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Capitol Coverage: Colorado Newspaper Fights Back on Fake News

Posted: February 24, 2017 at 9:35 am by , in Capitol Coverage, Featured

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel is accusing Republican State Senator Ray Scott of defamation, and is threatening to sue him for a tweet he sent calling his hometown newspaper ‘fake news’.

If filed, legal experts say it would be the first lawsuit of its kind, potentially setting a legal definition for what is considered fake news and what is not. Bente Birkeland spoke with Scott about the case.

 

Republican state Sen. Ray Scott could help define one of the most often used phrases of 2017: fake news.

The battle centers around an opinion column published in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel about Senate Bill 40, a bill to increase access to public records. The column implies that a scheduled hearing was postponed because Scott — who serves as assistant majority leader — didn’t support it.

Scott disagreed with the column and tweeted in response:

The  Sentinel has since threatened to sue Scott for his use of the term “fake news.” Legal experts say that if the issue goes to court, it would be one of the first to address “fake news” from a legal perspective.

Scott sat down with statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland to discuss the issue.

Interview Highlights

Bente Birkeland: You have said the term fake news is in the eye of the beholder. What do you mean by that?

Scott sits in his office with reporter Bente Birkeland to talk about the Sentinel’s opinion column and his “fake news” tweet. CREDIT BENTE BIRKELAND / CAPITOL COVERAGE

Sen. Ray Scott: I mean, it’s nicer than saying someone lied, right? That’s kind of what I was thinking in my head at the time. You don’t want to say something too inappropriate. Again, it’s just a phase, it had really no teeth to it as far as saying somebody actually lied — I could have said a lot stronger words but I just chose to say fake news.

Birkeland: Critics, including the Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton, argue that your tweet delegitimizes a reputable newspaper, and that you’re essentially calling something fake because you don’t agree with it. Why not use a different word?

Scott: They’re kind of saying the same thing about me without having any background. Calling me out, if you will, on a particular bill, when they have absolutely no knowledge of the bill. Their use of words insinuated that I was doing something inappropriate with the bill. My response back was insinuating that they were making something up because they never talked to me.

Birkeland: So you stand by the assertion that the Sentinel column is fake news?

Scott: Absolutely. It’s a term people use these days. Here’s one of the problems I see: People are not reporting the entire picture. I think that’s where the media is getting themselves in trouble. They’re not saying, “we’re going to do the research and we’re going to do the complete story.” Whether it’s the president or me, it doesn’t really matter.

Birkeland: Why did the hearing initially get postponed? It was at the last minute and I think that’s probably what led to some of the speculation.

“People are not reporting the entire picture.”

Scott: As a I recall, it was on a Monday. That will happen on a Monday because we have caucus meetings in the mornings before we go onto the floor. Members in our caucus had questions on that particular bill. We chose in the meeting to go forward, but as we got onto the floor people kept coming up and saying, “I have some issues with this bill. What can we do? I’d like to talk about it more, see what we can do to fix it.” So at that point I just had had to make a judgment call and I decided to postpone it.

Birkeland: What do you hope comes of this issue – if it goes to court? Or do you hope it goes away on its own?

Scott: Well, I think maybe it’s time to define what real, good journalism is, and why [it] is free speech on one side, or freedom of the press if you will, and not free speech for somebody to rebut that.

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.