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Opinion Salt Lake Tribune alerts police to threats to staffers after covid-19 editorial

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his 2022 State of the State address in the House Chamber at the Utah Capitol on Jan. 20 in Salt Lake City. (Leah Hogsten/Salt Lake Tribune/AP)
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The Salt Lake Tribune alerted police to threats that the newspaper received after publishing a Jan. 15 editorial that ripped state leaders for their response to covid-19, according to an email from executive editor Lauren Gustus to subscribers. “Sean Hannity and FoxNews — in addition elected leaders in Utah — talked about the editorial, and we received dozens of threats. Some went to every journalist at The Tribune,” Gustus wrote.

The editorial — “Utah leaders have surrendered to COVID pandemic” — criticized Gov. Spencer Cox (R) and state epidemiologist Leisha Nolen for their handling of a test shortage. “We’re recommending people who have symptoms, they really should stay home, act as if they have covid and not necessarily need to go get tested,” Nolen said at a Jan. 14 news conference.

Although the Tribune praised Cox and other leaders for urging citizens to get vaccinated, it wrote that they “have so proudly stood against the kind of vaccine mandates that civilized society has used for generations to effectively wipe out everything from polio to diphtheria to the measles.”

To all that, the editorial attached a nutty idea: “Were Utah a truly civilized place, the governor’s next move would be to find a way to mandate the kind of mass vaccination campaign we should have launched a year ago, going as far as to deploy the National Guard to ensure that people without proof of vaccination would not be allowed, well, anywhere,” reads the editorial. Governors have used the National Guard to enforce curfews and otherwise patrol areas where unrest has taken root; the National Guard deployed for months in D.C. after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

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There’s a difference, however, between securing the Capitol perimeter and restricting freedom of movement across a state measuring nearly 85,000 square miles. How would the plan even work?

“Wow. That’s tyranny, authoritarianism, you name it, and downright terrifying,” Hannity said on his Jan. 18 program.

Dwight Stirling, chief executive of the Center for Law and Military Policy, tells the Erik Wemple Blog via email that no governor could deploy the National Guard to restrict the movement of unvaccinated people. “This would constitute an extraordinary imposition of martial law, one of the most extreme in American history (if not the most extreme),” Stirling writes. “There is nothing in federal or state law that allows National Guard personnel to restrict civilians’ freedom of movement outside of a major civil disturbance.”

According to Gustus, the majority of the threats received by Tribune reporters were not local. Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson tweeted about the piece, and that’s when “it took off,” says Gustus, referring to the backlash. A couple of the threats were severe enough that the paper sent them to the Salt Lake City police department. A spokesperson with the department told the Erik Wemple Blog that she would get back to us if there’s anything to report. The newspaper also brought “abusive followers” to the attention of Twitter.

Gustus tweeted after the editorial was published:

In her letter to subscribers, Gustus wrote, “I was called a c***, told to ‘step into the gas chamber,’ and told not step out of ‘that ivory tower’ so I don’t land near the woman writing to me.”

At a Jan. 6 protest at the Utah Capitol, Salt Lake Tribune photographer Rick Egan was pepper-sprayed by a protester, who had taunted him by saying, “Look at you in your f---ing mask, you p---y.” Gustus wrote, “Rick has worked for The Tribune for more than 36 years. He’s the photographer who shows up at an event on his day off because he believes so deeply in what he does.”

The Tribune has devoted more time and funds to security precautions in recent months, according to Gustus. One of her concerns is that staffers’ addresses and other personal information might linger on the Internet, so the newspaper has advised them to engage services that scrub that material from public view and expense the cost to the newspaper. She has also had conversations with some reporters about enhancing security at their homes.

The Tribune in 2019 switched to nonprofit status after finding itself in a “precarious” financial position. Last November, Gustus declared the paper “sustainable” and noted that the newsroom was 23 percent bigger than a year before. In her letter to subscribers, Gustus included a donation appeal. “And so despite the death threats, we will continue to serve as a check against those in power. Every day. Our resolve is stronger than ever,” she wrote.

“Misinformation is seeping down into the cracks of our daily lives because of what’s happened over the past two years,” Gustus told the Erik Wemple Blog, “and we’ve got to be stronger than ever in our resolve to do local journalism.”