Independence Institute: Loved and Embedded by Denver Media

In my column on Saturday, I argued that the Independence Institute, the self-described “free-market think tank,”  projects a disproportionately loud voice in the Colorado media.

The Golden-based organization plays a unique role in state politics compared to other local policy shops. It dedicates a large share of its resources to issue advocacy, communications and media. 

And as its impressive media presence demonstrates, II is quite effective at getting its message out.  By way of regular features in the press, television and appearances in news articles, II enjoys a status of being a newsmaker and conservative source for reporters.

The question for journalists, editors and television producers, however, is how to handle such a behemoth with an aggressive media strategy and ideological bent?

Here’s some more information about the Institute’s media profile.

INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE STAFF EMBEDDED IN COLORADO MEDIANo organization on the left or right of the political spectrum has so many of its staffers doing part time media gigs on the side:President Jon Caldara hosts his own talk show on KOA radio and KBDI Channel 12. In addition, he subs for Mike Rosen on KOA.

Jessica Peck Corry, policy analyst for II, is part of the current crop of Denver Post Colorado Voices columnists, and she’s the “Diary of a Mad Voter” blogger on the Post’s new website.

Dave Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute, is an “On the Media”
columnist at the Rocky, as well as a regular guest on KBDI’s Colorado Inside Out.

Amy Oliver, operations director for II, has her own radio show on KFKA 1310, Greeley/Ft. Collins.

Undoubtedly, some left-leaning organizations wouldn’t want a media gig. They’d rather focus limited funds on lobbying and PR work that targets a narrow segment of the population. Being a host on KOA, for example, isn’t a wise use of time for the leaders of many nonprofit groups.

But surely at least some left-leaning organizations would jump at the chance to have one or more of the media platforms enjoyed by the Independence Institute.

KBDI President Wick Rowland told me he’d work with a group like the Bell Policy Center on a show, and the Bell spokeswoman Heather McGregor said her organization would produce some type of show if it had grant money.

“We’d like to be invited on Colorado Inside Out more often,” McGregor told me. “Wade [Buchanan] and Rich Jones have been on 4 or 5 times. There’s no cost to us.”


Here’s a list of op-ed placements by Independence Institute staff.

Staff Name and Position                                                                    Op-eds

Pamela Benigno, Director, Education Policy Center                               0

Linda Gorman  , Director, Health Care Policy Center                            0

Dave Kopel, Research Director                                                          18       

Randal O’Toole, Director, Center for the Am. Dream                           0

Jessica Peck Corry, Policy Analyst, Property Rights Project                  6

Ben DeGrow, Policy Analyst, Education Policy Center                          0

Marya  DeGrow, Research Associate, Ed. Policy Center                      0

Penn Pfiffner, Director, Fiscal Policy Center                                          0

Amy Oliver, Operations Director                                                          1

Jon Caldara, President                                                                          0

It doesn’t look like II staff places more op-eds in the dailies than the staff from comparable organizations, if you don’t count Dave Kopel, who writes bimonthly for the Rocky. Jessica Peck Corry has the temporary “Colorado Voices” position at the Post, accounting for three of her op-eds.

It could be worth analyzing placements by II “fellows,” like Jay Ambrose, whose op-eds are distributed by his former employer, Scripps Howard. He had six op-eds in the Rocky this year, on a variety of subjects.

To be fair, you’d have to compare op-eds placed by II fellows with those published by advisors to comparable left-leaning organizations. The results of such a comparison might not be all that meaningful, since unpaid advisors presumably have their own agenda.


Independence Institute is mentioned in staff-written news stories by the dailies more than any other comparable issue-advocacy group.

Group                                                              News               Post
Independence Institute                                    19                    19

Bell Policy Center                                          2                      8                     

ProgressNow and ProgressNowAction            5                      5

Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute                        4                      6

Focus on the Family                                       13                    15

Colorado Union of Taxpayers                          1                      1

Colorado Progressive   Coalition                      6                      7

Journalists turn to the Independence Institute for a wide variety of opinions, ranging from FasTracks to green subsidies.

In some cases, the II is in a “newsmaker” role when it’s quoted, but in most cases it’s not. By “newsmaker role” I mean II might be, for example, releasing a report or threatening a lawsuit. I did not assess whether the “news” that II was “making” was in fact newsworthy. But you can argue that in some cases the organization got more attention for its “news” than it deserved. For example, the II got repeated ink for threatening a lawsuit on the tax freeze, even though such a lawsuit hasn’t been filed.

Jon Caldara appears to be the dailies’ number-one favorite public policy activist. He was quoted in a total of 22 news articles this year in the dailies. As a newsmaker, he was quoted eight times.

Even if you deduct the instances when Caldara was quoted as a newsmaker, he was still quoted twice as much as any comparable activist, except James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who’s not really comparable to Caldara. I did not count a guy like Mason Tvert, of Safer, who’s a newsmaker on a very narrow issue.

Name                                                              News               Post    
Jon Caldara                                                      13                    9

John Andrews                                                   7                    0

Michael Huttner, ProgressNow                         1                    4

Rich Jones, Bell                                                1                      2

Wade Buchanan, Bell                                       0                      2

Kathy White, CO Fiscal Policy Inst.                 2                     1

Carol Hedges, CO Fiscal Policy Inst.               0                      2

James Dobson, Focus on the Family                 4                      5

Bill Vandenberg, CO Progressive Coalition      2                      4

Most of the Independence Institute’s views align with the fiscally conservative branch of the Republican Party. The center describes itself as “free market.” A smaller number of its views are left-leaning.

There may be fewer conservative public policy organizations, but there certainly are conservatives willing to talk to reporters any time of day or night.

Independence Institute doesn’t have a monopoly on articulate and conservative policy mavens.

In their media appearances, Caldara and other Independence Institute staff mix up their facts, as documented by Colorado Media Matters. Click here to see a summary of this.


When reporters mention the Independence Institute, they should identify it as “conservative,” “conservative-libertarian,” “free-market,” or something like that, so readers understand the dominant ideology of the outfit.

Sometimes the Independence Institute is properly described; other times it isn’t.

Liberal groups, like ProgressNow, seem to be labeled “liberal” or “progressive” more frequently, but I did not evaluate this methodically.


Colorado Media Matters has documented that reporters will not only quote Caldara, but do so uncritically. In its May report, CMM noted that Caldara was quoted by local media as comparing Gov. Bill Ritter’s mill levy freeze to “fiscal date rape.” But Caldara was not asked to explain this statement or prove its veracity. Caldara’s point was that the Colorado Legislature did not ask voters to sign off on the tax freeze, prior to approving it. But, in fact, local districts where the freeze will be applied had already approved it. And furthermore, the freeze isn’t a tax increase. Journalists reported Caldara’s sound bite, but did not point out that local districts already approved the tax change.


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