United States Project

‘I’ve had it’: Family-owned Colorado paper threatens state legislator with lawsuit

February 15, 2017
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

When a Republican lawmaker in Colorado recently called his hometown newspaper “fake news,” the family-owned Grand Junction Daily Sentinel didn’t let it go unchallenged.

On Saturday, the paper’s publisher, Jay Seaton, wrote a pointed column taking the state senator, Ray Scott, to task over the allegation.

“I don’t think I can sit back and take this kind of attack from an elected official,” the publisher wrote. “We are brokers in facts. Words have real meaning in this business. Sen. Scott has defamed this company and me as its leader.” And then the kicker: “To borrow a phrase from another famous Twitter user, I’ll see you in court.”

It was no joke, either, Seaton told CJR over the phone Monday.

“That’s my intention,” he said about a potential lawsuit, “but we’re going to have some cooling-off period before I file anything.”

Here’s the background: The state senator called his local newspaper “fake news” on Twitter and Facebook after a February 8 editorial in the Sentinel urged him to move along a bill that would update the Colorado Open Records Act, or CORA. The bill would require government agencies to release digital copies of documents in a machine-readable format (if they have them), something they currently aren’t required to do. Scott chairs a committee in the state Senate that was scheduled to hear the bill last week, but he cancelled the hearing. The Sentinel urged its local lawmaker, who the paper endorsed in 2014, to set a new hearing and push the bill forward.

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In response, Scott tweeted this:

A longer post on Facebook reads:

“The very liberal GJ Sentinel is attempting to apply pressure for me to move a bill. They have no facts, as usual, and tried to call me out on SB 40 [known] as the CORA bill. They haven’t contacted me to get any information on why the bill has been delayed but choose to run a fake news story demanding I run the bill. You may have a barrel of ink but it just splashed in your face.”

In his Saturday column, Seaton defended his newspaper and indicated there might be a court fight on the horizon.

This particular publisher, it should be noted, is no stranger to a courtroom. Before taking the helm of the Sentinel in 2009, Seaton was a commercial litigator. “This is what I used to do,” he told me. “I practiced law in Kansas City for 13 years, so I’m accustomed to resolving business damage in the judicial system. So I don’t view this really as any different.”

The publisher says he has already seen people on Facebook pledge to cancel newspaper subscriptions after the lawmaker’s comments.

“What I consider actionable is the attack on the Sentinel as fake news,” Seaton says. “I can take the criticism that we’re too far right, or we’re too far left, or our reporter was sloppy, or our editorial misunderstands the issue, that I can handle. What I can’t abide is an attack on the essence of what we do.”

Scott, who served as a regional field director for Donald Trump’s Colorado campaign, declined to comment for this story on the advice of his counsel. But he did post messages on Twitter and Facebook. “Bring it on Jay, if you lie it blows back. NO ONE ever attempted to contact me,” he wrote. Seaton says he called the senator twice on Friday, but no one called him in advance of the editorial to clear the paper’s position with him. (The paper does not discuss editorial opinions with subjects prior to publication.) Scott, a possible gubernatorial candidate, isn’t talking, so it’s hard to clear up this particular dispute.

Last month, I wrote for CJR about another recent instance in Colorado in which charges of “fake news” were leveled against a credible news source. That time, the charges came from an anonymous blog. This time, it’s a politician.

“What’s really disturbing in this context is the fact that he is an elected official, he’s in a position of power,” Seaton said on Monday. “And the purpose of newspapers is to hold those people in positions of power responsible. So when he attempts to diminish us by calling us ‘fake news’ for the purpose of avoiding that accountability, I’ve got a big problem with that.”

Jerry Raehal, who runs the state’s press association, too often gets the impression that accusations of “fake news” are made anytime someone disagrees with a newspaper, whether that disagreement is with a news story or a piece in the opinion section.

“Newspapers are finding ways to defend themselves,” he says. “The Sentinel is defending itself and the industry in a way we have not heard of before. Where it goes from here, we do not know.”

Steve Zansberg, a First Amendment attorney who represents newspapers in Colorado including the Sentinel, says Scott could be liable under libel law if he made statements that are provably false and made “with the requisite knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.”

To be clear, “fake news” typically refers to an item published in order to deliberately fool readers, and to generate web traffic (and, by extension, ad revenue). It is not CNN, Time magazine, or The New York Times, as those in the White House have claimed. It is not The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

If the paper does follow through with a lawsuit, then it will no doubt be a high-profile affair. And I imagine there are plenty in Colorado’s journalistic community who wish this battle didn’t involve a public records bill that multiple papers in Colorado want to see pass.

Lauren Gustus, editor of The Coloradoan newspaper in Fort Collins, was involved in a working group that spent a year hashing out the details which led to the bill’s introduction in the Senate. While she supports the Sentinel’s efforts to defend itself, Gustus says she wants to make clear that it’s a separate issue from the open records bill that sparked this fight.

“The CORA bill specifically is meant to provide better access to data that belongs to the public,” she told me. “While the potential for ‘fake news’ to be defined in a court is intriguing, I remain committed to working to create more opportunities for the people to see public information that is theirs by state right.”

For his part, the Sentinel’s lawyer-turned-publisher says he has received about 100 emails since his column ran, only two of them negative.

“This industry has taken it and taken it and taken it over the last several years,” Seaton told me. “And now we get diminished as fake news, going to the core of what we do. And we don’t push back. Well, I’ve had it. I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. 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 writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.