Colorado EditorialsUncategorized

‘Fake News’ fight goes another round for Sen. Ray Scott

Author: Joey Bunch - February 20, 2017 - Updated: February 20, 2017

Unless the courts decide Sen. Ray Scott has legislative immunity, his “fake news” fight with the publisher of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel might go the distance, like the fake fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed.

This weekend they verbally duked it out again, and  Scott’s op-ed column defending his character is on the mat. The full letter is at the end of this post.

A Feb. 8 editorial supported Senate Bill 40, a change to make it easier to access Colorado public records. It noted that Scott, who chairs the committee where it’s waiting to be heard, had postponed it and concluded that Scott was a bad guy on the issue.

That’s not true, Scott says. He’s the good guy trying to help the bill, and he would support a rewrite to strengthen the Colorado Open Records Act for access to public records, instead of “Band-Aids” on aspects.

Scott responded to it the way people do these days, on Twitter:

Publisher Jay Seaton said that tweet is libelous and announced plans to sue. The journalist-bites-dog lawsuit has been all over the state and national news this week.

“This was a statement of fact – that the Daily Sentinel is a purveyor of fake news,” he told the Washington Post Wednesday. “That goes to the heart of what we do. So my legal analysis is this is actionable. I have seen this [media] industry sort of sit back and take attack after attack, both nationally and here. Why should this industry act differently from any other industry? So I am serious.”

Seaton has a law degree from the University of Kansas. He reiterated to Colorado Politics Saturday that the case is going to court. Scott can either concede to a judge he knowingly made a false statement when he called the Daily Sentinel “fake news” or a judge will make him, Seaton said.

“It all depends on Ray,” he said. “… He can either give that to me or I’ll go get it.”

Seaton said Scott’s defense of legislative immunity won’t hold up.

“He wasn’t acting as a legislator,” Seaton said. “He wasn’t on the Senate floor.”

Seaton also said he would be happy to run Scott’s letter, if he corrects two characterizations about the Feb. 8 editorial.

He said the editorial doesn’t say Scott tried to derail the bill.

It says:

SB 40 deserves a fair hearing before the full Senate. We call on our own Sen. Scott to announce a new committee hearing date and move this bill forward. Open records shouldn’t be a partisan issue. We have a difficult time understanding why anyone would oppose easier access to government data, which belongs to the public.

Sen. Scott often stresses the importance of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which gives citizens a voice on fiscal policy by requiring voter approval of any tax hike. Easy access to public information should be no less a priority for lawmakers — especially when it so often informs voters on the very issues they’re called upon to decide.

Seaton said the editorial also didn’t impugn Scott’s intent, as his letter says.

Scott isn’t intimidated by the suit, at all.

Scott isn’t an opponent of making government more transparent and accountable, just the opposite.

The bill originally was scheduled for a hearing before Scott’s State, Veteran’s and Military Affairs Committee on Feb. 13, but it go moved back to Feb. 22, and Friday it was pushed back to March. 1.

Scott said the delays are not to kill it, but to help it. A long list of opponents think the bill is too broad and opens to the door to a lot of unintended consequences. Scott said the bill’s sponsors, Democratic Sen. John Kefalas of Fort Collins and Rep. Dan Pabon of Denver, to work out compromises in advance of a vote.

“I’m trying to help these guys and I’m getting vilified,” he said. “I could have said, ‘If you want this thing to flame out the way it’s written, go ahead.'”

The way the bill is written it could put a lot of private information at risk, including children’s vaccination records and public officials’ social security numbers and driver’s license numbers, he said, citing sources of those concerns.

He said supporters of open-records need to take a comprehensive look and rewrite the Colorado Open Records Act. It’s been a mess for years, Scott said.

Scott said he would have explained that the Daily Sentinel, if anyone would have asked him before writing the editorial. Seaton has said they did, and Scott said they better be able to prove that in court, if the case gets that far.

“I was being kind by calling it fake news,” he said Saturday.

“Clearly, if you look at Seaton’s record, he dislikes (President) Trump, as he references him in his response, and is using that to get attention to his cause,” said Scott who was Trump’s Western Slope campaign coordinator.

“I’m stunned his paper rejected my rebuttal but uses free speech as his defense for suing me. Does free speech only apply to journalists? I think not.”

Here is Scott’s letter in full:

Publisher Jay Seaton’s threatened defamation suit against me, along with the fact that the Daily Sentinel is a family-friendly publication, force me to choose my words carefully here, and tread more lightly than usual in responding to his provocations and escalations. But since facts are what a newspaper is supposed to be about, let me present a few facts about the root causes of this conflict. Because the facts speak for themselves when laid on the table.

The Sentinel’s latest provocation came in an editorial last week, questioning my decision to lay-over an open records reform bill, Senate Bill-40, which had been scheduled for a first hearing in the State Affairs Committee, which I chair. My reasons for not hearing the bill as scheduled were not, as the paper suggested, part of some plot to derail the debate or undermine open records laws. They stemmed from the number of concerns and criticisms we were hearing about the bill, from universities, counties and even the Colorado Attorney General’s office.

I delayed introduction of SB-40 in response to these concerns, based on my belief that giving these stakeholder discussions time to mature might eventually produce a better-than-original bill, with improved chances of eventual passage. Sometimes delaying particularly complex or potentially contentious bills is the only way to save them from an early grave. Whether an improved-enough-to-pass product will result from this delay remains to be seen. But my motives for laying it over weren’t what the Sentinel seemed to assume they were.

The publisher or his assistants could easily have gotten these facts with a phone call or text, seeking explanation. Yet no call came in. Because the Sentinel’s standard, anti-Scott narrative apparently had more appeal, they went with their inaccurate and potentially misleading premise, which led me to respond with a tweet calling the piece “fake news.”

We all have our own definitions of “fake news.” What one finds, when one looks closely at the issue, is that it’s a subjective, eye-of-the-beholder thing. An editorial that seeks to impugn my actions and motives, by drawing false conclusions without first checking for countervailing facts or evidence, as professional standards of journalism dictate, struck me at the time as an example of “fake news.” So out went “the tweet heard round the world.”

That’s when Publisher Seaton, instead of admitting that this editorial page went with a false but easily fact-checked premise, took the dispute “nuclear” by threatening to slap me with a defamation suit. But I won’t be bullied or silenced by such tactics.

I hope the publisher will think twice about his overreaction. The facts just presented make clear who was in the wrong, and who was in the right, in this case. And the Sentinel’s attempt to silence and bully me with bizarre legal threats, though it may make a short-term splash in some circles, will only serve to lower the paper’s stature over time.

Ray Scott (R-Grand Junction) represents Senate District 7 in the Colorado General Assembly.

Ultimately a judge might quote Rocky: “Nobody owes nobody nothing. You owe yourself.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.