A political quarrel erupted earlier this month, garnering the attention of national media, after a state Republican lawmaker accused his hometown newspaper of publishing “fake news” and was subsequently threatened with a lawsuit.
At the center of the fray: Sen. Ray Scott, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and the delay of a hearing for Senate Bill 40, which would update the state’s open records law.
Scott told The Colorado Statesman that as chair of the state Senate’s Veteran and Military Affairs committee, he was asked for the delay to address security concerns brought forth by legislators and a “substantial list” of public entities.
“In the spirit of doing our job, we delayed it,” Scott said. “In fairness to the sponsors, I was trying to give them time to get the thing fixed.”
The episode started with a Feb. 8 Daily Sentinel editorial urging Scott to move the measure along. The Grand Junction lawmaker responded the same day with social media posts calling the newspaper liberal and accusing it of running a “fake news” story.
“They have no facts, as usual, and tried to call me out on SB 40 [known] as the CORA bill,” Scott posted in part on Facebook. “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.”
Daily Sentinel Publisher Jay Seaton wrote a rebuttal in an editorial the following Saturday, claiming “false character assassination that can’t go unchallenged” and ending the piece with “to borrow a phrase from another famous Twitter user, I’ll see you in court.”
Senate Bill 40 would update the law to require public documents be provided in their original format, if possible. That means, if records are kept in a digital form, they must be delivered in that form, not in paper copies. The bill had failed in recent years.
However, the Colorado Attorney General’s office asked Scott to delay the measure citing security and privacy concerns from the University of Colorado System, Douglas County Schools the City of Westminster and Denver Public Schools, among others.
“We are actively working with the bill sponsors and other concerned stakeholders to ensure that the bill provides clear direction to government and requesters, ensures transparency and accessibility, and doesn’t increase confusion and litigation,” Attorney General’s Office spokesperson Annie Skinner said.
Skinner declined to elaborate further on what kind of security or privacy concerns the office or stakeholders foresee.
The political fray
Scott, who was a field director for President Donald Trump’s campaign and a possible gubernatorial candidate, argues the paper ran with the editorial without contacting him for context on the delay of the measure, but it’s common practice that papers don’t clear editorials with its subjects before publishing, Seaton said.
“Seaton likes to write articles and put them in his paper, then uses the ‘editorial’ word to cover his tracks, Scott told The Statesman. “Rarely will he put his name on an article.
“If they have had done their journalistic homework, they would have asked their reporter at the Capitol to do a story on what is really happening with the bill,” Scott added.
Seaton said their initial editorial wasn’t in anyway critical of the senator, but simply argued it’s a good measure and “to reset the bill and move it on.”
Scott also took issue with an opinion piece he penned in response to Seaton that The Daily Sentinel declined to publish due to “false claims.”
“What happened to free speech?” Scott said. “The Sentinel cannot put demands on what a rebuttal looks like. Free speech is apparently a one-way street. Either that or Mr. Seaton didn’t want any contradictory points to his editorial.”
Scott’s opinion editorial, which remains unpublished until now, is below in its entirety:
Publisher Jay Seaton’s threatened defamation suit against me, along with the fact that the Daily Sentinel is a family-friendly publication, force me to choose my words carefully here, and tread more lightly than usual in responding to his provocations and escalations. But since facts are what a newspaper is supposed to be about, let me present a few facts about the root causes of this conflict. Because the facts speak for themselves when laid on the table.
The Sentinel’s latest provocation came in an editorial last week, questioning my decision to lay-over an open records reform bill, Senate Bill-40, which had been scheduled for a first hearing in the State Affairs Committee, which I chair. My reasons for not hearing the bill as scheduled were not, as the paper suggested, part of some plot to derail the debate or undermine open records laws. They stemmed from the number of concerns and criticisms we were hearing about the bill, from universities, counties and even the Colorado Attorney General’s office.
I delayed introduction of SB-40 in response to these concerns, based on my belief that giving these stakeholder discussions time to mature might eventually produce a better-than-original bill, with improved chances of eventual passage. Sometimes delaying particularly complex or potentially contentious bills is the only way to save them from an early grave. Whether an improved-enough-to-pass product will result from this delay remains to be seen. But my motives for laying it over weren’t what the Sentinel seemed to assume they were.
The publisher or his assistants could easily have gotten these facts with a phone call or text, seeking explanation. Yet no call came in. Because the Sentinel’s standard, anti-Scott narrative apparently had more appeal, they went with their inaccurate and potentially misleading premise, which led me to respond with a tweet calling the piece “fake news.”
We all have our own definitions of “fake news.” What one finds, when one looks closely at the issue, is that it’s a subjective, eye-of-the-beholder thing. An editorial that seeks to impugn my actions and motives, by drawing false conclusions without first checking for countervailing facts or evidence, as professional standards of journalism dictate, struck me at the time as an example of “fake news.” So out went “the tweet heard round the world.”
That’s when Publisher Seaton, instead of admitting that this editorial page went with a false but easily fact-checked premise, took the dispute “nuclear” by threatening to slap me with a defamation suit. But I won’t be bullied or silenced by such tactics.
I hope the publisher will think twice about his overreaction. The facts just presented make clear who was in the wrong, and who was in the right, in this case. And the Sentinel’s attempt to silence and bully me with bizarre legal threats, though it may make a short-term splash in some circles, will only serve to lower the paper’s stature over time.
Seaton, a former litigator in Kansas City, Mo., said he is currently speaking with outside counsel and other counsel but declined to name the firm.
“Nothing has been filed, but this is one of those situations where I don’t want to file something in a knee-jerk fashion but put together the best claim possible,” Seaton said. “There’s a lot of heat in the room and I hope to let that dissipate.”
Seaton said the newspaper had seen some subscription cancellations initially after Scott’s Facebook post. He added he doesn’t take issue with Scott being critical of the Sentinel, because opinion about their work is healthy and ordinary, but to characterize the publication as fraudulent or fake is “a whole different ball of wax” and a false statement of fact.
In the end, a lawsuit could be stymied and Scott shielded under the state’s legislative immunity law.
“This breaks down to freedom of the press, and I will not lay down when that’s under attack,” Seaton said.
But Scott maintains Seaton’s actions have nothing to do with freedom of the press, but are self-serving. “This doesn’t pass the smell test,” Scott told The Statesman. “Seaton clearly doesn’t like Trump and used this as an excuse to fire up the troops in the resistance movement.”