Debate over spiked Rocky Mountain News media column heats up

Categories: Media

jason salzman pic.jpg

Since November 2004, Cause Communications president Jason Salzman (pictured) has written a media column for the Rocky Mountain News; his pieces run every two weeks, alternating with offerings by the Independence Institute's Dave Kopel, whose perspective is typically as conservative as Salzman's is liberal. However, his most recent effort, tentatively headlined "Dailies Ignore Long-Shot Government Role in Saving Rocky," didn't appear in his designated January 3 slot, and for very good reason. His overseers at the paper, including editor/publisher/president John Temple, rejected the piece, which suggested that journalists at the Rocky and the Denver Post haven't adequately explored the possibility that the U.S. Department of Justice could force Rocky owner E.W. Scripps to extend its search for a potential buyer beyond an announced mid-January time frame.

Rather than simply accepting this verdict, Salzman published the salvo on his personal website, BigMedia.org, under the banner "My Rejected Rocky Column." The morning after its January 6 appearance, I asked Temple for an interview about Salzman's actions, and while he promised to speak with me on the topic, he said he was busy -- and he was. Several hours later, he posted "Response to Media Critic Jason Salzman," a salvo peppered with e-mails in which Temple denigrated Salzman's understanding of the subject matter and suggested that "in my view you have struggled to understand your role from the get go." (Click here to read both of the aforementioned items in their entirety.)

In a subsequent conversation, Temple was even more forthright in his criticism of Salzman. "This isn't what we pay him to do, which is media criticism -- and he has a hard time grasping that," he says. "He wants to make an issue out of it, and that's all right. But this isn't the first column we've ever killed. We've killed my column before. Welcome to the real world. It's actually part of journalism, where you go, 'I did something that's not good enough. It's better not to publish it.' But that requires a certain maturity and a certain perspective, which, in this case, in my view, was lacking."

Salzman is a passionate partisan when it comes to many issues, including the Rocky, whose survival would be of immeasurable benefit to the community at large, he believes. He agrees that finding a buyer in this economic climate by mid-January, just over a month after Scripps announced the tabloid's availability, is highly unlikely. However, he sees a potential role for the Justice Department, whose involvement in the matter is connected to the joint-operating agreement that links the Rocky and the Post.

The JOA would violate assorted anti-trust provisions were it not sanctioned by the federal government, which has determined that preserving media voices in a given market serves the greater good. In exchange for easing restrictions, the feds approve the specifics of such pacts prior to them going into effect, as the Denver JOA did in 2001, and they must also okay the manner in which the agreements are ultimately dismantled. Moreover, Justice can try to stop the dissolution of a JOA if it feels that the spirit of the original paperwork has been violated, as is taking place in Charleston, West Virginia at present. See this blog for details.

Salzman doesn't believe the Denver dailies -- or yours truly, for that matter -- have adequately examined this element of the story to date. Indeed, he declares that "we've seen no reporting about what the government could do to help the daily" in his rejected column. He then digs into the topic with the assistance of the University of California at Berkeley's Stephen Barnett and Michigan State University's Stephen Lacy. These experts feel that the Justice Department has "a lot of discretion" to delay a closure.

On December 29, Salzman submitted his completed column to editorial writer Steve Oelrich, a pinch-hitter for Salzman's usual editor, Vince Carroll, who was on vacation -- and who Salzman praises, even though they're ideological opposites. "I love telling my friends that Vince is a fair-minded human being, because a lot of them think he's a monster," he admits, laughing. "I can't remember a time when we haven't managed to agree in the end. Either he gives in to me or I give in to him, but we eventually agree."

That wasn't the case with Oelrich, who saw the column as more of an opinion piece than a media column. In fact, Temple points out, Oelrich suggested that Salzman submit it as an op-ed -- something Salzman says he didn't seriously consider. Within days, their disagreement reached Temple, who was even more adamant than Oelrich about the column's failings.

"He's very poorly informed," Temple maintains about Salzman. "He says we haven't looked at the Justice Department in our coverage, which I clearly refute in my blog. I show that both newspapers explored this very issue on the first day of coverage after the announcement, and both newspapers have attempted to speak to the Justice Department. There's been no hiding that Justice is a player in a JOA. So the premise of his piece is absurd. It's bogus, and that's what we told Jason. But he insisted on continuing."

There's also the question of whether the column went beyond media criticism into advocacy for a particular viewpoint -- a flaw that Temple also sees in Salzman's previous column, December 20's "Can You Blame Scripps? Yes."

"Before it was edited, Jason's column basically implied that the Rocky was squelching criticism of Scripps, which is so absurd," he says. "There is not widespread criticism of Scripps in the business or political leadership in town about this. I thought it was a terrible column."

So why publish it and not its successor?

"Once it was edited, and that column was edited, I thought he made a case for his point of view," Temple acknowledges. "But this column was absolutely bogus from the start. It represented his view that somehow the Justice Department could prevent a premature closing -- and I don't even know what a premature closing is. It was a bizarre premise. He was basically saying there'd been this huge omission when both newspapers covered the topic. It was like he hadn't been reading the newspapers and had a bone to pick. But that's not a media-criticism column. That's an opinion column."

If so, it's an opinion that Salzman thinks is important to share. "My goal is to air these issues," he says -- and this mission didn't change after the Rocky declined to print his findings. "Like I said in my blog, any self-respecing media critic would want to publish this column. And so that's what I did."

Temple's subsequent retort struck many observers as notably nasty, prompting suggestions that he'd thrown his own contributor under the bus. But Temple insists that "I didn't throw him anywhere. He threw himself. He published a column, which is his right. But he accused us -- he made it seem, I think, that the Rocky Mountain News had done something nefarious and had something to hide. Now, my job is to represent the Rocky Mountain News, so I gave more perspective on the story. I would say somebody who did what he did wants to engage in a public discussion, and maybe it's worth having a few facts out there when you do such things. So I laid them out in what I think was a very non-personal way. I don't believe you could characterize anything I wrote as an attack on Jason, and it certainly wasn't meant to be. It was an explanation of and a different perspective on what he had written. If he wants to engage in a public discussion, I'm happy to do it."

Rather than directly tackling Temple's assorted assertions, Salzman mostly demurs -- although a link to Temple's blog on his BigMedia.org site promises that he'll take on the arguments sometime in the future. For now, he's simply happy to have reminded the parties involved that the Justice Department might be able to throw a spanner into the works. "It's certainly a leftist critique involving government intervention that probably won't happen," he concedes. "But I do think it's a valid perspective." He adds that members of Colorado's House and Senate delegation might be able to help. "You'll have Ken Salazar sitting at the same table with the head of the Justice Department," he notes.

In the meantime, Temple speaks with pride about the way the Rocky has covered itself to date -- and indeed, its articles have been consistently strong, especially considering the circumstances. He adds that if any of his staffers want to look closer at the Justice Department in this context, he'd be fine with it, so long as they don't make the same mistakes he believes Salzman did. "Integrity is a critical component of our newspaper, and integrity requires us to cover ourselves just like we cover any other business," he declares. "It's definitely possible, even though it does create complex issues."

As Salzman understands all too well. -- Michael Roberts

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