A libertarian news site in Colorado factchecks the factcheckers

Illustration by CJR

Around the country yesterday, ballot-watchers were focused on hard-fought campaigns for governor, legal pot, the fate of anti-discrimination laws. The big Election Day news here in Colorado? Believe it or not, it was about a local school board. The vote over whether to recall three conservative members of the Jefferson County board of education, wrote The Denver Post, involved death threats, outside money, and “allegations of bullying and fake social media accounts.” Amid the ongoing controversy over education reform, it even became national news.

As Election Day neared, the closely watched contest also offered something else: a lesson in the ways ideologically oriented media outlets can keep the MSM on its toes. Consider this on-air mea culpa from 9News, the NBC affiliate in Denver, that aired Monday night, correcting one of the station’s “Truth Test” factcheck segments.

To the station’s credit, that’s a full-throated correction. Anchor Kyle Clark, who didn’t write the piece, looks like he’s all but ready to commit seppuku towards the end.

What’s notable about the correction are the circumstances that led to it. In essence, this is a case of mainstream reporters setting out to factcheck public officials—and finding themselves factchecked in turn by a more politicized outlet.

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The original 9News Truth Test had scrutinized a commercial supporting the conservative board members who were facing a recall. The ad touted a number of board policies, including “building a new school without debt”—a claim that 9News ruled an “overstatement.”

That drew the attention of Todd Shepherd, an investigative reporter in Denver who works for the libertarian Independence Institute. The web version of the 9News segment didn’t cite or link to sources for all of its claims, and Shepherd began emailing and calling station managers, pressing for sources. On Nov. 1, he wrote a post for his site, CompleteColorado.com, laying out the case for a correction.

The Independence Institute was not a disinterested observer to this school board election. According to Chalkbeat Colorado, a nonprofit linked to the group made the single largest donation during the reporting period to a committee that supported the conservative board members. (The recall effort, by the way, was successful.)

But Shepherd was, on the factual question at hand, correct. On both the debt issue and another point, 9News had relied on outdated information to question the commercial’s claims, and it had to revise its conclusions. (We’ll set aside the related question of whether it’s a good idea, as a matter of policy, to commit to building a school without borrowing money.) 

When the station makes an error, “it really doesn’t matter who is pointing it out,” 9News news director Christy Moreno told me in an interview. “Obviously people that are working sort of in that universe are very passionate about it and very knowledgeable about it. And are looking for important details. So if they have a way to point out an error we treat it just like we would if anyone else were to call or write or email.” 

Going forward, the station will have “numerous sets of eyes and lots of questions” on the Truth Tests, and be more thorough about providing sourcing for claims, she said. One model for clarity in sourcing might be PolitiFact, which lists and links its sources on the rail of each of its posts.

As it happens, PolitiFact is preparing to launch a Colorado franchise of its own, in partnership with Denver’s ABC station. That will bring another dedicated factchecking operation to what’s already a pretty crowded genre on Colorado TV: Much of the political content on Denver’s CBS station comes in the form of factchecks, too.

While all those factcheckers keep an eye on the pols, they’ll no doubt continue to be watchdogged in turn. Sometimes, that’s just exhausting or distracting; sometimes, it turns out to be a good thing. I’ve written in the past about how a new breed of investigative reporters who work for state-based ideological think tanks can break news, hold public officials accountable, and, under certain circumstances, be a force for better journalism. As Moreno told me: “It doesn’t matter who is calling you or what agendas may be out there, it’s very important to take that seriously.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.