The press operation for Colorado's liberal Democratic governor, Jared Polis, is being criticized after it asked two small town newspapers to remove from their websites a news story reported by what Polis' staff deems a biased news organization funded by groups affiliated with the conservative Koch family.
The Kiowa County Press in Eads and The Chronicle-News in Trinidad refused the Sept. 4 request from spokesman Conor Cahill to "unpublish" the story, which was reported by Chicago-based The Center Square.
Cahill's request related to a straightforward account about a new state office dedicated to the future of labor.
Cahill didn't ask for a correction. But his request stunned those who work at the papers, which increasingly rely on content supplied by startups such as The Center Square as they and other "legacy" news media have cut staff.
"Over the 27 years that I've worked in this industry I don't recall anything like this coming from state or federal officials," said Chris Sorenson, publisher and online editor of the Kiowa County Press , which was founded in 1887.
Sorenson said he received a follow-up email from Cahill seeking to discredit The Center Square as a non-reputable news source.
"Well wait a minute. I'm not sure that's an appropriate judgment call for them to make," Sorenson said. "That's my call. We've been using their content for a couple of months now, and it has included coverage complimentary of the governor's administration."
The Center Square was launched in May 2019, focusing on state, statehouse and public spending coverage. It's affiliated with the Franklin News Foundation, formerly the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, whose donors have included groups funded by the Charles Koch Foundation.
The Polis administration doubled down Thursday after The Center Square reported on the controversy on Wednesday.
"When we looked into this group and discovered that it was not an objective wire service, but instead a branded website funded by the Koch Brothers' political organization, we were alarmed that it was being reprinted by reputable news outlets in the state," Polis' press office said in a statement. "Newspapers can publish whatever they want to, anywhere they want, at their own prerogative, but the public is served best when articles by partisan organizations are placed in the opinion section or branded accordingly."
Dan McCaleb, executive editor of The Center Square, insisted there is a strict firewall between the organization's news operation and its fundraising arm.
He said the Polis administration doesn't return his reporters' emails or phone calls and had never asked for a correction of the original article.
"I was in newspapers for more than 25 years before joining nonprofit media in 2017. I've never heard of anything like this happening," McCaleb said Thursday.
The episode also provoked concern among press freedom advocates.
"It's quite a big ask to request that a story be taken down, especially when you're not pointing out inaccuracies in the story," said Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
"Ultimately, it's the newspaper's decision about what they want to publish," Roberts said. "I also think the news organization has a responsibility to tell its readers where this content comes from and how it's funded."
Sorenson said he views the episode as "a momentary lapse in judgment" by Polis' office and that his paper maintains professional relations with the administration.
"To me, it all blends in a bit in the national conversation revolving around the term, 'fake news,' " Sorenson said, referring to a phrase repeatedly deployed by President Donald Trump to disparage journalism.
"It's important not only about The Center Square but also about bringing a wide variety of voices to smaller communities such as ours," he said. "As a small news operation, we can't do that effectively alone."