Colorado law could increase partisan scrutiny of state journalists

Knapp.keith, via Wikimedia Commons

A NEW COLORADO LAW, passed by legislators at the end of the 2017 session, will allow the state’s politically unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries for the first time. The law, however, carries a public disclosure component that could leave many of the state’s journalists vulnerable to partisan critique.

Proposition 108, a statewide ballot measure voters approved last year, will allow members of Colorado’s largest voting bloc to cast ballots in one party primary during next year’s elections. (Colorado has roughly 1.2 million voters who choose not to affiliate with a party.) That’s a big deal in a swing state that’s likely to host one of the most closely watched gubernatorial races in the nation, as well as seven congressional midterm elections that voters may use as a referendum on the Trump Administration.  

While each voter’s candidate choice will obviously still remain private, those unaffiliated voters that choose to participate in a party primary will see their choices become part of the public record. That disclosure regulation has prompted a debate over privacy and political leanings, one that has attracted the attention of editorial boards and open government groups in the state.

Within those storylines, however, is another that implicates those journalists covering the new law: How might Prop 108 impact unaffiliated reporters who write about politics in Colorado? When the law takes effect, if a reporter participates in a party’s primary, then his or her choice will be accessible to anyone who wants to know it.

As lawmakers debated the bill on the floor of the Colorado legislature this week, I spoke with a half-dozen journalists grappling with the issue and found them split. On one side were reporters who said journalists don’t automatically give up their right to vote in exchange for the job. On the other were those concerned that a partisan source could wield their public voting history as a way to try and discredit their work.

“If I had to give up my voting franchise in order to be a journalist, I might reconsider what I do for a living,” says Kyle Clark, a news anchor for the Denver NBC affiliate KUSA. Clark says he has a good reporter friend he respects who won’t vote in races he covers. However, Clark says, “that’s not my view.”

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CLARK AND I DISCUSSED THE NEW LAW recently on his in-depth nightly newscast, and focused on one aspect: how a journalist’s public voter history could be weaponized by political operatives on social media. I told the story of a reporter in South Carolina whose voting history in a GOP presidential primary had been publicized on Twitter by a political operative who didn’t seem to appreciate a story.

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Potential weaponization of a journalist’s voter history is precisely the reason Marianne Goodland, an unaffiliated voter and my colleague at the digital nonprofit Colorado Independent who has covered the legislature for nearly two decades, will not vote in next year’s primaries. While she does vote in general election races she covers, she doesn’t want readers and sources to associate her with a political party.

“In order to maintain your credibility as a journalist, our political affiliation—or lack thereof— should never enter into the discussion,” she told me. “I’m registered as unaffiliated for that reason. I don’t want Republicans thinking I’m a Democrat or Democrats thinking I’m a Republican.”

Not so for Kristen Wyatt, who covers the statehouse for The Associated Press and has lived and voted in open-primary states like Georgia and closed ones like Maryland. If there’s a hot primary race next year in Colorado, Wyatt says she’ll vote even if the party she chooses will be public information.

“It doesn’t make you a better reporter because you don’t vote,” she says. “I always jokingly say I’m pro-anarchy. I will vote for the most interesting things for me personally to write about. That’s very self-interested. So if there’s an interesting candidate that’s fun to write about, of course I’m going to vote for that guy or lady. I don’t find that to be incompatible with being a journalist.”

Overall, U.S. journalists today are much more likely to identify themselves as Independents rather than Democrats or Republicans.

According to a 2014 study by Indiana University professors Lars Willnat and David H. Weaver, only 7.1 percent of 1,080 surveyed journalists identified as Republicans—a drop of nearly 11 percentage points from 2002. About 28 percent identified as Democrats, a nearly eight-point drop during the same time period. More than 50 percent said they were Independents, an average that is 10 percentage points greater than that of U.S. adults. The number of “Independent” journalists increased by nearly 18 percentage points since 2002.

“Overall, U.S. journalists today are much more likely to identify themselves as Independents rather than Democrats or Republicans—a pattern not observed before 2002,” the study found.

Since the election of Donald Trump, whose support came largely from small towns and rural America and was an unexpected event writ large by national media, plenty of journalists have likely heard the charge that they don’t truly understand the country they cover. Recently, Politico declared “The media bubble is worse than you think.” Charges of liberal media bias are common.

Colorado’s new law even has non-politics reporters thinking about the issue. Derek Kessinger, who writes for 5280 Sports Network in Denver, is an unaffiliated voter who might not participate in the party primaries even though he will now be able to.

“My main concern is the long-ranging impacts of it,” says Kessinger. “There have been a lot of stories that have come out since ESPN [instituted a major layoff] about how they were perceived as too liberal. And thinking about that just as a long-term career in the future of journalism, it’s disturbing to think about that being held against you, especially if it’s an open record.”

Where he is in his career now, Kessinger told me, in an industry with little job security, why risk it?

 

COLORADO IS ALSO A CAUCUS STATE, which means registered party members stake out space in a room in public to support one candidate over another. Under the new law, unaffiliated voters still won’t get to participate in those, but will be able to vote in the primary that comes after them once candidates reach the primary ballot.  

Matt Sebastian, a news editor of the The Daily Camera in uber-liberal Boulder, tells me he registered as a Democrat specifically so he could participate in the caucuses. He has yet to do so, however, because he has always been working on those nights. Journalists at the Camera have always been free to affiliate with political parties, and the paper has no editorial restrictions on participating in caucuses.

“Obviously, they can’t go beyond that and actively campaign for candidates or causes or serve in party leadership roles,” Sebastian says. (The editor of The Denver Post, Colorado’s largest newspaper, declined to discuss policies there.)

If they value their political rights more than their professional responsibility, then maybe they should ask themselves why they’re wearing a press badge instead of a campaign T-shirt.

Joey Bunch, a longtime Colorado journalist who leads the Colorado Springs Gazette website ColoradoPolitics.com, draws a harder line than most reporters I spoke with. He is unaffiliated, he says, for the same reason he doesn’t go to the same church every week: He doesn’t want to been seen as a member of a particular flock. Bunch has also recently covered the public disclosure aspect of the new law.

“I don’t think anyone who covers the news has a right to put a partisan label on himself or his news organization,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too much for reporters to ask of themselves to keep their politics out of the public record. If they value their political rights more than their professional responsibility, then maybe they should ask themselves why they’re wearing a press badge instead of a campaign T-shirt.”

Tough talk, for sure—and at odds with the reporter who sits next to him in the Capitol’s downstairs press room. That’s John Tomasic, who is covering Prop 108’s implementation for The Colorado Statesman. A longtime registered Democrat, Tomasic believes being an engaged participant in the election process only makes him a better reporter. Being fair in his reporting, he says, is a professional way of processing information, not a personality trait.

Tomasic has a vague memory of someone once posting his voting history on Twitter. But he says it never affected how he did his job.

“The only way to stand up to that, I think, is go forward, be open about it, and say look at my work,” he says. “If we’re going to dance around what we think and our right to participate in our government because of this weaponization, I just think it’s a capitulation and it’s just stupid.”

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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.