In the storm of passions that erupted this spring in Colorado around proposed state gun-control laws, The Pueblo Chieftain made little attempt to hide its opposition and blasted Pueblo Democratic Senator Angela Giron for supporting the measures.
At one point, Chieftain General Manager Ray Stafford wrote Giron an email many viewed as a threat.
“I am the General Manager and responsible for the entire newspaper, including the newsroom,” he explained. “I want you to know I oppose all the bills currently being considered.”
On MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show in March, at the height of debate over the bills, state Senate President John Morse decried Stafford’s email as one of the unmeasured reactions the gun bills had generated and said he thought it was clear that Stafford ultimately made good on his threat to deliver unflattering coverage of Giron in the paper.
“[Stafford] threatened [Giron] with how [the paper] is going to cover her and then he followed through, really,” Morse said. “She was in the paper and on the front page for a week straight, including with pictures that weren’t very flattering, almost deliberately.”
Morse and Giron now face historic recall tied to their support for the gun laws. Their experiences have become a key chapter in the national news story of contemporary gun-law politics. And Giron’s experience with The Chieftain may well become part of a larger story about the evolving relationship in the U.S. between politics and the news media.
On Sunday, activist group ProgressNow Colorado reported that Stafford and at least two other Chieftain newsroom executives — Assistant Publisher Jane Rawlings and Production Director Dave Dammann — signed petitions to have Giron recalled. The group says the signatures amount to a breach of professional ethics.
“Presented with clear evidence of an unethical conflict of interest, ProgressNow today called on The Pueblo Chieftain to disclose to its readers that several member of upper management at the paper signed the recall petition against Sen. Angela Giron,” the group wrote in a release.
Stafford and Dammann didn’t return messages seeking comment Monday.
Giron special-election campaign manager Jennie Peek-Dunstone said the news about The Chieftain comes as little surprise.
“We certainly have been aware there’s a problem there. We think it’s important to have an unbiased paper. These revelations call into question again the nature of the [Chieftain's] coverage… We’ll leave that question for others to answer. The Senator is focusing on knocking on doors and talking to voters.”
Amy Runyon Harms, director at ProgressNow Colorado, said she understands that the news landscape has been shifting dramatically in recent years and that the ethics of the journalism profession are being revisited and altered, sometimes through practice if not by design. She pointed to blogging and social-media platforms that encourage journalists on some level to write for publication in different ways and to a greater degree from their perspectives as private people and citizens.
But, she said, those trends underline the need for news organizations to work doubly hard at transparency, to find ways of being open with readers in order to maintain credibility. She thinks The Chieftain isn’t doing that.
“Pueblo is basically a one-paper town. Every one there reads it,” she said. “So how are the strong views of the executives on the recall and Senator Giron shaping the daily coverage?
“I know something about this, just as a news reader. I grew up in a tiny town in Iowa — Corydon, Iowa. There are 1,500 residents, 5,000 in the whole county. Everyone reads the weekly Times Republican. We all call it ‘The TR.’ I still get that paper. I still read it.
“Of course this matters. I know it does. The Chieftain owes its readers transparency.”
Fred Brown, longtime Denver Post politics reporter and Vice chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee, wrote the Society’s position paper on questions surrounding journalist political involvement. He thinks public disclosure in this case would have been a baseline requirement.
“Anybody associated with the news room, with objective reporting, signing a petition like that? That should be forbidden,” he said. “You don’t get involved… If you’re going to sign something like that, you’ve got to tell somebody, everybody.”
The SPJ ethics statement Brown wrote says nothing directly about editorial executive staff, but it clearly proposes norms it believes should govern how papers handle the views of owners and publishers.
“At the very minimum, there should be public disclosure — in their own media — when media magnates get politically involved,” it states. “[The paper should] take every appropriate opportunity to explain the firewall between news and opinion.”
Lynn Schofield Clark, professor of media, film and journalism at the University of Denver, said that, in light of the email Stafford sent to Giron, it would be difficult for readers in the know to trust that there’s been any substantial firewall erected at The Chieftain. She said the credibility of the paper’s coverage of the Giron recall and special election could suffer serious erosion.
“There’s a long tradition of newspapers expressing a point of view,” she said. “That’s the editorial page. It has to stay on the editorial page. On the news page, you expect fair ongoing coverage. You expect editors to have the training to be fair, to know what that takes, to follow certain norms and practices.”
Clark said that there is increasing onus on readers in the digital-media environment to know where their news is coming from but that being informed on that level isn’t necessarily a local-paper reader’s everyday priority.
“People know who Rupert Murdoch is,” she said of the media mogul behind Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and the embattled tabloid papers at the center of the phone-hacking scandals rocking the news-publishing world. “But it’s probably a small percentage of readers who know who Greg Moore is at The Denver Post or who the general manager is at The Pueblo Chieftain.”
That was the clearly case with Senator Giron. She told media outlets reporting on the email Stafford sent her that she had no idea who he was until he wrote to her to inform her of his position and to describe his influence over the news reported in Pueblo.