Inside the News: Denver TV Journalist Assaulted While Covering a Crime Story

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

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‘Completely unprovoked’

A yet-to-be-named TV photojournalist came “face to face” with a crime story he was covering this week, Denver’s CBS affiliate reported.

Around noon on March 21, anchor Kelly Werthmann said she was working on a story about safety near Denver’s Union Station. Then, “just minutes after setting up his camera my photographer was assaulted,” she said, adding that a man “hit my colleague in the head and threatened to kill him.” (She later said the journalist was OK.)

Werthmann told me Tuesday she did not “directly witness the attack” but was nearby. This is from her Monday reporting on social media:

Later Monday, Werthmann posted a photo of the alleged assailant and said the incident “is now a Crime Stoppers case, so if you know who this man is give @CrimeStoppersCO a call. You can remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward.”

Asked for more details, CBS4 News Director Tim Wieland emailed this statement Tuesday:

“The man came out of the bus terminal and walked directly to our photographer across the street, yelled at him, and took a swing at him. Fortunately our photographer ducked when the man swung his arm at him. The man did hit our photographer in the forehead but not hard enough to leave a mark or bruise. Police did respond quickly and we reported the incident to the officers on scene. The photographer did get video of the man walking away, including a still frame of the man’s face. We provided that still frame to police.”

Wieland declined to provide the journalist’s name.

A Denver police spokesperson on Tuesday denied a request for documentation about an incident involving a CBS4 journalist, saying it was part of an active investigation, but confirmed a “victim” was “assaulted by an unknown suspect” in the area and “no arrests have been made at this point.” Wieland had no update on Thursday; police said the investigation was still ongoing.

As for what makes something a Crime Stoppers case, a police spokesperson said it is a separate entity from the department — a nonprofit — to which the public can leave a tip for criminal cases in the metro area. “Detectives sometimes use Metro Denver Crime Stoppers to raise awareness of a case they are working on and need the public’s help in gathering more info about the case,” the spokesperson said, calling it “another tool that helps in the investigative process.”

Denver’s CBS affiliate aired a clip about the incident live on air Monday, but as of Thursday did not have a story about it on its website. “Will this deter me from visiting downtown?” Werthmann said on social media. “Maybe for a bit… but I still love this city & hope we can resolve this complex issue, and soon.”

After interviewing Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, the reporter had this to say about the public policy response: “This is going to take more than ‘increased police presence’ to fix,” adding later, “this isn’t an issue police can tackle on their own. It’s going to take more than increasing police to curb this frightening trend of drug use & violence.”

Reports of increased drug use and violence around Union Station, a bustling place with a Great Hall known as “Denver’s living room” and a bus terminal where people experiencing homelessness sleep or charge phones, has consumed local media since late last year. A shooting there last weekend was “yet another crime in a wave that’s been plaguing Union Station for months,” a CBS4 news anchor said on air this week.

In February, Denver’s alt-weekly Westword published the names and mugshots of people police arrested in a sweeping crackdown of the area. The coverage came when some newsrooms in Colorado are re-thinking how they cover law enforcement actions and when they decide to publish names and photos of people who police arrest. Westword Editor Patty Calhoun said the paper “made the call to publish mug shots of only those arrested for felonies, with the caveat that we would continue following their cases.”

In December, after the RTD’s union president called the place a “lawless hellhole,” Denverite journalists Kevin Beaty and Kyle Harris spent 18 hours at Union Station reporting what they saw and heard. Denver’s police chief had a different description for the reporters: “It’s a very complex situation with not a lot of good solutions.”

In January, the Regional Transportation District apologized for asking media organizations to fill out a form before filming on its property, which would have included Union Station.

Just this week, media reported on a new “security plan” for the area.

Asked to what extent he believed the alleged assault on a photojournalist at Union Station happened because his employee was a member of the press, CBS4’s Wieland said he couldn’t be sure.

“But there was no indication that this was an act of hostility directly related to our photographer being a journalist,” he said. “That said, his camera clearly did make him a target for this person.”

Colorado’s ‘Supporting Local News’ bill cleared a second hurdle

Another panel of lawmakers in Colorado gave the thumbs up (squeaking through by one vote) to a proposed new law aimed at bolstering the bottom lines of local news outlets.

The bill would give a 50% tax credit — capped at $2,500 — for small businesses that advertise with local media. The hope is that more local advertisers will support their struggling local news organizations at a time when ad dollars are flowing to large tech platforms like Facebook and Google.

Some context: The bill is part of a swarm of potential solutions in recent years to mitigate local news retrenchment in Colorado. Between 2004 and 2019, 33 Colorado newspapers have gone out of business and there are roughly half as many reporters working here than in recent years, said the bill’s sponsor, Littleton Democratic Rep. Lisa Cutter.

Such a law, if passed, would not solve the problem of “news deserts” in Colorado, one supporter testified, but it would be a step in the right direction. To reiterate: the law would create a tax credit for a small business that advertises in a qualifying local news source, it wouldn’t create any tax credits for a local news source.

Offering perks for advertisers to purchase ads in local news outlets would help “minority-owned newspapers, nonprofit websites, public radio stations, weekly newspaper[s], rural news organizations, and other locally owned or nonprofit newsrooms,” Cutter told her colleagues. “We’ve put a lot of thought into crafting this so that it supports true local journalism … by and for people that live in Colorado.”

The bill, as many do, has morphed as it makes its way through the legislative process. This week, during its passage through the House Finance Committee, it changed some more. A new amendment would require a local news organization to qualify for an advertiser tax credit only if the majority of its newsroom employees are based in Colorado, Cutter said during the hearing.

Why I’m writing about this: I’m always interested in the ways those who make our laws talk about the press, so I listened to Monday’s hour-and-a-half-long hearing. This week’s debate teased out some relevant questions about what counts as a “legitimate” local news publication and how a government can make such a determination. Another tidbit dealt with the process of publishers carrying media liability insurance — and this very column actually came up as an example.

Below are some notable parts from the debate:

  • Jefferson County Democratic Rep. Kerry Tipper said she was concerned about making sure that qualifying publications are “actually news outlets.” For example, she said, her mother gets The Epoch Times and reads The Lakewood Watchdog — publications Tipper said she finds “highly problematic.” Would tax credits support advertising in those? (Probably not to The Epoch Times because of the Colorado-based employee requirement; supporters said they’d look into The Lakewood Watchdog.)
  • Cutter said the bill excludes associationspolitical groups, certain types of tax-exempt entities, and requires qualifying publications to carry media liability insurance. Bill supporters said insurers do some vetting and indicated not just any publisher might be able to obtain liability insurance.
  • Southern Colorado Republican Rep. Stephanie Luck said she was texting with editors in her district during the hearing and one of them told her the outlet does not carry media liability insurance. “In fact one of them got back and said ‘We definitely do not’ — all capitalized — ‘we focus a lot on local news and tell the truth. We don’t need that kind of insurance.’”
  • Colorado Press Association President Tim Regan-Porter, speaking in favor of the bill, seemed surprised to hear that. He said such insurance isn’t onerous for a small paper and then he used this column as an example. “One of the individuals who writes about Colorado media is based at a college … and he sends out an emailed newsletter every week,” Regan-Porter said. “He has media liability insurance. So it’s not hard for them to get it and it’s not onerously expensive.” (I do carry insurance, which costs about $1,500 a year. Colorado Media Project, which underwrites this column and supports the bill, has reimbursed me for it.)
  • Linda Shapley, publisher of Colorado Community Media, testifying in favor of the bill, said it would ensure that “legitimate” local news organizations qualified under the law by adding that “ownership must be disclosed so they can’t be political or advocacy organizations or part of trade groups nor can a majority of their funding come from those groups.” It would be “exceedingly difficult for a bad actor to go through all of these hoops” and recruit a nontrivial number of advertisers who would qualify for the tax credit, she added.
  • “More than 85 percent of newspapers in Colorado are owned by small businesses,” said Regan-Porter. “Few states across the country can claim that.”
  • Adams County Democratic Rep. Adrienne Benavidez wondered if there was any precedent showing that something like this would actually work to attract advertising. Regan-Porter said he thought the new law, if passed, would help smaller rural newspapers. It’s not a cure-all but a bridge, he said.
  • One retired media professional who attended the hearing virtually testified that she recently started a nonprofit local public interest podcast and said she hoped the bill would be inclusive of “new and emerging media” like hers.
  • One lawmaker asked about why the bill would disqualify a purported news organization that got a majority of its funding from a 501(C)(6) entity like a business league, a chamber of commerce, a real estate or trade board, or a professional sports league. Cutter said she imagined it was to keep out bias. “So, if you’re a chamber, you have a point of view, right?” Cutter said. “And … a really credible journalistic outlet … does not … take a point of view. They may have an editorial page where they have a perspective, but their business is to present news in a factual way. And if you’re an organization that has an interest like that then that would create bias, so I imagine that that’s what’s behind that.” (Editor’s note: Personally, I don’t see a credible journalistic outlet presenting news in a factual way and having a point of view as being mutually exclusive.)
  • Mesa County Republican Rep. Janice Rich, who wound up voting against the bill, said while she might later change her mind she was struggling with the idea of “subsidizing local media” for the purpose of advertising. “I just can’t come to terms with that right now,” she said.
  • West Slope Republican Rep. Matt Soper, who also voted against it, said he worried about having to go back to his district and telling small businesses that while some who advertise in qualifying local news outlets would get a tax credit those that choose to advertise elsewhere would face a “punishment.” (In other words, they wouldn’t get a tax break.) He said he sees the bill as government “picking winners and losers.” (Ari Armstrong, writing for the libertarian-leaning Complete Colorado, used the same language in a recent writeup about the bill.)
  • Boulder-area Democratic Rep. Matt Gray said he believed the “relationship between the government and the press is complicated and hard to deal with” but government officials need to be held accountable, “and the folks who hold us accountable are the folks who are in the press.” He said he thinks the bill author and supporters did a “fantastic” job of threading a needle by providing support for the press while not exerting government control over it.

“Local media has been in trouble for a long time,” Cutter said as she wrapped up the hearing. She said she hoped her bill would support both local media and small businesses.

The proposed new law, which budget forecasters estimate would have a roughly $9 million impact on the state budget next year if passed, cleared the finance committee by a vote of six to five.

When The Colorado Sun published a supportive guest column by Regan-Porter this week, it offered this disclosure: “The tax credit authorized in House Bill 22-1121 would be available to Colorado businesses that purchase advertising in ‘a print or digital publication that…primarily serves the needs of the state of Colorado or a regional or local community within Colorado.’ This definition would include The Colorado Sun.”

I asked Cutter, the bill sponsor, if this column you’re reading right now would qualify. Her response: “Good question.”

Gazette editor wants ‘a new kind of second-class mail subsidy’ for news

Around this time last year, Vince Bzdek, the editor who runs the news side of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, authored a column in which he asked whether it was time for the federal government to bring back the Civilian Conservation Corps.

“The idea of a 21st century corps calls us to service again at a time when we need to bind up our wounds and rebuild our economy — and ourselves,” he wrote.

Now, a year later, Bzdek is once again looking back at sweeping federal programs of yore and wondering whether the government should update them for our time.

“We need a new kind of second-class mail subsidy for digital delivery of news,” the newspaper editor wrote this week.

The latest column, informed by debate over Colorado’s “Supporting Local News” bill, makes a case for going bigger and looks to countries like Australia for inspiration. In the land down under, he wrote, a new law “requires tech companies like Facebook and Google to pay media outlets for the right to link to their content in search results and news feeds.”

Later in the column, Bzdek offers a history lesson about U.S. government support for news delivery over the years.

“I don’t think I’ve paid for a single one of my COVID vaccines,” he concludes, adding, “It’s time for our government and tech companies to step up and help pay for a disinformation vaccine as well.”

HELP: Stripped for Parts: American Journalism at the Crossroads is in post-production

If you want to see a documentary about the “secretive hedge fund” that is “plundering” what’s left of America’s newspapers while learning about the journalists who are “fighting back,” filmmaker Rick Goldsmith is asking for your support.

From an announcement this week:

I am thrilled to launch a Kickstarter campaign for our film-in-progress Stripped for Parts: American Journalism at the Crossroads. For the next month my team and I will be raising continuation funds for this documentary …

Ours is a cautionary tale: What is lost when billionaires with no background nor interest in a civic mission, who are only concerned with profiteering, take over our most influential news organizations? What can the public do to preserve and support vibrant journalism?  

Stripped for Parts addresses these questions and more.

Goldsmith told me that while the film is not totally set in Colorado our state is an “entry point” to the film and “much of the action takes place in Colorado.” He added that his crew has done an “independent investigation” into the Alden Global Capital hedge fund that owns The Denver Post and into the “deep roots” of those who run it.

This week, Goldsmith spoke with Alec Baldwin about the film.

“I got into it in 2018, so almost four years ago, reading a story about The Denver Post … and the editorial writer had written an editorial blasting the owner of the newspaper,” he told the actor about the genesis for his new film.

Goldsmith was behind the excellent documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and also Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press. “This film that I’m working on now, Stripped for Parts, is part of my trilogy, I guess you’d say — my journalism trilogy,” he told Baldwin.

The Kickstarter campaign for Stripped for Parts is “extremely important right now for the funding for the film,” Goldsmith says. “We’re at a critical point in post-production and need to raise the funds to take it to completion.”

WATCH: Discussion about AAPI community and journalism in Colorado

Earlier this month, on the anniversary of the 2021 Atlanta shootings, journalists and community members gathered for a panel discussion to “discuss the importance of engaging with news media on how it portrays Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and community members in the news.”

Attending were former Colorado Sun reporter Thy Vo, Colorado Dragon Boat Festival’s Sara Moore, COLab’s Silvia Solis, Asian Pacific Development Center’s Harry Budisidharta, and Asian Avenue Magazine’s Annie VanDan. COLab and Colorado Media Project hosted the event as part of their Voices initiative.

Watch the discussion below.

More Colorado media odds & ends

➡️ Read an update from Colorado Media Project Director Melissa Milios Davis about the past three years of impact on journalism in our state from this important group. (CMP underwrites this column.)

⚖️ In Colorado Springs, “locally based fact-checking service Lead Stories is putting a big lawsuit behind them, as the dismissal of conservative political commentator Candace Owens’ case was upheld by the Delaware Supreme Court last month,” Stephen Hirst reported for the Indy alt-weekly.

❌ Last week I misspelled Caitlin Rockett’s last name. (Thanks to reader Michael K for pointing it out.)

☀️ Eric Lubbers offered some statistics about The Colorado Sun’s paid members including income, location, and political affiliation. “We’re launching another massive reader survey here in the next few weeks and we’re hoping to have the results in a publicly consumable format after that as part of our attempts to stay as transparent as possible,” he added. “So stay tuned for more!”

📺 “I just got a story idea from you guys,” KOAA TV anchor Dianne Derby tells Colorado College journalism students in a promo commercial.

🔦 Watch: the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s Sunshine Week panel “on school board transparency.”

⏰ Longtime Denver talk-radio host Peter Boyles announced his retirement after having a mini-stroke earlier this month. “Once a liberal, Boyles began a philosophical shift in the late 1980s and subsequently landed at a point that’s decidedly right of center,” Westword reported. “As a result, critics have branded him a hater for, among other things, his hard-line positions on immigration. But he’s still capable of swimming against the tide. One example: Even as some of his fellow KNUS hosts were pushing debunked conspiracy theories, Boyles insisted that Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election — and took plenty of heat from listeners for doing so.”

👋 Colorado Newsline’s Chase Woodruff said: “Boyles’ years-long bromance with white nationalist and VDARE founder Peter Brimelow never seemed to make it into local media tipsheets. Nor did his on-air use of a racial slur to describe a Black protester run over by a car during a George Floyd protest.”

🔬 Want a free, confidential evaluation of your Colorado news publication’s website or know of someone publishing a local news site who could benefit from it?

🗳 “I know there are much more serious problems, but every time election security comes up in Weld, I think of how I was an overseas voter in 2016 and forgot to change that in 2017,” said journalist Kelly Ragan of NoCo Optimist. “I stopped short of signing my ballot because I didn’t want to perjure myself.”

📡 “Several public radio organizations in Colorado have received grants to strengthen and advance local news and better serve residents’ needs,” Current reported.

🏔 Media industry execs from around the country will descend on Vail next week for the Digiday Publishing Summit, which is sold out. Attendees March 28-30 will “hear how media companies are building and adapting their business models as we continue to navigate this Covid era.”

🇺🇦 Tonight, Thursday, The Denver Press Club is bringing together “three media professionals with experience in Russia and Ukraine.”

🗣 “This quote was taken from a long, hour-plus, sprawling conversation with a councilmember (not a journalist),” said Stacy Feldman, founder of The Boulder Reporting Lab, about a comment she made about covering controversial issues. “Yes, we recognize the need to build an audience to succeed. And yes, we also cover controversial issues.”

🖋 Jason Van Tatenhove, who publishes the Colorado Switchblade out of Estes Park, signed contracts this week with Skyhorse Publishing for his non-fiction title The Propagandist.

🏅 Music Blocks, a music appreciation podcast at Colorado Public Radio, won Best Podcast for Kids at this week’s Podcast Academy’s second annual Ambies, “the Oscars of podcasting,” CPR said in a statement.

💨 Brandon Thompson is leaving Fox21 in Colorado Springs for Portland after three years. “It’s a fact of this industry that moving up often times means moving on,” he said.

I’m Corey Hutchins, interim director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this column. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to my weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.