A Newspaper Shouldn't Be a Cheerleader for a Politician

"Good for Mike Coffman."

That's the first line of an August Denver Post editorial, and, as it turns out, an excellent summation of the The Post editorial page's singular stance toward Coffman over many years.

I just finished reviewing five years of Post editorials mentioning Coffman, and, of the 43 editorials citing the Aurora Republican Congressman during that period, including two endorsements, he's been criticized only four times, while being praised in 34 editorials. The newspaper has lauded him mostly on issues related to the Veterans Administation but also on immigration, Selective Service, Afghanistan, marijuana, the federal budget, and more.

Yet, during these five years, Coffman has run seriously afoul with the broad positions/principles taken by The Post: on Planned Parenthood (Coffman voted twice to defund just last year, after putting the organization's logo in a campaign ad the previous year.) and on immigration (Coffman opposed a 2013 bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill. Coffman's position against Obama's plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay escaped criticism from The Post, despite the newspaper's stance in favor of shutdown.

In 2013, Coffman threatened to shut down the government instead of raising the debt ceiling. Nothing from The Post. And nothing from The Post when Coffman belittled global-warming science in 2013.

The Post was silent in 2012 when Coffman said Obama was not an American "in his heart," and Coffman strangely told 9News' Kyle Clark five times:  "I stand by my statement that I misspoke, and I apologize."

Coffman's positions over many years have been at odds with stances The Post has taken. But the newspaper has been mostly silent.

To be fair, a more cursory analysis shows that The Post doesn't criticize U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet much either, and he was also endorsed by The Post.

The difference? Bennet's policy positions, on the issues mentioned above and others, align very closely with The Post's, while Coffman's do not.

You can't blame Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett for much of this, since he took over the job exactly three months ago, but I called him anyway for his take on whether the newspaper deliberately refrains from criticizing Coffman, even when his positions clash with the newspaper's editorial views.

"I think this is an election year stunt, not a genuine analysis," he told me, arguing that there was no news hook for my blog post and I was not focusing on The Post's treatment of other elected officials. "You're picking Mike Coffman, when Morgan Carroll is struggling. Why is that? It looks like you're trying to aid Morgan more than you are legitimately trying to critique an institution."

I explained to Plunkett that as a progressive media critic, I look for instances where news outlets tilt rightward. That's my bias, and with the election coming up, now is a valid time to analyze The Post's editorial-page approach to Coffman, which I found inexplicable.

"As a journalist, I think trying to analyze a newspaper's position over time is very tricky, especially if you only look at one particular angle," Plunkett told me. "There are all kinds of things that go into thinking about an editorial or an endorsement or what have you."

"You're right," Plunkett acknowledged, "when a newspaper endorses someone, that same board is going to be, understandably, more protective of that person."

"But one the things I like about our business is, we don't make friends and we don't make promises," he said. "And if someone crosses us, or crosses what we believe is a reasonable line, we call them on it."

I told Plunkett that he was making my point exactly, that The Post should have been more critical of Coffman over these five years, even if the newspaper endorsed him.

"That's where you've got me in a rough spot, because I wasn't on the board over the past five years," Plunkett responded. "I had absolutely zero influence on those pieces."

I told Plunkett that I understood, and would make it clear I wasn't blaming him for The Post's love affair with Mike Coffman. Why would I blame Plunkett? In fact, the pattern even goes back further than the tenure of former editorial page editor Vincent Carroll.

I'm hoping this changes. It's bad editorial writing. The Post is missing an opportunity to influence Coffman and advance the issues the newspaper cares about.

Why act as a PR mouthpiece for a Congressman, ignoring his faults and blunders, even if you've endorsed him? That's my point.