Denver’s NBC affiliate, 9News, reported last month that Kelly Brough, who’s a former director of the Denver Chamber of Commerce, landed a new job with the Common Sense Institute (CSI), which 9News anchor Kyle Clark described in his piece about Brough as a “conservative think tank.”
9News made a fact-based decision to label the Common Sense Institute as “conservative.” It’s objectively a conservative outfit, founded by conservatives and mostly run by them (with a few conservative Democrats like Brough).
But when they cite a CSI report or quote a CSI expert, most Colorado news outlets aren’t telling their audiences of CSI’s conservative bent, according to a review of news coverage of CSI conducted by the Colorado Times Recorder. (Opinion pieces were not evaluated; only Colorado news stories.)
Of 31 news articles mentioning CSI during December and January, only four, including the 9News story, informed readers that the organization is “conservative.” Four stories tiptoed in the right direction, describing it as free-market, business, or free-enterprise oriented.
The three other articles (in addition to 9News’ piece) that correctly labeled CSI as “conservative” were all in the Colorado Sun: Tamara Chuang and Parker Yamasaki called it a “conservative think tank in Greenwood Village that tracks fiscal policy;” Jesse Paul, Sandra Fish, Brian Eason labeled it a “conservative research nonprofit,” and a Dec. 15 “Unaffiliated” article without a byline stated that CSI is a “conservative-leaning policy nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors.”
CSI’s known donors, including the Colorado Opportunity Fund, which also supports Advance Colorado, and the Independence Institute, among others, would all be considered conservative.
The Colorado Sun’s Dec. 15 Unaffiliated story also stated, “When we use the Common Sense Institute’s studies, we always try to provide disclaimers about the nonprofit’s background. The Sun also opted against citing one of the group’s reports in a story earlier this year on Proposition HH when the organization would not provide information on its methodology prior to the article’s publication.”
The Sun stated that CSI’s “influence has grown in recent years through the publication of reports that have been widely cited in news media stories, including in The Sun.”
Anschutz Outlets Mum on CSI Conservatism
During the two months that we studied CSI coverage, conservative media outlets owned by GOP billionaire Phil Anschutz (Colorado Politics and the Denver and Colorado Springs Gazette) published the most stories mentioning CSI (16 total) — over half of the articles that mentioned CSI during the months studied.
And not a single story in an Anschutz publication labeled the organization as conservative. Ten Anschutz articles didn’t identify CSI at all. They just provided readers with the CSI name alone. One article (by Marissa Payne) called CSI a “nonpartisan think tank.” One story (by Nico Bambila) labeled it a “nonprofit organization.” Another piece (by Marianne Goodland) stated that CSI “espouses free market values.” In two articles, the Denver Gazette’s Dennis Huspeni wrote that CSI “describes itself as ‘non-partisan research organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of Colorado’s economy.'” Colorado Politics and Denver Gazette Editor Luige Del Puerto described it in one story as a “Denver-based think tank.”
Del Puerto declined to comment.
None of The Denver Post’s four articles (by Saja Hindi, Judith Kohler, and two by Aldo Svaldi) that cited CSI labeled it as conservative. Nor did four by KDVR Fox 31, with one of its stories (by Heather Willard) calling CSI an “independent think-tank.”
It’s a fact that CSI is conservative, as a perusal of its website and history makes clear. It started as the Common Sense Roundtable, which was associated with two GOP consulting firms, The Starboard Group and EIS Solutions, and changed its name to the Common Sense Institute in 2020.
Its board, which “ultimately” decides what research should be pursued, according to the group’s website, is dominated by conservative figures. It’s chaired by Buz Koelbel, a conservative donor and a major backer of former GOP gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl’s recently announced communications campaign to turn Colorado red.
None of the board members stands out as leading Democrats or as having significant ties to progressive political causes, while most CSI board members have a history of donating at least mostly to Republicans (See the FEC and Colorado’s campaign finance database) or being associated with the Republican Party directly, some as statewide leaders. The board members are Koelbel, Dave Davia, who leads the conservative group Colorado Concern; Earl L. Wright, a major GOP donor and longtime supporter of the University of Colorado’s Benson Center for the Study of Western Conservative Thought, which brought Trump lawyer John Eastman to Colorado; Tyrone Adams, the Director of the Colorado Association of Realtors; J. J. Ament, a former Republican candidate for Colorado Treasurer and the President of the conservative Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce; Jack Graham, a 2016 Republican U.S. Senate candidate; Byron Haselden, a mostly Republican donor and president of Haseldon construction; Jim Johnson, president of GE Johnson Construction Company; Armen Khadiwala, whose CSI biography touts his involvement “in varying capacities” with the Leadership Program of the Rockies, Colorado’s preeminent training program for conservative activists; Laura Leprino, whose CSI biography spotlights her work at the conservative Starboard Group and in the campaigns and office of former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-CO); Charlie McNeil, who was on the board of the Republican-led Common Sense Policy Roundtable, which became CSI; Mark Osborn, who’s donated mostly to Republicans; Jenifer Waller, who’s president of the Colorado Bankers Association; and Robin Wise, a GOP donor and president of Junior Achievement-Rocky Mountain, Inc. (JA).
Sometimes the right-wing conservativism at CSI finds its way to crazy town, like in 2021 when CSI founder Earl Wright supported the election denialism of insurrectionist attorney John Eastman. CSI fellows and “free enterprise” advisors are mostly, but not exclusively, conservative.
While the editor of the openly progressive Colorado Times Recorder (CTR), who wrote the words you’re reading, encourages media outlets to label CTR progressive, it appears that the Common Sense Institute, which has affiliated CSI organizations in Arizona, Iowa, and Oregon, is actively avoiding being tagged “conservative,” stating on its website states that it’s “dedicated to the protection and promotion of Colorado’s economy” and similar descriptions of its work.
Emails to Executive Director Kristin Strohm and Communications Director Lauren Nash with the following questions were not returned: Do you think it’s fair for journalists to use the label ‘conservative’ to describe CSI? If not, why not, in light of the fact that so many of your board members, fellows, and advisors are associated with conservative causes, if not the Republican Party? If not conservative, what tagline would you like journalists to use to describe CSI and why?”