'Hello Senator, I Control the Newspaper, I Own a Gun, and I Want You to Vote Against Gun Safety'

Mar 12, 2013 | Updated May 12, 2013

The email boxes of Colorado lawmakers haven't been pretty lately, unless you appreciate personal threats, F-bombs, and general references to some other reality where facts as we know them don't exist.

But you know things have gone seriously wrong when you also get what appears to be a veiled threat from the general manager of a newspaper.

As first reported by KRDO TV, that's what State Sen. Angela Giron received March 3, from Pueblo Chieftain General Manager Ray Stafford.

In his email, Stafford first introduced himself to Giron as the person "responsible for the entire newspaper, including the newsroom," and then wrote: "Please do not vote for the current gun legislation. To vote for it would be an affront to the citizens of this state, Pueblo, and America."

Stafford signed the letter with his title and the phase "And gun owner." Yikes.

Why send the letter privately and tell a state senator specifically how much power you wield at the newspaper? Is the subtext that the newspaper will run stories attacking Giron and legislation she supports, if she doesn't listen to Stafford?

I described the letter to Kevin Z. Smith, who's chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists.

He said the position of "general manager" position can probably be equated to that of publisher, and newspaper publishers often try to "affect some kind of influence" in the community, by sitting on boards or expressing opinions.

There needs to be a "clear delineation between what the publisher is attempting to do" and "what the responsibility of the newsroom is, Smith told me. adding that "often times that's where the line gets crossed."

Smith: It's hard when the General Manager says, openly, 'I'm also in charge of the newsroom and news coverage.' To me that says, 'This paper is going to take a news-coverage stance that we're not going to support any types of gun legislation.' If that's what I'm reading, between the lines, then that's patently unfair and unethical.

When this happens, the newsroom will have to "work very hard" to regain credibility, Smith said.

Fred Brown, another former Society for Professional Journalists Ethics Committee Chair, said Smith's opinion should have been expressed in public, possibly on the opinion page. Brown doesn't think Stafford's email was unethical, but Brown wrote, "the vehicle chosen to deliver the sentiment does raise some flags. Why not do it publicly?"

For more on the ethics of this, see the New York Times ethics policy, for example, here.

So, the bottom line, from my perspective, is that this is an unseemly, shady way for a newspaperman to operate, bringing into question the neutrality of the Chieftain's news department. Certainly, everyday readers of the Chieftain would look askance at it. Common sense says it's wrong.

Stafford did not immediately respond to my telephone call seeking comment, but he told KRDO:

"You have a copy of my e-mail and it's not threatening at all. In fact, I point out that that was my opinion and I certainly have a right to that opinion and it doesn't matter what e-mail account I send it from. The fact is the e-mail doesn't contain any kind of a threat whatsoever," Stafford said.

An assistant publisher and vice president also told KRDO that the newspaper has published balanced stories on gun-safety legislation.

Stafford told Fox 31's Eli Stokols why he reminded Giron of his authority over the newsroom:

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.

Even if Stafford is telling the truth, and there's no reason to say otherwise, he should understand just how bad his email looks and apologize to the Chieftain's readers. He should assure them that he will not direct the newsroom to produce stories unfavorable to Giron or to gun-safety legislation.

Stafford would be doing his profession a favor if he acknowledged his mistake publicly. Journalism is taking enough hits as it is, without gun-owning general managers embarrassing themselves in public.