Eighteen Colorado politicians are threatening to use their power and influence to compel a small local newspaper to hire their preferred editor, to republish a column the paper pulled from its website, and to disclose the terms of a settlement the paper reached in a defamation lawsuit in June.
Failure to acquiesce to their demands, the politicians are warning, will cause them to use power to "pull advertisements and notices from the paper," to encourage local businesses to divest from the paper, and to refuse the paper access to local officials. The publisher of the paper, the Aspen Times, is pushing back, arguing that it is "shocking to see elected officials so brazenly threaten to use their positions of power to control a community newspaper."
The fracas comes in the wake of legal settlement between the paper and Russian-born billionaire Vladislav Doronin. Doronin sued the Times over its coverage of his purchase of a prime piece of land at the base of Aspen Mountain, which referred to him as an "oligarch" and suggested he is an ally of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.
The Times settled the dispute with Doronin out of court, agreeing to issue a correction to its coverage of the billionaire. Many defamation cases are settled out of court, and it's not uncommon for settlements to be kept private.
The lawmakers, however, say the newspaper's actions cast doubt over its "ability to freely achieve the high journalistic standards which you purportedly profess and which our community has come to expect of this local institution."
"We would like to see clear action," the lawmakers wrote in a June letter, including the "reinstatement of Andrew Travers as the editor in chief; republication of [Roger] Marolt's June 10 column … and public clarity about the settlement that was reached in Doronin's lawsuit." The signatories also accused the paper of censoring stories about Doronin's real estate acquisitions, which have been covered by other papers, including the Aspen Daily News.
The situation in Aspen is rare in the United States, where politicians generally avoid making explicit demands about the staffing and editorial decisions of media organizations. Polling has shown that Americans overwhelmingly support press freedom, despite their distrust of the media.
Of the people who signed the letter, at least 12 are Democrats, 3 are Republicans, and 3 appear to be unaffiliated.
Allison Pattillo, the publisher of the Times, rebuked attempts from government officials to control the press in the name of preserving freedom. "This chilling precedent is certainly not representative of our democracy nor the Aspen Idea our community touts," she wrote.
The letter's signatories include some ambitious Colorado politicians. Adam Frisch, a former Aspen city councilman, secured the Democratic nomination to run against Rep. Lauren Boebert (R., Colo.) in the 2022 midterm elections. "Protecting our Democracy" is one of the top priorities listed on Frisch's campaign website.
Democrats in recent years have condemned Republicans for allegedly eroding freedom of the press. The American Civil Liberties Union painted former president Donald Trump as the enemy of the free press. Several left-leaning publications said Trump was engaging in a prolonged assault on press freedom.
The letter's signatories did not respond to a request for comment.