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Fair and balanced

click to enlarge Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera had to buy an ad. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera had to buy an ad.

Scientists -- and I'm not kidding about this -- have recently calculated the amount of water on our planet. With that done, the scientists are now trying to figure out how much water there is on other planets, such as the one where Ed Bircham hatched.

According to these actual calculations -- and you might want to take a deep breath here, the way conservative TV host and moral shepherd Bill O'Reilly does before removes his trousers and makes those late-night phone calls to his office help -- there are 326,000,000,000,000,000,000 gallons of water on earth.

Footnote: Of that total, about 325,999,999,999,999,999,999 gallons are swallowed by President Bush in an effort to clear his throat before he tries to pronounce the former Iraqi weapons storage site "Al-Qaqaa."

All of which brings me to the point of today's column: Newspapers are strange.

When I began in this business -- my first story involved 100 heavy-set men forcing a woolly mammoth off a cliff by poking the great beast with sharpened sticks -- we prided ourselves on being objective.

The exception, as you know, is with newspaper columnists, who are asked to take a stance unless it offends Focus on the Family, and then we get transferred to the features section to write about senior citizens and local authors because of the newspaper's "budget restrictions" and also because the editor and managing editor are scared to death of the odd little publisher.

Sorry. I got a little carried away.

Anyway, in the old days newspapers believed in a thing called journalism, a proud word taken from the ancient Greek journal ("writers") and ism ("who make roughly the same salary as a 7-Eleven clerk.")

Treated to dinner

Which brings me back to water. As you know, Colorado Springs and the neighboring hamlet of Pueblo (pronounced "Pwee-blo" or "Pee-a-blo" by its residents, many of them direct descendants of 19th-century pioneers who couldn't read a map and overshot Oklahoma) forged an important water agreement earlier this year.

The deal -- signed by Pueblo City Council members after Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Margaret Radford treated them to dinner -- would allow our village to build a 43-mile pipeline between the two cultural meccas and take more water from the Arkansas River. This water is needed so our village can continue its glorious quest of building an endless sea of cheap tract homes with no new schools.

In return, we agreed that when someone mentions our neighboring town to the south we will try not to respond by rolling our eyes and saying, "Oohhh, wouldn't that be a great place to live!"

The deal was, at best, controversial. Even though it guarantees a minimum river flow through Pueblo, some say Colorado Springs got the best of the deal. Some say Pueblo city officials signed the agreement just so they wouldn't have to watch Radford eat again. But the point is, they agreed on the plan.

Enter the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper.

The Chieftain (motto: "How!") is owned by Bob Rawlings. Publisher and editor Rawlings openly dislikes our village. He believes we've gotten too big for our britches -- whatever the hell britches are. Now he believes Pueblo has been duped by our cunning, Mensa-like City Council. (That charge so outraged our Council that three of them briefly stopped spinning the propellers on their beanie hats.)

Two weeks ago, Rawlings told the Colorado Springs Gazette: "We're going to do everything we can to stop or mitigate this plan that we think is an abomination."

click to enlarge The proposed Southern Delivery System to bring water to - Colorado Springs would increase the capacity of the - Pueblo Reservoir. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • The proposed Southern Delivery System to bring water to Colorado Springs would increase the capacity of the Pueblo Reservoir.

Buy an ad

In late October, the Pueblo City Council president, Randy Thurston, blasted the Chieftain during a council meeting, accusing the newspaper of intentionally misinforming its readers about the pipeline deal.

After one particularly nasty editorial in the Chieftain, Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera wrote a letter to that newspaper trying to refute the editorial. The Chieftain would not print his letter. So Rivera paid for ad space in the Chieftain to get the letter published. Then Rawlings wrote a note to Rivera thanking him for buying the ad and telling the Springs' mayor: "In that way, and that way only, will you reach all the people who read our critical editorials."

Last week, Rawlings said Rivera's letter didn't run on the editorial page because it got lost. Rivera responded by pointing out that the Chieftain's ad department didn't seem to have any trouble finding it.

Rawlings, of course, controls the editorial page of his newspaper. He does, after all, own the newspaper. And he's entitled to his opinion. (Opinions, to use the old saying, are like personal stories about being briefly married to a drunk and stoned Britney Spears: Everyone has one.)

Rawlings, however, has apparently gone beyond having an opinion. He has, according to sources within the Chieftain newsroom, ordered his reporters and editors to produce "news stories" about the water agreement that are one-sided and critical of the deal.

In at least one story published in late October, Rawlings ordered his editors to insert "facts" about the pipeline deal that he provided for them. Recently, Chieftain reporter Karl Licis, who was hired to cover the pipeline deal and other water issues, said he was fired because he questioned the ethics guiding the newspaper's coverage of the water agreement.

Specifically, Licis dared to suggest that having the publisher insert slanted information into Licis' stories -- at least once in the past month, according to Licis, after the reporter had gone home for the night -- was a bit squirrelly.

Another Chieftain newsroom source -- who requested that his name not be used in this column because he feared the same fate that befell Licis -- said this: "Karl got fired because he wouldn't write the gospel according to Bob Rawlings."

Softening up

More recently, however, the Chieftain appears to have softened its approach. On Nov. 9, it published a front-page story quoting Pueblo's water attorney, Anne Castle, who told the City Council there that the pipeline agreement has reduced legal costs for Pueblo and also guarantees more water in the Arkansas River as it flows through that city.

The Chieftain's news story quoted Castle as saying, "Pueblo still has enough water to supply a city two or three times its present size."

The paper covered that Council meeting in a fair, balanced way.

The way it should.

Bob Steele, the journalism ethics scholar at the famed Poynter Institute in Florida, offered his views.

"A newspaper," Steele said, "should be guided by the quest for truth in its coverage of issues. The reporting should be factually accurate and fair. The journalism should not be unduly influenced by anyone who might be trying to sway opinion or distort the facts. And the publisher's duty to readers and citizens should not be undermined by the publisher's personal point of view on issues. The news coverage must be credible and professional."

Which brings me to something I've wanted to get off my chest for quite a while.

There were only about a dozen heavy-set men poking at the mammoth.

-- richt@csindy.com

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