Saturday, April 15, 2017

Chapter 4: Right up to the line

The front page of The Colorado Springs Gazette on
Sunday, March 22, 2015, with a prominent banner
ad for Clearing the Haze.
Most of the problems at The Gazette documented in the previous chapters here didn't get much attention from the public at large. The paper continued on as one of the largest news outlets in El Paso County, largely unquestioned with regard to its coverage and potential conflicts of interest.

That all changed on March 22, 2015.

That was the day the paper began publishing Clearing the Haze, a so-called "perspective series" of anti-marijuana screeds that blurred the line between traditional reporting and the type of opinionated hot air that had become typical of The Gazette's editorial page editor, Wayne Laugesen.

The paper was hit with a hyper-critical backlash, including negative responses from a number of former Gazette staffers, including myself. Steever even went on the record with the Columbia Journalism Review to defend the project.

The problem was simple: The entire series was unfair, full of reporting holes and unanswered questions. It was researched and written not by Gazette reporters but by the editorial board along with a freelancer, Christine Tatum, who just so happens to be a visceral anti-marijuana activist. She even went so far in Clearing the Haze as to liberally quote her husband, Dr. Christian Thurstone, another prominent marijuana critic.

Which means nothing in the series is trustworthy.

Clearing the Haze was comprised of 18 articles, published over four days that March nearly two years ago. A special website was even set up by The Gazette to showcase all of the articles included in the series, a site that is still active today.

But the March 2015 run wasn't the end of Clearing the Haze; the paper published at least five follow-up pieces over the course of that year, with the last apparently dated Dec. 20, 2015.

It seems unnecessary to rehash a lot of that history, since the project was so roundly lampooned at the time. But there's some important backstory to both Clearing the Haze and marijuana coverage in general by The Gazette that's worth noting here.

First of all, Clearing the Haze seemed to many Gazette staffers as the culmination of months of interference by management on marijuana-related stories. Barbara Cotter, as The Gazette's business editor in 2014 and 2015, occasionally wanted to run marijuana-related news pieces in the business section, but was prohibited from doing so by her superiors, including editor Joe Hight.

"I got the directive, 'No marijuana stories in the business section,'" Cotter recalled. "I was told over and over again that our ownership is anti-pot."

This was also after Cotter had won multiple awards for her 2013 coverage of Charlotte's Web, a marijuana-based treatment for epilepsy that brought serious relief to many seizure-stricken children for whom conventional medicines were not working.

The news of Charlotte's Web, which was first really reported by Cotter and The Gazette, even sparked a wave of immigrants to Colorado, of parents desperately looking for treatment for their epileptic kids. And it was Gazette reporter Dave Philipps, who won the Pulitzer Prize during his time at the paper, who reported on that wave of immigrants.

But those two stories ran in 2013. Something changed at some point, and in 2014, it became obvious to those of us working inside the newsroom, before Clearing the Haze blew the lid in 2015.

There were directives, according to newsroom staffers, that marijuana stories were to be downplayed or kept out of the paper altogether. When the first recreational marijuana shop in the county opened in July of 2014 - which qualifies as big local news, regardless of whether readers were pro- or anti-marijuana - the story was buried in the inside of the paper. On the front page ran a feature story about a summer camp for Jewish children and an Associated Press piece about the CIA.

Furthermore, it's never been clear just how Clearing the Haze came about, especially given that it should have been a project assigned to reporters in The Gazette's newsroom, since it supposedly was exploring legitimate questions about the impact of marijuana legalization in Colorado. There were many serious questions raised about such impacts, which are all still worth exploring, and should be from a public policy standpoint. The public does deserve an honest assessment as to whether marijuana legalization has, overall, been a net positive or negative to the state and to communities. That could definitely have been done by reporters on staff at the time.

Instead, what Gazette staffers heard through the grapevine was that Tatum, a former TV journalist turned public relations pro, had pitched the entire project directly to Anschutz, and gotten his blessing.

"My sources told me that there was some event, and Christine Tatum went up to Philip Anschutz, and had this great idea (for Clearing the Haze)," Cotter said. "That's how I heard it. I don't know if that's how it happened, but that's what I heard."

Tatum's husband, Dr. Thurstone, is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. According to one story that was circulating in The Gazette's newsroom in 2015, Tatum met Anschutz at a Christmas party at the medical campus in Aurora, which is where she pitched him the idea of Clearing the Haze.

I heard the same thing from a few other sources. And it sounds plausible to me, though I've never gotten to ask Anschutz if it's true or not.

But however it came about, it was damn weird, and definitely was not typical newsroom protocol.

There was also significant pushback from within The Gazette's newsroom prior to Clearing the Haze's publication. One editor even addressed the situation directly in a meeting with Gazette reporters three days before the first installment was published, according to a source.

"It has been thoroughly discussed by many concerned people. It's running the way it's running," the editor told staffers who were concerned that the series would come across as a product of the newsroom, instead of the editorial board and Tatum.

In other words, Gazette reporters and editors didn't want people thinking they wrote it.

"There have been a few times since Clarity took over that we've walked right up to the line of what is ethical and what is unethical," the editor said at that meeting, according to my source.

But the takeaway here is not that a hack former reporter - namely Tatum - was able to get a pet project approved by a billionaire with a chip on his shoulder when it comes to drug policy.

No, the lesson here is that a major daily newspaper - the second-largest in Colorado - was usurped by a cabal that obviously didn't give two shits about providing the public with a fair assessment of the situation.

In other words, the people behind Clearing the Haze didn't care about news. They cared about giving marijuana a black eye. The series didn't address any of the positive aspects of marijuana, such as those of Colorado Springs military veterans who use marijuana to relieve their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You couldn't have a starker example of the disintegration of the firewall (between the newsroom and the editorial department) than that," Noreen said. "It wasn't played like op-ed stuff. It was played like it was a news story."

Noreen, who hadn't heard about the Haze project before it started running, quit the paper for good after that (he'd been taking on fill-in editing shifts from time to time at The Gazette).

"I come in for a week's worth of work on the news desk, and this thing's running, and I look at the paper and I go, 'Jesus Christ!'" Noreen said. "Day after day after day of it. I said, 'I have my reputation to think of. I can't even come back and work part-time for an outfit that's doing this.' ... So I did those last two shifts, and after that, no more."

Jan Martin, the former city councilwoman, told me afterwards that the series "clearly crossed the lines, in my opinion, from news to editorial."

Even Bzdek, the new Gazette editor, told the Columbia Journalism Review that Clearing the Haze was a serious mistake.

"I told them I never would have run that series," Bzdek said.

But here's the kicker: The Gazette tried to influence national marijuana policy with Clearing the Haze.

According to my sources, the original 18 articles were printed and bound professionally, and copies were sent to members of Congress, perhaps all 535 of them.

And there's no logical reason for a company like The Gazette or Clarity Media to pay for such a thing unless it was in the hopes of pushing lawmakers toward anti-marijuana policy stances.

Such a move would have likely cost either The Gazette or Clarity Media thousands of dollars in personnel hours, along with costs for the binding and shipping of the Clearing the Haze articles. That doesn't even factor in however much Tatum may have been paid to write tens of thousands of words for the series, despite the articles being riddled with obvious reporting holes.

Again, I have not had the chance to interview anyone at The Gazette about any of this, which means it's still unclear whether Anschutz himself was directly responsible for Clearing the Haze, or what exactly the intentions behind the series were. If Tatum would care to go on the record about the process behind Clearing the Haze, I welcome the chance to speak with her, and will happily post any response here that she would care to make.

But the possibility of a billionaire owner using a newspaper that he purchased to suit his own political ends - in this case, to seemingly oppose legal marijuana reforms in general - is very real. And that should disturb any reader of The Gazette who puts their faith and trust in the paper's reporting.

The irony here is that The Gazette's editorial page, prior to the purchase by Clarity in 2012, was actually pro-marijuana, to some extent (or perhaps more appropriately, it didn't think marijuana was that big of a deal, and certainly not enough of an issue to warrant an enormous "perspective series").

Even in an editorial written by Laugesen that's still online as of April 15, 2017, The Gazette noted that plenty of political conservatives were in favor of marijuana legalization because it was consistent with the libertarian philosophy of small government and personal freedom.

"City and county politicians may only waste the public's time and money by passing laws counter to legalization," Laugesen wrote. "The drug is here, and it's not going anywhere."

There were also earlier editorials, which Laugesen likely penned as well, that also argued that marijuana is a non-issue for Colorado and that it's been settled by voters.

Which means that the opinion of the paper changed with the new ownership. While there's nothing surprising or questionable about that in and of itself, it's another indication of exactly how much influence Anschutz has wielded over The Gazette.

This was also, aside from Daniel Chacon's removal from City Hall, one of the first times The Gazette faced a sizable backlash from its reader base regarding obviously flawed coverage.

So to be fair, it seems that The Gazette's management may have learned from past mistakes. Although I haven't tracked the paper's marijuana-related coverage very closely over the past year and a half, it seems that the newsroom has readjusted and is approaching the topic in a more even-handed manner, instead of the wild "alternative facts"-style tone that Tatum brought to the pages of the paper with Clearing the Haze.

Also, four of the five follow-up pieces were clearly labeled as "editorials," at least on the Clearing the Haze website (that wasn't true in all of the print versions of The Gazette, such as the July 12, 2015 paper that on the front page advertised another "perspective series" entry). That clearly separates the content from the newsroom and puts it squarely on the subjective shoulders of the editorial department.

What could be more important, though, than how Clearing the Haze was presented was how coverage was directed, as in Cotter's case while she was business editor. If that's the precedent, may that also be the future at The Denver Post if Anschutz gets around to buying it?

Next chapter's coming in another day or so. (I know, I took longer than a week off from publishing. Give a guy a break. Only two more chapters to come.)


  1. John, I worked in the State Capitol as a Legislative Aide for one of the members when "Clearing the Haze" was released. I can confirm without a doubt that our office received copies, as did other legislators.

    1. Thanks for noting that, Alex. I'm not surprised at all, though it does suggest a disturbing trend.