A Colorado paper defended its conduct in a state legislative recall campaign by dismissing critics' conflict of interest charges while failing to provide adequate context of an email a newsroom executive sent to a senator involved in the recall.
Earlier this year, the Colorado legislature passed a series of bills aimed at strengthening gun laws, including requiring background checks for private transactions and limiting the rounds of ammunition in magazines. Soon after the bills passed, local gun-rights supporters began a recall drive on four Democratic senators who supported the new laws. Two of the petition drives failed; however, Sen. Angela Giron (D) and State Senate President John Morse (D) will face a recall election slated for September 10.
On March 3, while the gun bills were still being debated in the legislature, Ray Stafford, general manager of the Pueblo Chieftain sent an email from his Chieftain account to Giron declaring his opposition to a package of bills seeking to strengthen the state's gun laws. In the email, in which he claimed the bills represented "a challenge to our Second Amendment," Stafford disclosed his position at the newspaper and said he was "responsible for the entire newspaper, including the newsroom." Critics charged that this email was a threat to the senator due to the Stafford's top position at the paper.
In response to Stafford's actions, the paper's assistant publisher and vice president, Jane Rawlings, wrote that Stafford used his affiliation in the email "as a way of identification, as he still is fairly new to the area." Although Rawlings said that after "a careful review of The Chieftain's coverage" she found the paper provided balanced coverage, Morse said Stafford essentially "threatened" Giron with critical coverage and that Giron "was in the paper and on the front page for a week straight, including within pictures that weren't very flattering, almost deliberately." Morse's account has been corroborated by local television station, KDVR-TV.
On July 28, ProgressNow Colorado revealed "evidence of an unethical conflict of interest," noting that Stafford, Rawlings, and production director Dave Dammann have all signed a recall petition against Giron, a fact the newspaper had not disclosed. Fred Brown, vice chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee, said that public disclosure should have been a baseline requirement and that signing a petition should be "forbidden" for anyone involved with the newsroom.
Despite the seriousness of the allegations, the Chieftain dismissed the charges of unethical behavior in an editorial titled "Unethical? Nope," which claimed that despite writing politically conservative editorials, it has endorsed Democrats and Republicans and even supported a number of Giron's legislations. It further dismissed the conflict of interest inherent in its executives signing the recall petition of a legislator it covers as "another freedom guaranteed ALL Americans in the Bill of Rights." The editorial also denied there was any threat involved in Stafford's letter to Giron and that he was only presenting "his personal view."
The editorial did not address how Stafford's acknowledgement of his position with the paper and the clear sway he has over the paper's content could be a conflict of interest.