On the Hunt(sman) | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

On the Hunt(sman) 

Salt Lake Tribune chairman Paul Huntsman claimed newspaper was 'compromised' after he launched private investigations unit.

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Paul Huntsman was not happy—and he was ready to act. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, Huntsman, chairman of the now-nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune, has publicly disparaged the reporters he employed after he launched his own investigatory unit outside the Tribune newsroom. It reportedly was not going well.

In defending his actions, Huntsman raised claims of a "compromised" Tribune under former editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce—now spokeswoman for Gov. Spencer Cox—and suggested that editors and reporters there had failed to properly report on inappropriate private-sector contracting related to the state government's COVID-19 response and the TestUtah program operated by NOMI Health.

Utah wanted to handle COVID quickly, to be ahead of the curve responding to an admittedly confusing—if not terrifying—time for the public. And Utah is a libertarian-leaning state, where government intervention and mandates are considered anathema. In keeping with conservative values, the state turned to private-sector businesses for answers—in this case, to businesses lacking critical experience.

The Salt Lake Tribune has been fortunate to have a sports-reporter-turned-statistics-wonk in Andy Larsen, who exhaustively followed COVID numbers while they escalated. But the questions both the paper and Huntsman wanted answered weren't so much about case counts and hospitalization rates as they were about the efficacy of COVID tests, particularly as then-President Donald Trump touted unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. Utah literally bought into that messaging, buying $800,000 worth of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine and, for a time, looking at buying millions of dollars more.

Tribune reporting on the topic won local journalism awards for exposing lax contracting standards, lapses in oversight and failures at both the government and private-sector levels. But perhaps most stunning were later assertions by Huntsman that he didn't trust the Trib to "do journalism," which arrived against the backdrop of Huntsman's brother—the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador, Jon Huntsman Jr.—failing to win the 2020 gubernatorial race against Cox, Napier-Pearce's new employer.

In July, USA Today reported that the Trib staff was told how disappointed Huntsman was in the newspaper's coverage of the startup, Nomi Health,and its subcontractors. According to a source quoted in the article, Huntsman felt the Trib was not "aggressively coveringalleged cronyism, pay-to-play, abuse of power, conflicts of interest and no-bid contracts being awarded to friends of Republican politicians."

The criticisms did not go over well with Napier-Pearce, the Tribune's former editor, who said she "consistently encouraged rigorous reporting about the 2020 gubernatorial campaigns, supported public records requests and publicly praised Tribune reporters who broke numerous stories about the state's pandemic response."

Good Intentions
Napier-Pearce left the Tribune in 2020 after she and Huntsman reportedly came to loggerheads over news coverage. It has never been clear what those disputes entailed, but Napier-Pearce leaving the Tribune before joining the Cox administration may have been a bridge too far for Huntsman, connecting dots to his brother's political rival.

So while local media outlets continued to focus on the testing companies and government contracting, Huntsman began shining an unwelcome light on the internal intrigue at the Tribune.

"Over the past 14 months, I submitted 400 public records petitions in four states for documents that confirmed what on the surface looked to be, at best, a lousy political operation to rescue reputations and companies or, at worst, a deliberate attempt to push a Chinese-originated [COVID] test," Huntsman wrote in a March Op-Ed for The Tribune.

The Tribune's current editor and staff have pushed back against Huntsman's categorizations of their news coverage. And critics also question the atypical way that Huntsman has pursued his investigations against the state.

"Paul Huntsman saved a newspaper," read an April headline in The Washington Post, "then launched an investigation of his brother's rival."

More recently, USA Today ran an in-depth story investigating Nomi Health, the company at the center of the embattled TestUtah program that Huntsman has targeted.

Silicon Slopes executive director Clint Betts joined the inaugural nonprofit Tribune board during the COVID crisis. He had something to offer—a knack for mobilizing. "We bring the tech and business community together to discuss what's happening in the state," he said of his work with Silicon Slopes. "It was not random that we'd be holding town halls on the biggest issue facing our state."

As COVID proliferated, Betts rallied a group of state lawmakers, then-state epidemiologist Angela Dunn and the editor of the Tribune to hash over the pandemic problems. And some joined in an effort to launch TestUtah after the state decided to outsource the work of testing.

"I thought, 'Oh, that's cool, it sounds like testing is needed,'" Betts says. As a facilitator, he didn't really think anyone was going to make money from testing. Then he got texts from a lot of people who said he was wrong.

Betts was perhaps emblematic of good intentions gone wrong. In April of 2020, none other than then-U.S. Vice President Mike Pence began touting the testing startup Betts had promoted.

"I didn't know. I was there to promote the initiative and let people know this thing was happening and testing was expanding," he said. "It seemed to me that TestUtah was doing well. ... I shouldn't have said that for a variety of reasons. I'm not part of these companies. I'm a nonprofit organization. We do events and media stuff around the tech community."

Before long, Tribune reporting and that of other outlets had begun to poke holes in the stories of TestUtah's success. But things apparently weren't moving fast enough for Huntsman, who in March 2021 created his own investigations firm, which for reasons unknown was given the name "Jittai," a Japanese word meaning "substance." Through Jittai, Huntsman and partners spent at least $1 million to investigate NOMI, mostly through public records requests, according to USA Today.

Breaking Newsroom
Tribune executive editor Lauren Gustus referred City Weekly to her comments in USA Today, saying that the newsroom "independently verified all documents from Jittai that were used for its COVID-19 coverage."

City Weekly also attempted to contact Huntsman, who did not respond. "As I understand it, Paul is not planning to make any additional comments on the matter," Gustus said in an email.

Gustus was vocal in defending the Trib's reporting in the face of disparagement from its chairman and largest donor. "Our independent reporting is unmatched in Utah, and our reporters will continue to seek out truth and break stories related to this and other issues important to our readers," USA Today quoted her saying.

Once Huntsman's antipathy for his newsroom became public, Twitter lit up. Betts put out this tweet: "He says the paper was 'compromised' because [Napier-Pearce] was the executive editor of the paper. So far, I haven't seen a single [Tribune] reporter stand up for Jennifer or the work they put out during this period. Why? Do Lauren and the staff agree? Was the paper compromised?"

Then came Trib editorial columnist and attorney Michelle Quist: "I'll stand up for [Napier-Pearce] all day long."

Next, former Tribune reporter Matthew LaPlante—who now teaches journalism at Utah State University—tweeted: "I've long warned my students that, if they pursue this career, they will face a barrage of attacks on their ethics and integrity. I've never warned them those attacks might come from the people who employ them. I shouldn't have to."

Matt Canham, another former Trib reporter and editor now at The Seattle Times, weighed in, too: "Paul Huntsman is wrong and his recent statements about The Salt Lake Tribune are appalling. To have the board chairman question the commitment, talent and ethics of Tribune reporters and editors crosses the line. I'm proud of the Trib's coverage of TestUtah and the 2020 governor's race. The team stepped up, did their jobs and reported aggressively. [The Tribune] deserves a chairman who believes in journalism and supports journalists. It deserves better than Paul Huntsman."

Betts, who stayed with the inaugural Tribune board for only a year, said he still has deep respect for the Tribune. He also has questions.

"I'm a lifelong Utahn," says Betts, who wonders what the controversy means for the broader state of the news media in his home state. "One of our major papers is 'compromised?' What does Paul mean by that?"

Betts said the Tribune board never knew about Jittai, although the newsroom must have. And Gustus did say reporters were independently verifying Jittai's findings before publication.

"If the newsroom is compromised, why is anyone reading it?" Betts asked, rhetorically. "[The Tribune] won awards for their TestUtah stories. Does its chair believe those should be given back since the paper was compromised at the time? ... How about the journalists who won those awards?"

Betts said he stands by the Tribune's newsroom and believes in its integrity. But like the public, the readers and—probably—the Tribune newsroom's reporters, he wonders if Huntsman truly believes his staff wasn't up to the job or if he was looking for payback after Cox won election.

Questions aside, the fact remains that the man who may have saved The Salt Lake Tribune doesn't trust it.

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About The Author

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele

A City Weekly contributor since 1992, Katharine Biele is the informed voice behind our Hits & Misses column. When not writing, you can catch her working to empower voters and defend democracy alongside the League of Women Voters.

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