06/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Misleading Denver Post Story Spreads to Washington Post

A March 28 Denver Post article included a misleading anecdote that unfortunately has now spread to the Washington Post, demonstrating how misleading information spreads through the news media.

Discussing the responses to Rep. Betsy Markey's (D-CO) vote for the health-care bill, The Post reported:

Fred Vierra of Cherry Hills Village lives outside [Colorado's] 4th Congressional District but sent Republican congressional candidate Cory Gardner [who's opposing Markey] a $1,000 donation.

"You can thank Betsy Markey's health care vote for this check," he wrote last week in a note to the campaign.

From reading this, you could easily think Vierra's $1,000 donation is money Gardner wouldn't have gotten if Markey has opposed the health care bill.

But you need to spend five minutes on the Federal Election Commission website to discover that Vierra is a well-known Colorado GOP donor, who regularly gives to candidates outside of his district of residence and outside of our state.

In fact, Vierra gave $2,000 to Marilyn Musgrave, whom Markey beat in the last election cycle, in 2005 and again in 2006. Since 1998, Vierra gave $1,000 or more to Sam Brownback of Kansas, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Thune of South Dakota, former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, former Montana Senator Conrad Burns, and others, all Republicans. He gave $55,000 to John McCain in 2008. In Colorado, in addition to Musgrave, he's given big money to Republicans Wayne Allard, Mike Coffman, Rick O'Donnell, Jane Norton, Bob Schaffer, Tom Tancredo, and others. The list goes on and on. It's pretty amazing, really. Type "Fred Vierra" on this page of the FEC website.

Especially because The Post included the contextual detail that Vierra "lives outside" of Markey's Distrct, The Post should have informed us of Vierra's status as a national Republican donor who's given thousands of dollars to previous Republican candidates running for Markey's congressional seat.

A phrase like "Vierra, who gave over $400,000 to Republican candidates across the country since 1998..." would have done the trick. Or even something like, "Vierra, a well-known Republican donor in Colorado ...."

Of course, it's possible that Vierra wouldn't have coughed up $1,000 for Gardner if Markey had opposed the health care bill.

But still, Vierra's history of donating should have been mentioned, to give us a full picture of what's going on here -- and to let us decide what to make of it.

Not only us, but news outlets as well. Here's what I mean:

After The Denver Post ran the article with the anecdote about Vierra's $1,000 check, a Post reader, Ann Westmeyer, sent Gardner a clipping of The Post's article, a $25 check , and a note that read, "Again, you can thank Betsy Markey's healthcare vote for this check," according to a story on The Post's political blog, The Spot.

Westmeyer's note stated that she also lived "outside the district," according to The Spot, which repeated its mistake and quoted its own story about Vierra's $1,000 check, again omitting the information that Vierra is a major Republican donor statewide and nationally.

And guess what happened next? This two-part story, about Vierra's check and The Denver Post's article that inspired another donation to Gardner, was picked up by the Washington Post today in an article headlined "In Colorado, health-care debate reverberates in congressional race" by longtime reporter Dan Balz.

The Washington Post recounted The Denver Post's story, reporting:

After the health-care bill passed, a voter from outside the district sent the Republican's [Gardner's] campaign a contribution with a note: "Please thank Betsy Markey for this check." When The Denver Post wrote about it, another voter sent a copy of the article along with a donation to Gardner's campaign with a note: "Again, you can thank Betsy Markey's health-care vote for this check."

That's how the news media feed on themselves to build a narrative (angry voters donating to unseat a congresswoman.). Unfortunately, in this case, a piece of the foundation of the narrative is partially rotten, because it lacks critical context, namely, one angry GOP donor had a history of giving big bucks to Republicans when the health care bill didn't exist.