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The Columbia Journalism Review scolded The Denver Post’s Kurtis Lee last week for not doing something that I had complimented Lee for doing just a couple months before.
CJR’s Mary Winter criticized Lee for failing to properly fact check a statement by Rep. Mike Coffman in a debate with Joe Miklosi, his Democratic challenger for the 6th Congressional District seat.
Lee reported Coffman’s accusation that Miklosi favors a “cut” to Medicare of $716 billion, based on Miklosi’s backing of Obamacare. Lee reported Miklosi’s denial of Coffman’s attack and left it at that.
Considering that the $716 billion complaint has been a leading GOP attack line for months, and has been factchecked many times, this sort of he-said/he-said isn’t good enough.
Had the Post delved into the issue, it might have noted that several nonpartisan health-care analysts and factchecking groups have found the thrust of the Republican challenge to be overstated, misleading, or even false.
A couple months earlier when Coffman spokesman Owen Loftus told Lee that Miklosi favored a $500 billion cut to Medicare, based on Miklosi’s support of Obamacare, Lee added the following paragraph to his article:
In a Washington Post fact check of similar claims, the health care law tries to identify ways to save money, and so the $500 billion figure comes from the difference over 10 years between anticipated Medicare spending (what is known as “the baseline”) and the changes the law makes to reduce spending.
This prompted me to write a blog post with the subtle headline of, “Denver Post reporter inspires respect for journalism by correcting Coffman spokesperson’s assertion that Dems cut Medicare.”
I wondered why Lee did the right thing in one case and the wrong thing the second time, but there was no comment from Lee in Winter’s article.
Why? Did Winter call Lee?
“No, I did not,” Winter told me. “What I try to do always is give anybody we’re dinging a heads up. Unfortunately, this got posted really fast. I emailed Kurtis and literally about three seconds later his story posted. And then I instantaneously sent him a link and said, Kurtis, by the way, it’s already up. Again, hope you understand it’s my job to do this. I dinged you.”
I don’t always reach out for a comment from journalists whom I criticize either, mostly because I don’t want to bother them too often. Or I don’t want to bother them with something that’s likely way less important to them than me. On a very rare occasion, I’m in too big a rush.
But in this case, especially for the Columbia Journalism Review, I thought Winter should have asked Lee about his reporting.
“In this case, we were looking through the prism of the reader, more than any other factor,” Winter told me, adding that if she were raising ethical concerns, she would definitely have contacted Lee. “We weren’t on an real tight time deadline. What’s the reader going to make of all this? The reader isn’t privy to his thoughts. That was our primary goal in this piece, to ask questions that a reader would have.”
For news reporting, she said, “it’s always best to err on the side of calling somebody, but this was criticism.”
That’s fair enough, but Winter made a broad crtique of the Post’s reporting, writing that the newspaper wasn’t correcting the GOP attack on Medicare, and she should have called to make sure she was correct. Had she done so, Lee might have pointed out that he had corrected the Coffman campaign’s Medicare assertion previously. Then Winter would have had a different set of questions to ask Lee.
So I thought I’d hear what Lee had to say.
I wrote him this email:
Why did you correct Loftus previously, or at least offer a nonpartisan perspective, but decided not to in the case Winter cites?
Do you agree with Winter that so many nonpartisan sources have found “the thrust of the Republican challenge [$716 billion "cut" from Medicare] to be overstated, misleading, or even false” that a reporter should present additional facts for readers when the accusation is made by someone like Coffman?
Guess what Lee had to say to me on the topic? Nothing.
He wrote that he respects my work, and Winter’s, but he did not want to respond.
And he didn’t respond to my follow-up email asking why he didn’t want to comment and if he would have responded to Winter, if she’d contacted him.
So where does this leave us?
You have to think, judging from Lee’s work in the past, that he thinks Coffman is seriously misleading us when he asserts that Miklosi favors a “cut” to Medicare. And you have to hope he thinks the issue is important enough, and sufficiently settled, that he gives readers the views of nonpartisan fact checkers in the future.
So let’s hope Lee does the right thing next time, as he’s done before, and informs readers about Coffman’s Medicare scare tactics.