Pretend you're a Westword reporter, and you're writing a story about a new website, called "Where's Mike Coffman," which accuses the Congressman of being virtually invisible lately (as in, he's hiding).
You go to the Coffman campaign for a response, and his spokesperson issues you a statement. Here's part of it:
Congressman Coffman prides himself as being open and available to meet with his constituents and has had dozens of public events over the summer, including forums, meet-and-greets, town halls, parades, roundtables and meetings with civic organization like the Veterans of Foreign Wars across the district, including in his home town of Aurora.
You include this response in your story, along with quotes from people who say it's bullshit, that Coffman invites the public to see him only if they want to go to a fundraiser, and he's essentially unavailable to discuss issues.
That's what Westword's Sam Levin did a "Latest Word" blog post Sept. 6. He laid out information from both sides.
The question is, should he have dug deeper, and told us more about the "public events" Coffman claims to have attended? Was the public invited? Were issues discussed? How many public events did he sponsor?
I don't blame Levin for not doing this, because he gave Coffman and his detractors plenty of space to lay out their cases, he pointed to their websites, and he was only writing a blog post, for god's sake.
Time is short for reporters these days, even at previously long-winded Westword, and sorting out the adequacy and nature of public events on a congressman's calendar is complicated and filled with gray areas.
So that's why it's fortunate I'm around to fill in a little bit of information that was omitted and appears not to have been spotlighted anywhere else.
If you look at the events that Coffman's spokesman recited to Westword, to show how out-and-about the Congressman is, "town halls," jumps out as something that should be pretty easy to check out.
I mean, if Coffman had a town hall meeting, there would be an invitation for the public to attend. Maybe there'd be press coverage, even photos.
It took me a while but I eventually went to Coffman's congressional website and perused a photo gallery on the home page. And sure enough, three "town hall meetings" were pictured. All three took place in August, showing summer action, as alleged in the statement by Coffman's office above.One was a "town hall meeting with employees of LabCorp" Aug. 14.
When I think of a "town hall meeting," what does not come to mind is a private gathering for employees at a big corporation or even a small corporation.
And my way of thinking was confirmed by a look at wikipedia and the dictionary, which both emphasized the "public" nature of town hall meetings.
But maybe in today's scripted political world, the phrase "town hall meeting" takes on a different meaning?
I asked Metro State University political science professor Norman Proviser about this:
"The way to look it is, where does the term comes from?" Proviser told me. "It refers back to the notion of Massachusetts town hall meetings with direct democracy and participation in decisions. It was a community coming together in a town hall to make decisions."
Today, Proviser explained, the term "town meeting" refers to a public event allowing for community input and exchange of ideas.
"By definiton, a private meeting is not a town hall meeting," Proviser said. "That's like saying we want to hear from the community and hear their views, and we'll invite the praticipants."
So, it turns out, Coffman is apparently re-inventing the term "town hall meeting" as a private, corporate affair.
Or maybe not. Maybe, the public was invited to his "town hall meetings," but I couldn't find any evidence of this, and Coffman's office did not return my call. (If you're a reporter, and you happen to be one of the three people still reading way down here, maybe you could give Coffman a call?)
And I did not immediately hear back from LabCorp, Tyco Fire and Security, or the Aurora Home Depot, which referred me to corporate HQ. I'll keep you posted on my progress on that front.