Ireland

Behind the scenes, a small group of valley citizens is working hard to restore The Aspen Times to its former status as a real newspaper free to report the truth as its remaining journalists see it.

I wish them luck. Perhaps saving The Aspen Times from its owners is not the answer. Talk abounds about boycotting the newspaper in response to the muzzling of its journalistic voice by a Swedish billionaire, who is neither a Russian nor an oligarch. Even the county commissioners, famous for their detachment from actual problems, moved their small legal publication account to punish the unjust actions.

Unfortunately, it may be too late to save The Aspen Times from its owners and the market forces that have decimated print journalism across the country. As the litigators say, the “skunk is in the box,” which is what happens when a witness makes an unfounded or scurrilous remark that the judge’s instruction to disregard is powerless to erase from the jury’s collective consciousness.

The skunk in the public’s mind, let’s call her Pepe Le Pew, is the realization that management could terminate the remaining journalists for offending He Who Must Not Be Called Bad Names. Management asserts through its recently arrived publisher that the paper’s coverage decisions are being made here in Aspen, perhaps being confused that Aspen is not a suburb of Wheeling, West Virginia.

She says she understands there is concern over an editor leaving and another being fired. Not to mention the loss of its best columnist, Roger Marolt, and the noncontroversial but effective journalist Scott Condon.

It is true that the paper printed a critical and factually erroneous letter to the editor about He Who Must Not. And it is true that the Times called a Swede a Russian and a ’garch of some sort, the former being inaccurate and the latter being hyperbole.

Rather than fight for the right to make errors in the pursuit of truth — a right inherent in the First Amendment — the Times caved to the threat of litigation, and Andrew Travers was the sacrificial lamb in the whole sad affair. As I understand it, Travers, acting as editor, published a critical ­commentary that had been greenlit by the publisher. She later claimed she hadn’t read it thoroughly and it was therefore retroactively unacceptable and an unforgivable offense. Sure, a “locally made” decision. How new are we?

Travers is gone, Marolt is here covering Lo Semple’s skiing prowess and Scott Condon can read handwriting on the wall. Pepe Le Pew remains in the box, and the public has to wonder whether the remaining journalists can risk being voted off the island if they write something offensive about the rich and powerful who now dominate here. It’s clear that corporate management does not have their backs — nor this town’s back. As one respected insider put it, “I don’t even know if I will be a journalist next year.”

I worked at The Aspen Times 40 years ago. I published unhappy news that people needed to know: the gun that disappeared from the evidence safe only to resurface in the desk of the chief of police; I exposed the candidate who hired an opponent in a three-way commissioner race to say nasty things about Bob Child; I named the 54 locals included in a drug investigation search warrant and the serious violations of that search warrant’s limitations by the DEA agents out to get drug dealers however they could.

Yes, there was hate mail by snail, angry meetings about me, the usual threats, cars full of people screaming at me, the warning call to me when the alleged drug kingpin was assassinated on the eve of my criminal law exam at CU. And there were mistakes: One of the names in the drug story had a name identical to an unrelated local citizen — a friend of mine was wrongly named in my story.

I didn’t publish the drug story with anyone’s prior consent. I had a leaked legal document and went with it, setting type and designing the front page with help from a brilliant graphics guy. I rightly assumed Bil Dunaway, owner and publisher, had my back and that truth was a defense. Truth, not perfection. Remember, the seminal New York Times v. Sullivan case was decided in favor of press freedom even though the lawsuit was based on an advertisement that contained some errors.

We published the necessary corrections and offered the named names a forum to give their side of the story. One — the owner of the boobytrapped jeep that ended the accused kingpin’s life — took us up on it and came in for an interview with the assistance of counsel. Others came to me years later and admitted much of what was printed was true.

But what confidence can we have that another not-Russian, not-oligarch we have never heard of — yet — will threaten The Aspen Times with financial ruin in a fit of pique about some future story that might have some errors? After all, the Alabamans sued the New York Times, in part, because the published advertisement claimed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested seven times in Alabama rather than the actual four, and the song the student protestors sang at the state capitol was the national anthem, not “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”

The Aspen Times had a reasonably strong defense to its errors, but the cost of doing so would have been enormous and a defeat might, as Roger Marolt later explained, jeopardize the flow of real estate dollars that the parent company currently enjoys. A win by The Aspen Times would be pyrrhic — costly and not final. Faced with a lose-lose, management chose the cheaper alternative: capitulation.

So, what to do? I suggest forming a community-owned, nonprofit newspaper — not government owned but owned by community members, the way the Green Bay Packers are owned by thousands in Green Bay. Such a paper would be truly independent since we, as shareholders, would have limited liability, and a devastating and costly lawsuit could be answered with bankruptcy filings, dissolution and a new startup. In the meantime, an independent board could liberate local journalists who would not have to hesitate every time the news offended someone with power and money.

The First Amendment might not ultimately protect a minimally capitalized paper from costly litigation, but it could be wielded in defense of the right to make minor mistakes in the pursuit of truth. And any would-be aggressor would understand that making Aspen Times II go away would only bring Aspen Times III online. We, the public, as owners, would not be individually liable for a damage award.

Mick Ireland notes that the Packers remain at Lambeau Field in a minor market because the citizens there have no interest in monetizing their franchise. The Arlington Heights Bears are a different matter altogether. mick@sopris.net.