USA Today Misleads with Hickenlooper Headline

by Michael Lund

Reporter Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief at USA Today, and her editors apparently need our help.

So, here is a challenge I pose to readers: Please watch Page’s interview with John Hickenlooper and suggest a headline which fairly represents the content of our Colorado Governor’s remarks, while highlighting the most newsworthy and attention grabbing aspects.

My guess is that your best amateur efforts will exceed the misleading and misrepresentative headline waving over the video interview posted Monday morning on the USA Today’s online “Washington Download” program. I mean, did Hickenlooper actually give the NRA and gun-rights groups an endorsement for unilateral and uncontested access to Colorado voters, as the USA Today headline suggests?

The interview covered a range of timely topics, including the roll-out of the Colorado Health Care Exchanges, the government shutdown and its effects on Colorado’s flood recovery, and Hickenlooper’s prospects for re-election to the governor’s office and ambitions for higher office. Any of those topics could produce a worthy headline.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s accept that Colorado’s gun laws passed during the last legislative session and the resulting recall elections in El Paso and Pueblo Counties, along with the latest recall attempt initiated in Senate District 19, are prime topics to highlight in an attention grabbing and timely headline. A month after the recalls, they are still relevant and reverberating across our local media landscape and beyond. News from the recalls convey the controversy which the competitive, market driven media industry and consumers of news love.

So, in constructing our salacious headline, let’s focus on that section of the interview.

Just over half the interview deals with the topics around gun legislation and the Colorado recalls. Mention of the Aurora theater and Newtown, Connecticut shootings provide the context behind intitiating the gun safety bills. Visuals are edited into the interview provide a balanced depiction of the public demonstrations of support for both sides of the issue. Hickenlooper candidly and concisely speculates on the political challenges behind passing the common sense legislation, despite initial support from polls. Probing, difficult questions, answered directly, articulately and concisely by the interviewee. No softballs. That’s what we like to see.

It’s all good until Susan Page asks about outside money in the recalls, and it is this section of the interview that the sources the misrepresentative headline for the interview. I’ve transcribed the relevant portion below:

PAGE: And in the previous two recalls, there was a lot of money that came into Colorado from supporters of gun laws

HICKENLOOPER: And opponents.

PAGE: And opponents. But from people like Michael Bloomberg and others on behalf of the two senators who were recalled. That became a little bit of an issue in Colorado. Would it be smart if there’s this third recall effort, to try and limit the outside money and make it a Colorado effort?

HICKENLOOPER: Probably. I mean, Colorado is a state that people like to be resourceful themselves, and solve their own problems. They don’t really like outside organizations meddling in their affairs. And maybe the NRA gets a pass on that. But, probably not a bad idea. I do think that, again, getting the real facts out on some of these issues and making sure that – I mean, universal background checks is not the ogre, it’s not the evil, demonic taking of guns that it has been presented as.

When I listen to the interview, when I see the transcription, I don’t take away that “Colorado Governor suggests gun-control groups stay away.” I hear a much softer hypothesis– speculative dreaming, really, considering that limiting any groups participation in the recalls isn’t realistic or even constitutional, whatever the Governor might suggest. I hear speculation about an ideal of self-determination for Coloradoans, and getting facts to voters without distractions of political firefights, hyperbole, and loud well-funded special interests.

And most importantly, I hear our Governor correct the bias of the reporter’s leading question, by pointing out that both outside opponents and outside supporters of gun-control legislation were represented in the recall fight. Instead of exclusively calling out gun-control groups’ participation in Colorado, I hear Hickenlooper directly say, “And maybe the NRA gets a pass on that.”

Now there’s an accurate, attention grabbing headline that writes itself.

It’s bad enough that an otherwise decent interview with Hickenlooper is marred by the misleading headline, but it’s worse when our local journalists repeat and amplify the mistake. On Monday, the Denver Business Journal constructed a short article, apparently around the USA Today headline alone, and repeating the misrepresentation in three of the four paragraphs.

Then, to make bad journalism worse still, Kurtis Lee repeats the mischaracterization in his blog post headline for “The Spot” in The Denver Post, even after noting the same quotes from Hickenlooper I quoted above, and a statement from Hick’s spokesman, Eric Brown, which clarifies the Governor’s remarks. The headline is a stark misrepresentation of what the Governor said.

Let’s hope that accuracy prevails in future headlines regarding our on-going gun-safety debate in Colorado.


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