What's Up with a Tea Party Activist Being a Newspaper Editor?

If all you knew about Jennifer Kerns was her job title of executive editor of the Colorado Statesman, a newspaper covering Colorado politics, you may have been surprised if you attended last Thursday's meeting of the North Jeffco Tea Party, where she provided an evening lecture titled, "Brokered Brand: How the GOP continues to compromise its brand and lose elections... and what you can do about it."

A couple days before her Jeffco speech, Kerns' Tea-Party conservatism was blaring from KNUS 710-AM, where she subbed for arch conservative Dan Caplis:

Kerns: We can't forget that we have a big senate race coming up here in 2016, the race against Sen. Michael Bennet, one of the more liberal members of the U.S. Senate, very similar to Mark Udall, except, in my view, there's one big problem with Senator Bennet, and that is, whereas Mark Udall was concerned about one thing and one thing primarily, your uterus--That was his nickname at least on the campaign trail, given to him by The Denver Post.--Sen. Michael Bennet has many, many interests that he wants to control in your life. And to talk about that a little bit is the executive director of Advancing Colorado, Jonathan Lockwood. ... I want to go through some of the attacks you've made on Sen. Michael Bennet and rightfully so, given his track record. Let's start with his support of President Obama's nuclear deal that gives Iran basically unfettered access to nuclear material... Great work you're doing, Jonathan Lockwood....

This doesn't sound like a journalist who, a couple weeks later, would be writing a front-page Statesman article about the Bennet race. But, yes, Kerns authored the April 13 piece, headlined "Bennet will have a fight, but how much of one is TBD."

The headline was fair enough, but the article hit a low note by repeating an inaccurate conservative attack against Bennet:

"[Bennet's] initial support of transferring prisoners from Guantanamo Bay detention camps was an unpopular sell to many Colorado voters," Kerns reported.

Bennet never supported transferring GITMO prisoners here, and Kerns was immediately challenged on Twitter by "MissingPundit," who pointed out that Politifact found it untrue that Bennet supported bringing Gitmo detainees to Colorado.

In response, Kerns called Politifact a "lefty site," again repeating a conservative talking point that ignores the fact that Politifact won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Kerns tweeted that Politifact is "lefty" in the same way America Rising is "righty." In reality, America Rising was established to expose the "truth about Democrats", while the mission of Politifact is fact checking.

In any case, to the Statesman's credit, the falsehood about Bennet was later removed from the digital version of the article, but, unfortunately, there was no indication that a correction was made.

Asked to discuss this error and her conservative activism, Kerns, who's also a favorite of KNUS' Peter Boyles, referred me to Statesman publisher Jared Wright.

First, Wright said, he's obviously aware of Kerns' conservative background, and he points to her bio, often printed in the newspaper and online, as proof that the newspaper is being transparent about her:

Jennifer Kerns is an executive editor at The Colorado Statesman. She is an accomplished conservative political writer and contributor to several national publications including The Blaze, The Washington Times, and The Heritage Foundation's Daily Signal. She also served as the communications director and spokeswoman for the 2013 Colorado recall elections to defend Coloradans' Second Amendment rights. [and California's Proposition 8, BigMedia addition]

Calling the recall elections an effort "to defend Coloradans' Second Amendment rights" is biased itself, but Wright said, "All of her stuff [online and print] goes through another editor and the fact-checking process. And there have been a number of times when we said, 'You need to go get comments from the other side. You need to make sure the other side has its say."

Wright said it's "no excuse," but his small newspaper has been hit with an overlapping staff crisis and vacations recently. A written correction should have been made on Kerns' Bennet article, in line with the newspaper's policy, and he promised to look into it.

The short staffing, he said, was partly the reason Kerns was writing the Bennet article in the first place, said Wright. The executive editor job is "more of an executive officer or an assistant to the editorial department," he said. But Kerns will "pinch hit" as a reporter, as she did when writing the "Hot Sheet" feature when Wright, who usually writes the informative daily political briefing, was away recently.

Wright believes that advocates can make good journalists at a political newspaper like the Statesman, due to their insider contacts and deep political knowledge.

But, I told Wright, Kerns looks like a conservative operative at work at the Statesman, which, two sources say, is under the majority control of conservative power-broker Larry Mizel.

Wright said he expects Kerns' outside political work to end soon, though she'll still have her opinions, and some of it was on tap before she started.

"I'm fully aware that Jennifer has her bent, probably more than anyone else on our staff," said Wright, who's a former GOP state lawmaker, now a registered independent.

"I want to have people who are opinionated," said Wright, emphasizing his newspaper will be as transparent as possible. "It's important to have journalists but also to have people who have been very active in politics, and of course, the only place you are going to find those people is on one side of the aisle or the other. So as long as we have a balance of those people on the team, I think we'll be in good shape."

Who's the balance for Kerns, who started last month?

"You know, we've also got [Statesman Capitol Bureau Chief] John Tomasic," Wright said. "John will tell you he's very opinionated on the progressive side and has worked for progressive publications [like the Colorado Independent]."

Kerns has a track record as an operative; Tomasic is a journalist, I told Wright.

He agreed that the two staffers are not comparable "in the way they are currently operating." He said he might add a writer with a progressive background to his staff.

With respect to Tomasic, he said, "There are times when we have to say, 'John, you have to go talk to the other side. John, sometimes correctly, doesn't trust the other side, and doesn't have those contacts. It's just all of us, working as a team, and keeping each other on track."

Wright might be able to make this work with some partisans. But the question is, given what we've seen so far, can the team control Kerns?