It’s Caucus Day in Colorado: Where’s the Content?

Campaign presented as theater in the Denver Post

COLORADO — It’s caucus day here in Colorado, and recent campaign coverage from the state’s largest paper has been disappointingly content-free.

And it’s not for lack of potential content.

The Republican Party is chomping at the bit to reclaim this once-reliably red state in November after President Obama’s nine-point victory here in 2008. GOP presidential-nominee hopefuls Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich (and less so, Ron Paul) have been battling like Rocky Mountain big horn sheep here ahead of tonight’s caucus. And along with fighting words from the candidates, there’s been some policy talk here, too.

Yesterday, for example, both Gingrich and Santorum spoke at the Colorado Energy Summit at the Colorado School of Mines in the Denver suburb of Golden—as good a news hook as any for the Post to tell readers, the day before the caucus, a thing or two about the candidates’ energy policies (tell us where they stand being the sort of reporting voters in South Carolina recently told CJR’s Erika Fry they look for from their local papers). Or, at the very least, to report what the candidates said at the Summit—which the 8,000-circulation Durango Herald (a paper in southwest Colorado that stations a reporter at the Capitol) did in a piece headlined, “Gingrich, Santorum: Open public lands to drilling.” (Although, reporting what was said is essentially all the Herald did, leaving it up to readers to puzzle over, for example, Gingrich’s assertion that “there is no such thing as Peak Oil” and Santorum’s claim that the president is conducting a “war on fossil fuels”).

The Post didn’t run a story about the candidates’ energy speeches. And so Post readers missed a caucus eve opportunity to learn (or recall), for example, that Santorum wants to “eliminate all energy subsidies” (not to mention, an exploration of what this might look like) or that he considers global warming a “hoax” (as he’s said before on the stump but which certainly provides a window into his worldview). Post readers were not informed, say, that a President Gingrich would open up an area the size of Texas for drilling in Alaska and would close the Environmental Protection Agency and replace it with an “Environmental Solutions Agency.”

In short, energy issues of vital national interest were discussed on Monday (see here for video of speeches), but Post readers—as well as, to be fair, readers and viewers of the rest of Denver’s mainstream media—were left out of the conversation.

What did Post readers get in the run-up to tonight’s caucus?

The campaign as theater. “Gingrich revs up rally,” read the headline, in part, to a low-on-substance report from a Gingrich rally earlier yesterday. The piece led with Gingrich saying America needs “a very big change” and never dug much deeper than that. (Readers were briefly introduced to an elderly Gingrich supporter who carries a copy of Gingrich’s Contract With America “with her at all times in her purse.”)

And later yesterday, Post readers got a report from a Romney rally “near capacity” at “nearly 3,000” “highly interactive and vocal” people, before whom “Romney disputed Obama’s claim that unemployment has been improving” (well, has it?) and from whom Romney got “the most cheers when he brought up government spending.”

Early this morning, the Post ran a piece about the candidates “crisscrossing Colorado” that mentioned in passing that Gingrich made “a speech at the Colorado School of Mines” and Santorum “also spoke” there, but then quickly moved on to detail how the candidates think they and their opponents will fare tonight and which candidate is more electable, and what the DNC said on a conference call pre-butting Romney’s speech yesterday.

The Post and the rest of Colorado’s press must aim high in their coverage of campaigns, take time to add background, context and critical perspective to reports of even the most mundane stump events (or those packed with “vocal and highly interactive” people). And if and when, amidst the trash-talking and sparring between candidates, actual policy and plans are discussed, readers deserve (and want) to know about that, too.

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Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.