Did A Top Colorado Newspaper Executive Threaten A State Legislator Over Stronger Gun Laws?

A top executive at a Colorado newspaper has sparked controversy after he sent an email to a state senator opposing legislative efforts to strengthen gun laws that the legislator took as a threat of retaliation by the paper.

Ray Stafford, general manager of the Pueblo Chieftain, sent a March 3 email to State Sen. Angela Giron (D) in which he highlighted his position with the paper and said he opposed legislation to strengthen the state's gun laws. Giron had been undecided on the legislative package under discussion, but ultimately voted for the five bills which passed the state Senate on March 11.

The email from Stafford, sent on his official Chieftain email account, stated: “I am the General Manager and responsible for the entire newspaper, including the newsroom ... I have never written a legislator, but I want you to know I oppose all the bills currently being considered involving guns, ammunition, magazines and ownership transfers because I think they're poorly written and a knee-jerk reaction to recent deaths. I also believe such legislation is a challenge to our Second Amendment.”

Stafford denies that his email was intended to intimidate Giron. But Jane Rawlings, assistant publisher of the Chieftain, criticized Stafford for failing to clearly indicate his complaints were his own opinion in the email in which he emphasized his role at the paper.

“A person who works for us should identify this as their personal opinion and he did not state those words in his email, 'this is my personal opinion' and he probably should have,” Rawlings told Media Matters.

Giron told KRDO-TV in Colorado Springs, “You don't use work e-mails to send personal stuff out and you certainly don't send and he's literally typed in his name, general manager of The Chieftain and a gun owner. I didn't even know his name so if he didn't send it from The Chieftain, if he didn't say he was the general manager, if he didn't say he was in charge of the newsroom, it probably wouldn't have even been noted.”

Stafford's email also did not sit well with Colorado Senate President John Morse, who raised concerns during an appearance on Friday with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, stating, “He threatened her with how he's going to cover her and then followed through, really, she was on the paper and the front page for practically a week straight.”

The dispute comes during a highly charged gun debate in Colorado and elsewhere across the country, during which state legislators who support stronger firearms laws have been subjected to intimidation and threats.

Reached for comment via email, Stafford issued a statement to Media Matters that read, in part:

If you have read the email, it is clear I am writing as a concerned citizen. I don't make a habit of mentioning my title to many people, but did so in this instance to try and place context around the fact I had met Angela on one of her visits to our newspaper. I also didn't want her thinking I was a part of the newspaper's editorial board that is involved in writing editorials and, particularly, endorsements of political candidates. I didn't want her to think her position, whatever it is, would impact an endorsement or non-endorsement from the Chieftain in the next election.

Although Rawlings criticized how Stafford stated his opinion, she said his comments should not be considered an attempt to pressure Giron with newspaper coverage.

“I think you could also take just the opposite look at that, and say that because he identified himself as being in charge of the newsroom, if she had read the newspaper, she would have known that the coverage was balanced and that was his doing,” Rawlings said.

Asked if Stafford stating his position as being in charge of the newsroom might be taken as a threat of retaliation in the press, Rawlings said the newspaper's coverage should dispel that.

“We had a lot of coverage because it's a huge issue, Sen. Giron was kind of a focal point. We didn't put her there, she was put there by outside groups and by the statehouse themselves,” she said. “Our news coverage was very balanced, very accurate, voluminous, yes, but very balanced. Mr. Stafford has the right as a citizen to express his opinion, he identified himself.”

Managing Editor Steve Henson said in an email to Media Matters that he found nothing wrong with Stafford's actions: “I did not feel that it was an attempt to intimidate the senator. Mr. Stafford has a right as a citizen to express his views to his elected official.”

Rawlings said Giron had become a focal point because she was one of the few undecided votes on the legislative package as it approached a vote this week.

But Giron's image was placed on the front page and with related stories more prominently than others, according to KDVR-TV, which noted the increased attention on Giron in their report on Stafford's email, stating:

The newspaper's coverage of the gun control measures has repeatedly defined Giron as the key vote on bills to mandate universal background checks and banning high-capacity magazines and referred to her in its headlines. In reality, with both measures expected to pass by a vote of 18-17, every Democratic yes vote is potentially a swing vote.