‘Trib Talk’: Tribune owner Paul Huntsman explains the paper’s endorsements of Mia Love and Mitt Romney

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Tribune's owner, Paul Huntsman visits the newspaper offices on Tuesday, May 31, 2016.

On this week’s episode of “Trib Talk,” Tribune owner and publisher Paul Huntsman joins reporter Benjamin Wood to discuss the paper’s process behind the paper’s political positions, and the backlash from readers who disagree with those choices.

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A lightly-edited transcription of their conversation is included below.

Benjamin Wood: Political endorsements are among the oldest, most controversial and least understood traditions of the newspaper industry, with ongoing debates inside and outside U.S. newsrooms on whether, why, and how to choose sides in partisan races.

The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board has taken a position on each of Utah’s four Congressional races, its statewide Senate race and the various questions, propositions and amendments on this year’s ballot. But how does the paper decide what and who to support? And exactly whose voice do the endorsements represent?

From The Salt Lake Tribune, this is “Trib Talk.”

I’m Benjamin Wood joined today by a very special guest, Salt Lake Tribune owner and Publisher Paul Huntsman. Paul, thanks for joining us today.

Paul Huntsman: Thank you, Ben, it’s wonderful to be here today.

Wood: We’ll get to these specific endorsements in a few minutes, but I wanted to set this up with a bit of background on the process. Within the industry, there’s some debate over whether or not to do endorsements. Our main competitor doesn’t issue endorsements, at least not in the traditional sense like The Tribune does. What do you see as the benefit or the aim of the editorial board issuing an endorsement?

Huntsman: Yeah, so we actually had quite a bit of debate internally on whether or not to continue the practice — which I think The Tribune has been endorsing candidates over the last 10 to 15 years. And there still is, quite frankly, an ongoing debate on whether or not we want to continue to participate in that.

But you know, when it comes down to close races, to important issues, we obviously feel it's very important as the paper of record in the state to be able to opine on not only important issues but also on many of the close races.

This is a process again that we’re continuing to review and as a newspaper and as an editorial board, there’s certain issues that we’re very passionate about and would want to see our elected officials solve and to move forward on. That’s really what’s of most vital concern to us. And when it comes down to the individual candidates, I think it’s something that we will continue to debate.

Wood: The method can differ a little bit from paper to paper. At The Tribune, how do the endorsements work? How do they come together? Who writes them? What’s the process for deciding which candidates and positions to support?

Huntsman: We invite each of the major candidates to come into the editorial board. We have a fixed set of questions that we ask each of the candidates and that discussion usually lasts anywhere between 60 and 90 minutes.

We try not to engage in a lot of back and forth with them as much as we really try to pin them down on where they stand on particular issues: how well they're able to articulate these issues; how passionate they are about these issues; what issues they will be fighting for if they are elected to Congress.

And it's quite interesting because you come on, quite frankly, with a set of assumptions and when you go through and you listen to each candidate go through and answer each each of these questions, in many cases you come out with a much different outcome in terms of your impressions. Some are coming much better prepared and much more articulate on the issues. And others are, quite frankly, a little bit underwhelming.

But we try to treat all the candidates the exact same, and just try to get a sense for their understandings of, not only the important issues of the day, [but] how are they going to represent their constituencies and the districts and the state as well as the nation.

Wood: Who makes up the editorial board? Obviously you are a member as owner and publisher. Who else is in this room at the time?

Huntsman: There’s obviously myself. There’s George Pyle, who is the editorial page editor and there’s Tim Fitzpatrick, who was the former editorial page editor, and the two of them primarily ask the questions.

And then the last individual on the editorial board would be Jennifer Napier-Pearce, who is the editor of The Tribune. So the four of us would encompass the editorial board.

Wood: So that presents a potentially even vote. D you have a tiebreaker? To what degree should a reader assume that this is the position of Paul Huntsman, as the owner of the paper?

Huntsman: I don’t think it’s fair to say, obviously, that I don’t have the overriding influence on all of these editorials. I think whether it’s a candidate that we’re endorsing or a position that we’re taking on as we’re writing editorials, I as the publisher and as the owner of the newspaper need to stand behind every editorial that is written.

The buck stops with me and regardless of whether I wrote it or not, this is the position of the paper and as the publisher and as the owner of the newspaper, I take responsibility for all of the editorials that are written.

But I like to hear the [other members]. We have a fairly vigorous debate after we meet with each of the candidates. But you know what, it’s surprising — well, I don’t know if it’s surprising, Ben — but really after meeting both candidates, you know, if you strip away the Rs and the Ds and you just look at each candidate individually based on their performance, you can usually get a pretty good sense on who is best prepared right now to represent their constituents.

There usually isn’t a whole lot of debate on most of the races because it just becomes very clear after we meet with them and after we hear from them, because we really look at what is in the best interest of the state of Utah, of the constituency here as well as our nation. And that is really the question that we ask ourselves. And so often the interviews that we have, it just becomes quite clear after we meet with both candidates.

Wood: Well, I appreciate you walking us through some of that background. Why don’t we take a look at the endorsements that were put out starting with the Senate race. You did have a chance to meet with both Mitt Romney and Jenny Wilson. Tell us a little bit about, uh, who and why The Tribune decided — The Tribune editorial board, I should say — to endorse in that race.

Huntsman: Sure, so in this case, we elected to endorse Mitt Romney. This is a race where it was good to see two very qualified individuals who spoke very well about the issues of the day. And Jenny Wilson has served the state extremely well. She’s been involved in politics and public service her entire life. Mitt Romney has as well.

It was a little bit, quite frankly, surreal seeing Governor Romney — who was the presidential candidate for the GOP just a few years ago — step foot in here in the editorial room and be running for the Senate here in the state of Utah.

Again, stripping out both the Rs and the Ds as we look at the Senate, you know, one thing that's been very concerning to us as an editorial board and particularly to me is the toxicity and the partisanship that has really found its way into Washington over the last few decades.

You can assign blame to either party. I would say that both parties are to blame. There’re very few leaders that are really willing to stand up and that are really willing to work with both sides to solve our problems and to not just focus on either going onto MSNBC or to go onto Fox News and to promote themselves and to spend most of the time either fundraising or to work on partisan issues.

In the case of Governor Romney, you really look at what is his ultimate goal and objective. As he ran for governor, I think he had the presidency in his sight. And now that the presidential elections are over, he really doesn't have a whole lot to gain from being a senator.

He can really go in there and on Day One he can have a significant impact on working on a number of the critical issues that are very, very important to not only our state but also our nation. Regardless of seniority and even though he’ll be the most junior senator, we need representatives and senators there who are willing to focus on issues and their country over party.

And Governor Romney is really in a position to do that. And that’s really what it boils down to is his stature and his credibility. His understanding of the issues is, obviously, unprecedented compared to any other candidate we get in there because he’s been running for office for the last couple of decades. He’s been dealing with both local as well as national issues.

He understands the issues extremely well — deficit reduction, immigration reform, health-care reform — these critical issues that we’ve been delaying from one election cycle to another, to another.

The presidents and Congress have been unwilling to solve these. No one individual is going to be able to solve this in Congress. But Governor Romney is going to have an ability to have a tremendous amount of influence in being able to move forward a number of these very critical issues that we've been sitting on for far too long as a nation.

We think this is a great opportunity for not only our state, but also for our country to have someone of that stature to be able to help solve some of these problems.

Wood: Now I do want to save the Mia Love/Ben McAdams race for last. Before we get to that, in looking at the other congressional races, The Tribune editorial board endorsed challengers over incumbents: in CD3, Democrat James Courage Singer; in CD2, Democrat Shireen Ghorbani; and in CD1, a third-party candidate, the United Utah Party’s Eric Eliason. Any thoughts you’d care to share about that suite of nonincumbent endorsements?

Huntsman: I would say with Eric, I’ll just start with him. One of our major problems we have right now is the money that’s crept its way into politics. And Eric’s a very highly educated, very highly accomplished individual.

This is something that he feels very passionate about — the money that has corrupted politicians. And when it came down to that race, you know, we’ve had our issues as an editorial board with Congressman Bishop as it relates to public lands. I don’t want to get into [it]. We can sit here and talk about issues as it relates to public lands, but I’ll just say this, it’s very unfortunate what has happened to our state as well as our nation’s greatest treasures, which is our lands, which are the most beautiful lands anywhere in the country.

We need to preserve them for generations to come and to simply dismantle them the way that he and others have done is terribly unfortunate to not only these beautiful lands, but for the safekeeping of our children and our grandchildren for the many generations — of not only Utahns but for people around the world that enjoy these beautiful lands.

We’ve obviously had our concerns as an editorial board on public lands. But as far as it relates to Eric, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the issue that he’s trying to push — for term limits and of trying to get money out of politics. As we look at just the broader issues as well, he was able to articulate them in a way where if he was to be back in Washington, you know, I think he’d be a very, very effective congressperson.

He's very articulate. He understands the issues very well. He's not beholden to any ideology or party. And again, the issue of money is something that was very impressive about him.

As far as Shireen Ghorbani, she has a very unique and interesting story as it relates to her mother’s health-care situation. She has chosen health care to be the platform that she really wants to change and have an impact on. And I think that, quite frankly, all of the representatives, it’s good to see that they have one or two issues that they think that they can really have a positive impact [on] back in Washington, D.C. She has spent a tremendous amount of her life and her service within the field of health care.

She’s willing to engage anyone and everybody in the community. She’s willing to cross party lines to be able to help move the debate on health care forward and solve it in a way that takes care of those that are most vulnerable here in our community.

That’s one that quite frankly, we spend quite a bit of time [on]. The previous election we did endorse Congressman Stewart. We were a little bit disappointed with a lot of the positions that he had taken regarding his role with the intelligence community in terms of some of the evidence that was targeted toward the president and so forth and, and really getting sidetracked on a number of those issues and not addressing the most important issues of our day, which are immigration reform, health care as well as addressing deficit reduction.

And then I would also just say that last time we also endorsed the Congressman Curtis. The concern we had there, again, we spent a lot of time going back and forth. This was a very difficult decision for us to make. It ultimately boiled down to how Congressman Curtis handled the situation, that information that just came to light over the last six to nine months, as it related to his responsibility as mayor of Provo and with the ultimate issues related to the police, I believe it was a police chief down there, and the multiple sexual allegations that had occurred against him. At that time, Mayor Curtis’ really lack of ability to be able to really deal with that in a very constructive manner.

That’s ultimately where we came down on that race. It was our concern, particularly on the heels with the unfortunate incident up at the University of Utah with the murder of that young student. Really with this slew of murders that we’ve had, the crimes of passion, murder where you’ve seen spouses who have taken the lives of other spouses, we really need to do a much better job of protecting victims of domestic abuse. And again, that’s kind of been in the forefront of our minds and unfortunately, Congressman Curtis, Mayor Curtis at the time, just was not managing that in the way that he should have.

Wood: One of the features or bugs — depending on your perspective of this year’s ballot — is the number of propositions and ballot questions generated by citizens. The Tribune editorial board encourages yes votes on Question 1, Prop 2. Prop 3, Prop 4.

Huntsman: Yes.

Wood: Taken together. It seems to have this theme of embracing this citizen advocacy.

Huntsman: Yes.

Wood: Anything you’d care to share on those decisions?

Huntsman: I would just say that the one that I personally would be most passionate about would be the issue of gerrymandering or redistricting.

We demand the best in our free market economy, the best goods and services in our business sector. Free and open competition has really generated the best products at the best possible price.

We don’t demand that among our elected officials. And what do we get as a result of that? We get a lot of bad behavior, a lot of partisanship, and we don’t get anything done in Washington, D.C. One of the easy fixes that we can do to start improving the toxicity in Washington, D.C. is to start getting competitive districts where we can start getting the best and brightest and the most competitive races. This is something that, again, I just find it unconscionable that anyone, particularly as a Republican that believes in a free market system, can actually stand up and debate [this].

In essence, this is a totalitarian, dictatorial-type process that we have when we gerrymander districts. We don’t end up with the best and brightest. We don’t. And by taking competition out, we take out an ability to have competitive races. And we take out the ability for many people — and I would say in this case, Democrats and independents — who just don’t really have a voice in the election, just in the way that the districts are drawn right now.

Right now we don’t have any representative that lives in Salt Lake City, that lives in our state’s capital. Three of the four districts are drawn all throughout, it carves up the city. We need to get districts that are much more competitive and that also line up more geographically so that those representatives represent those areas of the state. They can speak towards those issues of the state, whether it’s southern Utah, whether it’s Utah County, whether it’s Salt Lake County, whether it’s Weber County or Cache County.

They all have different issues. They all sway a little bit different ideologically. And they all need to have their representation. We can’t carve up and have representatives that go through each and every one of these districts.

Wood: Let’s talk about CD4. This seemed to be the endorsement that got the most discussion online. The editorial board chose to endorse the incumbent, Republican Mia Love.

A lot of the comments I saw on Twitter talked about how this race appears to be so close that something like a Tribune endorsement could potentially tip the scales one way or the other. That was often followed by qualitative comments based on individuals’ political leanings. What was behind that decision and do you think it has an impact in this race given how close the polling appears to show it is?

Huntsman: I would like to think that our editorial endorsement does have an impact. But I’m not sure. I’m not sure if it really does.

In the case of that district, I think if the readers went through and actually read our full editorial, you'll realize that this is a race, again, it's a competitive race and it forces both candidates to talk about the issues, to provide their vision of where they think they can add the most value.

You saw them out campaigning the most. They're obviously the most visible. The one downside to this obviously is all the negative commercials that we've had in our market based upon this race.

But again, I’ll, I’ll just go back to my first comment that we have a, we have each candidate come in, we ask them the exact same questions. And, quite frankly, and this is me speaking personally, I was quite disappointed with Mayor McAdams. His — what I would call a — nonresponse to a number of the very, very critical issues that are facing our nation: deficit reduction, immigration reform and health-care reform.

[On] immigration reform, he was able to articulate certain areas that need to be addressed. There was very little difference in his position versus what Congresswoman Love’s position is. When you sit down and they actually go through and articulate exactly how they want to see legislation move forward, they actually had a very similar position, particularly as it dealt with Dreamers and dealt with those that are undocumented individuals. They’re here, how do we address them? We’ve been debating this for decades and decades. We need to address it. And they both, quite frankly, had very similar positions.

The one thing about Congresswoman Love that I have a great amount of respect for her — she serves on the Congressional Black Caucus. And she is the only member of the Republican Party on the Congressional Black Caucus.

She is very active in that caucus. She has a very, very good relationship with each of those members even though they're all from the Democratic Party. She has elected to put a considerable amount of her time and effort and her political capital in really fostering and developing those relationships. And, [she] has even mentioned that on the number of legislative initiatives that the Republican Party has passed, she has been able to take a number of the concerns from the Congressional Black Caucus and has managed to move that into the legislation that has been passed.

Now, to me, that's ideally what I'd love to see from every member of Congress, to be able to establish a coalition, regardless of parties, of those that have issues that they find some bit of a common interest in it.

I give Representative Love very, very high marks for being very, very engaged, for putting her party aside and for being a very, very engaged with the Congressional Black Caucus. I will also say that she played a very, very critical role in terms of establishing legislation to help address the Dreamers in a very constructive way — which our president has dismantled their certainty of staying here — as well as addressing the longer term issues of how do we deal with those that are undocumented citizens here in our country.

Again, we've been debating this election cycle after election cycle, but nobody's been willing to really go through and address this. She was working on a bipartisan solution to this.

It got fairly far along the process within the House before, ultimately, the president elected not to continue to support that long term, which is very, very unfortunate. She has established herself in Congress as one that can help in a very, very bipartisan way, and one who is a Republican, a Republican who comes from a different background from most members of that party.

She's from a Haitian origin, she comes from an immigration heritage herself. She understands this issue very well. She's very, very passionate about it and I think that she can play a very strong role in terms of helping to construct a bipartisan solution in Congress. With all due respect to Mayor McAdams, it takes a term or two or three for individuals to really establish that amount of credibility in Congress.

I think Congresswoman Love, unlike our other members of the delegation in Utah, has really established herself in a very credible, in a very bipartisan and responsible way in Congress

Wood: To circle back to where we started. Elections by their nature are divisive. They are often partisan. Even if they’re not, like the propositions, there are multiple sides.

There's a risk in alienating people who feel differently than the editorial board’s stated positions. What might you say to any readers or subscribers who felt disappointed in the stances that were taken?

Huntsman: The Salt Lake Tribune, as a newspaper, I think too many people associate “independence” and as “the other voice” as being beholden to a certain party or a certain ideology.

I really look at The Salt Lake Tribune as the paper of record here in the state of Utah and I take that role extremely seriously. As an editorial board, we’re here to represent the best interests here of the state of Utah. As much as people want to say, “well look, you may have an overriding influence and voice,” we work very collaboratively as an editorial board. We’ve got a wide, wide spectrum of ideology.

If you’ve read George Pyle’s editorials, you know, some may accuse him of being very liberal. I happen to think he’s one of the best writers that we have here in the state. He’s very articulate. He describes issues in a beautiful way to our readers. I’m very proud to have him here as part of our editorial base.

I am a registered Republican, but it’s interesting that as we go through and whether we’re endorsing candidates or whether we’re endorsing a certain piece of legislation or an issue that’s pertinent to Utah, we really look at what is the best interests of the state of Utah and, in certain instances, of the country. That’s really what we look at. And that’s really how we make our decisions.

I've received a tremendous amount of email. Some or many that were threatening to cancel their subscriptions. I answered every single one of them and it was great. It was wonderful to be able to engage our readers. This is exactly why we have a newspaper. It's the bedrock of our democracy.

Everyone has a voice and everyone needs to be able to express their opinions. And I respect every reader's opinion. It’s, quite frankly, why I felt so passionate about buying and trying to sustain the newspaper. Because again, the three primary pillars of our democracy — the freedom of the press, the freedom of religion, the freedom of expression.

This is a big issue I’ve got here with some of our representatives in Congress that like to claim that they are experts on the Constitution. One of the three pillars of our Constitution — the freedom of press — is under attack right now. But yet those that claim to be experts and defenders of the Constitution, these are officers of our country, of our Constitution who make an oath that they will defend the Constitution. Not defend an ideology, not defend their party, but defend the Constitution.

And when you have a president who is calling the press the enemy of the people, that is an affront. And that is a direct attack on our Constitution and our democracy. And we can’t let that stand.

It’s very disappointing when our, when our representation does not stand up, and there are certain [representatives] that we have here in the state that like to claim that they’re experts on the Constitution. Well, here we have a direct attack on the Constitution and they don’t say a word about it.

It's terribly disappointing. We need more leaders in Congress. We have too many partisans, we have too many people that are willing just to go along with what their party says. I know that there's a big momentum right now. Certain editorial rooms are doing this right now where they're not [endorsing] any Republicans. But these problems that we have here in our country, yes, Donald trump has created more problems, but there's a number of issues that have been going on for decades that neither party has solved.

We need the right representation back there to help address these long-term issues. We need to set up the right health-care platform to take care of the neediest and the poorest of us within our communities. And we need to address our debt.

Here we have Senator Hatch retiring after— what is it — 42 years or so? He went into Congress and it was $600 billion of debt. That wasn't the deficit, that was our total debt.

Here he’s leaving 42 years later, $21 trillion of debt and just a deficit itself is more than the amount, just what we’re going to pay in interest this year is more than [the debt] when he entered Congress back in 1976.

We need members that can go beyond party and start addressing these long-term issues and problems that we ourselves have created. All of these endorsements, they’re tough calls at the end of the day. We have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone willing to subject themselves to run for office. I’ve got the greatest amount of respect for each and every candidate that’s willing to step up and do this, and it’s a hard call at the end of the day. Because in many cases, either one of the individuals would be a terrific representative.

Just going back to your question on the Love/McAdams race, both of those individuals are well qualified and would do an outstanding job. As I expressed earlier my thoughts on Congresswoman Love, I just thought that she had the edge over Mayor McAdams.

Wood: Well, listeners, of course you can find those endorsements at sltrib.com. Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Tribune, thank you again for being on Trib Talk today.

Huntmsan: Thank you, Ben. Nice to be here.

“Trib Talk” is produced by Sara Weber with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Comments and feedback can be sent to tribtalk@sltrib.com, or to @bjaminwood or @tribtalk on Twitter.

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