsion about telling the editorial page editor what to write, who's to say that he would feel there's anything wrong with ordering specific news coverage?

The Gaylord Story

I believe that's exactly what happened with a sizable news story about the Gaylord Rockies hotel in Aurora, Colorado, that was published Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.

The front page of The Colorado Springs Gazette
on Aug. 10, 2014
Because the story that The Gazette published was not what the reporter originally turned in. What was published was very - disturbingly - different.

The first draft of the story that was submitted by the reporter referred to the City for Champions' proposed sports arena in the third sentence. It drew obvious parallels between the controversial financing structures of the Gaylord hotel, City for Champions, and other economic development projects in Colorado that were essentially attempting to give taxes away to private companies. (The tax money is intended as an incentive for companies to set up shop, and the tradeoff for local governments is more jobs and tax income overall.)

For anyone who cares to read that first draft, I've published it on this blog as a footnote, along with images of the story that was printed in The Gazette that Sunday. And here's the link to the archived version of the story on

To anyone who takes the time to read both the original draft and the published story, several things will be immediately apparent:
  • The first is a better and more locally focused story for Colorado Springs Gazette readers than the one that was published. It took more angles into account, and localized the story by including City for Champions analysis.
  • There are many of the same sources, and even many of the same quotes, in both versions of the story. The main difference is that the published one focuses solely on the Aurora Gaylord project, and does not evaluate any similar policies being used by other cities.
  • There is no mention whatsoever of City for Champions in the story that The Gazette published, let alone any quotes from Colorado Springs City Councilman Don Knight, despite the fact that the city government was at the time considering relying on tax increment financing to pay for the City for Champions sports arena (which it still may do; I haven't had time recently to check on that project's status). But in the first draft, Knight expressed concerns that taxpayer money could be appropriated for City for Champions without a vote of the people, and discussed the issue in depth.
The published story does acknowledge that The Broadmoor, which sued to try to stop the Gaylord project, is also owned by the same parent company that owns The Gazette (Anschutz, in other words). That's proper disclosure of a potential conflict of interest.

But knowing that the original draft was so radically different - and that Anschutz has put money behind City for Champions - raises immediate questions.

Why would a reporter be ordered to so dramatically rewrite a legitimate news story about tax policy? Why remove references to City for Champions? Why remove analysis and quotes from a local city councilman who has been elected to analyze just such policies on the behalf of voters? And why not just keep the original story?

"Most people in the community wouldn't question that Aurora Gaylord project," Cotter said, because it seemed innocuous. "But it was influenced, certainly by the ownership, to do that story."

Cotter said it fit the bill of what she used to call a "command performance." That was when orders came down from Hight or Steever that a certain story was to be played up, or presented in a certain way, or reported on in the first place, she said.

The front page of The Gazette screamed, "Aurora's tax giveaway." But why? What do The Gazette's readers care about what Aurora taxpayers do with their money? And why would Anschutz care about the Gaylord project, or if a reporter believes a story to be relevant to an issue facing a local city councilman?

Even Jeff Thomas, who had been laid off over two years before the Gaylord story ran, remembers being perplexed by it.

"My first reaction was, 'What does this have to do with Colorado Springs? What is it to me, as a city resident, as a taxpayer, or even as a tourist who might want to travel around Colorado, what is this to me?'" Thomas said.

There's the rub: The first draft of the story answered all of those questions. The one published in the paper did not.

And, it's a good story. It's not a great story, or a groundbreaking piece of journalism, but it's solid work, and would be enjoyed by any reader who likes following wonky political stuff the way I do. 

"I didn't even have so much of a problem with the line of reporting in it. It just didn't seem all that relevant to us," Thomas said. "It was the sort of thing you'd read in The Aurora Sentinel, or The Denver Post, or The Rocky Mountain News back in the day. So that one felt to me - and I have no direct knowledge if this was true or not - but it felt like this one came down from the top office, and someone was tasked with having to report it."

That's exactly what I heard happened.

What I heard - from sources that I trust and believe - is the reporter was forced to rewrite the story to accommodate what Hight's superiors wanted to see in the paper. Staffers drew their own conclusions as to why (I actually left The Gazette just prior to the Gaylord story's publication, but was still in contact with many friends and colleagues at the paper).

When wondering why such an order had been given, the consensus among colleagues whose opinion I highly respect was twofold. 

One, Anschutz saw the Gaylord as a possible business competitor, a threat to his beloved Broadmoor, and thought he could potentially sink it by forcing one of the journalists on his payroll to write up some negative publicity. Besides, he tried suing the Gaylord once, and it didn't work. Why not try The Gazette? 

Two, that he didn't want any question marks in readers' minds about whether they should support City for Champions.

Maybe it was one or the other, or a combination. But there's no other logical reason I can think of as to why the first draft of that story would be shoved aside in favor of what was printed. There's no justification for it, from an editor's standpoint. 

I was asked not long ago by a journalist who I respect where the harm is in this particular narrative, in the entirety of this blog. He compared it to Spotlight, the film that tells the story of The Boston Globe reporters who exposed systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church. He asked where the injured party could be, in this story about Anschutz and The Gazette.

This is my answer. This is the potential for harm in this story. Colorado Springs taxpayer money could be directed straight into Philip Anschutz's pocket - by saving him millions in construction costs - if the downtown sports arena is built and one of his myriad companies ends up owning it. If Colorado Springs voters think the cost of City for Champions is worth it, then they should be allowed to make an informed decision. They should be presented with all of the facts. (Not to mention, many Gazette readers hold the Taxpayers Bill of Rights near and dear to their hearts, and this particular story cut straight to the heart of TABOR's ideals.)

But I don't think Anschutz wants voters to have all of the facts. At least, not based on the story that ran on the front page of The Gazette on Aug. 10, 2014, instead of the story the paper could have run.

That's what I was referring to at the beginning of this chapter: The stories that are not told can be more dangerous than the ones we know are false.

The troubling relationship between Steever, Bach, The Gazette and other city power brokers didn't end with the City for Champions coverage, either. 

There will be more to come on this blog about The Gazette and its recent history. I'm going to try to post new chapters and updates here on a weekly basis.


  1. Thank you Schroyer, IIRC correctly L Forest would be proud of your moral and ethical nature.

    1. I honestly can't tell if you're being serious or sarcastic. But feel free to email me at