CON GAMES: ProPublica Wannabe Flunks Test

07/20/2010 04:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've seen some lousy reporting at the Aspen Daily News--including the one this year about a drunken editor trying to bribe a cop--but some of the worst ever can be found in Brent Gardner-Smith's coverage of the resignation of Hugh Zuker, a candidate for Pitkin County Sheriff. I was in charge of media for that campaign and so know what really happened.

The story is actually a case study of how bad reporting happens. Somehow BGS got it in his head that I was behind the re-routing of a Joey DiSalvo domain address to the Zuker campaign web site, an event that led to Zuker's resignation.

And what were his sources? Two rambling, incoherent letters from Michael Cleverly, including this gem: "If Mr. Conniff and whomever is responsible for the hijacking of Joe DiSalvo's website are candidate Zuker's idea of top-quality personnel, then the voters of Pitkin County are left to ask themselves what sort of people he'd staff the sheriff's department with."

This apparently put my name into play. Then the hyphenated ADN reporter compounded the error by misquoting Zuker about my role in the campaign.

Finally--completing the Holy Trinity of bad reporting--BGS tried to call me once and left this message: "You are now part of this story I think and I want to talk to you about it."

He never did. I was in meetings in Paonia that started at 3 PM and I never got the message until the next morning. Thus the classic assumption of guilt that comes with the phrase: "Conniff, who didn't return a phone message left on Monday afternoon..."

A letter to the editor, a misquote, compounded by the dreaded "he didn't answer his phone."

The truly bizarre element of BGS's puerile attempt to generate controversy is that I told him point blank last week that it was the candidate's wife who had made the mistake. The offending domain registration was in her name. That apparently wasn't good enough for our local ProPublica graduate.

As we all know, this is of course typical Aspen Daily News reporting: jump to an assumption about someone and don't ever let the facts get in the way. We've all been there.

There is an equally bizarre footnote to this story. At the Aspen Ideas Festival I ran into Brent Gardner-Smith and he picked my brains about how to monetize his personal web site. He even offered to split advertising revenue with my company 50-50. I gave him some advice and offered to help in any way I could.

Based on what just went down, I have some new advice for Mr. Gardner-Smith: stop trying to pretend you're a real journalist.