As Trump assails reporters as enemies, Colorado GOP makes nice

Photograph of the Colorado Senate GOP, from its "Senate Majority Leadership Elections" album on Flickr

During a time of “press-as-enemy” rhetoric, Republican lawmakers in Colorado are redoubling efforts to ensure a friendlier relationship with journalists. While their counterparts in other states seem to be scaling back accessibility, the Colorado GOP—at least in each chamber of the state legislature—is making itself more available to reporters through weekly media briefings and happy-hour mixers.

The effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by Colorado journalists. While reporters throughout the state have successfully localized a number of national storylines—from how the state’s health exchange fits into a federal debate over Obamacare repeal to how Donald Trump’s policies are invading the state legislature—some have turned their attention to the subject of press-versus-pol tensions under the gold dome in Denver. With that coverage comes a renewed interest in a classic concern: How chummy should reporters and politicians be?

First, a broadcast by public radio capitol reporter Bente Birkland. Under the headline “Colorado GOP Goes Un-Trump With Press, Looks To Build Relationships,” she wrote:

President Trump’s battle with the media doesn’t show any signs of letting up. But, in Colorado, Republicans hope divisive rhetoric doesn’t impede their ability to get their message out. They’ve come up with something very un-Trump—a model they say will improve their relationship with the media.

That model? “We really want to be more open and inclusive,” according to Colorado’s Republican Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, who is quoted in the segment. For the reporters and those they cover, the Colorado Senate GOP’s un-Trump tack means weekly press briefings with leadership—not an entirely groundbreaking idea, for sure, but new for Colorado.

The Senate Republicans also started holding off-the-record happy hours for reporters, a move recently introduced by their counterparts in the House. The shindig, House GOP spokesman Joel Malecka told CJR, is something he had been thinking about for awhile, and was not in response to the Trump administration’s press wars in D.C. But, he said, some House Republicans have expressed trepidation in dealing with local reporters, especially ones they don’t know, because of what’s going on in Washington.

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“I totally understand that,” he said. “When you’ve got national news dominating the news cycle and you’re a representative and you’re going ‘No, I don’t want to put my name out there just to get trampled by a reporter with an agenda’…I get that.” Malecka wanted to make sure his members knew reporters in Colorado are fair.

In talking with GOP lawmakers about their relationships with the Colorado press, Malecka told me he was stunned to find out how many of them weren’t familiar with the individual reporters covering them. So he set up a mixer: About a dozen lawmakers and 10 reporters met in a room at the Capitol. Malecka told CJR he thought the event was a success, and said reporters and caucus members thanked him for doing it.

Personally, I think reporters shouldn’t worry too much about whether they get along with politicians they cover—it’s supposed to be an adversarial relationship. But we are also, I believe, in an era with a new president whose actions mean more people are now paying attention to the ways in which the press and politicians relate with each other. It’s good to be transparent about our relationship with those we cover, but also important not to appear too chummy.

To that end, Peter Marcus, who covers the statehouse for ColoradoPolitics.com and The Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs, explained to his own audience how he believes Colorado differs from Washington on that front.

In a column earlier this month, Marcus ran down a recent “dustup” between the state’s Senate GOP spokesman and reporters. The spokesman had scheduled a media briefing with a freshman GOP senator who is running a bill to abolish the state’s healthcare exchange. But during the meeting, the spokesman tried to curtail a Denver Post reporter from asking the lawmaker what he thought about Obamacare and what else might be done about issues facing health insurance, and then tried to shut down the briefing.

Some reporters felt the spokesman “antagonized reporters by raising his voice, and some in the press corps raised theirs in return,” Marcus wrote. “I can’t remember another time in my eight years working in the building when a communications director dictated which questions could be asked.”

More from the Marcus item, which ran under the headline “Press scuffles in Colorado play out differently than in Washington”:

It was a dustup. But it was just that, a tense moment that would pass. Because in Colorado we sweep those things under the rug and move on so that critical issues can be fairly reported to the public so that they stay informed…

The bitter fights that are seen on the national level with the media just don’t happen in Colorado. When there is tension, it happens, and then we move on. We rise above that noise. It’s who we are as Coloradans, and as mostly fair and balanced reporters.

The column also mentions something else: a long-running, off-the-record, low-stakes cash poker game, run by the Democratic House Speaker and legislative leaders in both parties, which goes back decades and often includes selected members of the press.

In talks with a handful of Colorado reporters, not everyone is on the same page about the game. Some told me they’ve turned down an invitation because they’re uncomfortable with the arrangement.

“One thing I was thinking about was, if someone tweeted out a photo of it, I don’t know how I’d defend it,” one reporter who has been invited to the game but has not attended told me.

Charles Ashby, the Capitol reporter for the regional Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and a 20-plus-year veteran of the statehouse press corps, has sat in at the poker table for years. He has won and lost, and suspects he probably came out even over the years.

“There are some newspapers who think it’s unethical,” Ashby told me. “I disagree.” For him, it’s good journalism to get to know your sources—no different than a casual beer or lunch to find out what’s going on. There was a game scheduled for that evening, hours after we spoke, and Ashby said he planned to play.

The poker game is old—no Trickle-down Trump effect there. Still, the recent outreach from legislative leaders to the press in at least one state has gotten some positive reviews. Says Ashby: “It’s nice to see that that they are cognizant of the atmosphere on the national level and are going out of their way to make sure that they send the message to the press here in Colorado that they’re not like that.”

All of this, it is important to note, was before news of a publisher potentially suing a state lawmaker over a “fake news” claim blew up nationally. Three reporters I spoke with, though, say they see that as more of a side issue, and hasn’t derailed relationship-building by Republican legislators. Another reporter said press-politician relationships at the Capitol are largely case-by-case situations and based on individual personalities.

Birkland, the Denver-based radio reporter who has produced stories about lawmaker outreach and about the paper’s potential lawsuit, told me she expects that the new Senate leadership will continue to be more open with the media compared to how it was in previous years, and that caucus members will build relationships with individual reporters.

Meanwhile, the war of words between a Colorado lawmaker and newspaper publisher has only escalated in the past week. If a lawsuit does make its way to court, it would bring plenty of national attention to Colorado, which would be an “unwelcome distraction” for many Republican lawmakers, Birkland says. “The debate over the term ‘fake news’ has also become very political, which could potentially put a strain on local media relationships.”

How will all this pan out? Might Colorado prove to be a model for other state legislatures? So far, to put it in public radio parlance: This is a test. This is only a test.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated where reporters and lawmakers met for a mixer.

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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.