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Chasing Jon Huntsman Jr. in Russia and Utah

Inside the newsroom last week our analytics team watched as readers across Utah, the nation and overseas discovered the compelling profile of former Utah governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. by Deseret News journalist Jesse Hyde.

This was more than a profile of an individual. It was a behind-the-scenes, in-depth look into pivotal relations between the U.S. and Russia from inside the embassy and Spaso House, the Moscow residence of Ambassador to Russia Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye.

"In the beginning it was simply that I was hoping for some level of clarity on what exactly the relationship is between (President) Donald Trump and (Russian President) Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin," Hyde told me this week, as we discussed the strong reaction to his story. "The more information we get the more confusing it becomes. So here's this guy who is at the center of the storm. If there is anybody who can provide some clarity, maybe it's him."

What emerges is a compelling look at what motivates Jon Huntsman to serve both Republican and Democratic presidents, and perhaps more importantly, the state of affairs between the United States and Russia during the Trump presidency.

Major news outlets picked up information and linked to the piece, most notably the cancer diagnosis which Huntsman revealed to Hyde toward the end of the week he and Deseret News photojournalist Ravell Call spent in Moscow. The Washington Post, ABC News, CNN, Politico, Slate and Fox News, among others, reported on the piece.

So did Sputnik News.

Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. and his wife Mary Kaye are interviewed at the Spaso House in Moscow, Russia on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. and his wife Mary Kaye are interviewed at the Spaso House in Moscow, Russia on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

We saw, as Huntsman himself predicted, the story brought strong reader interest out of Russia. Huntsman's insights carry great weight around the world, including his views on Russian spying, intimidation, the work of the intelligence agencies of both the United States and Russia, and what the risks are for interference in this week's coming midterm elections.

One interesting take on the story came from The Daily Beast, which wrote a story about the Deseret News piece noting the following: "Trump's 'Sane' Man in Moscow: A Speed Read of the Craziest Bits in the Jon Huntsman Profile."

We created a similar piece (though not referred to as "the craziest bits"), in addition to a question-and-answer piece that we ran with the lengthy profile. We wanted to give our writers the freedom to go in-depth and capture the nuances of a subject, which at times results in a 5,000- to 6,000-word story, as this one was. But we also understand that not everyone will take the time to digest such a story.

So under the direction of Hyde, Herb Scribner, who writes stories and manages analytics for our in-depth team, put together "Jon Huntsman Jr. has cancer, and six other things we learned in our exclusive profile," noting the key revelations in the piece for those readers who did not have time to read the entire profile.

Here we noted more quickly the takeaways: The cancer diagnosis, details on Russian election meddling, whether Huntsman considered resigning his position, cyberwarfare, the midterm elections, any possible future run for the presidency, and thoughts on the next presidential election.

The Q and A helped us understand more deeply Huntsman's views on his father and Donald Trump, both described as men who understand power and how to wield it. But it also showed tender moments and the struggle it is to maintain a personal life while making decisions that have global public impact:

Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. and his wife Mary Kaye are interviewed at the Spaso House in Moscow, Russia on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. and his wife Mary Kaye are interviewed at the Spaso House in Moscow, Russia on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

Hyde asked Huntsman: You lost your father earlier this year. How has that affected you?

Huntsman responded: "My dad was my best friend. I think about him every day. He called me one day and he said, 'I'm done. I'm going to start hospice care.' He had been in pain and suffering a lot. I didn't know what to do. So my best friend in life is telling me this is it. He's going to go to hospice care and that will be the beginning of the end. Some last a few days in hospice and some last a few months. I knew my dad. When you make a decision you go. You pursue it with everything you've got and I knew from that point that he'd made that decision.

"I kind of pleaded with him, 'Give it more time.' I said, 'I don't know what I'll be able to do losing a best friend, to say nothing of a dad,' and it was hard because I knew it wasn't a private conversation. I knew I had people tuning in, so it's hard to know what you can say to your own dad without getting too personal. The phones are pretty routinely monitored (by Russian surveillance) and it inhibits your flow of conversation."

In a Deseret News exclusive, reporter Jesse Hyde and photojournalist Ravell Call went to Moscow to meet with U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. In a series of conversations, Huntsman reveals what happened immediately after the Helsinki summit, the tens

The visuals provided by long-time photojournalist Ravell Call included a video posing certain questions and offering yet another opportunity to understand the role of the Huntsmans in Russia. We were prohibited from shooting video of our interviews with the ambassador, but Call's pictures tell the story of life under watch in Russia, including a very telling shot of the Huntsmans and their youngest daughter out walking under the protection of two very large body guards.

So is Jon Huntsman Jr. "The last statesman" as our headline suggests? In a time of heightened partisanship he seems to be unique. The work of both Jesse Hyde and Ravell Call, and all the others here at the Deseret News who helped pull this content together, offer readers a chance to make their own evaluations.