Summer 2006 Issue
Reflections on Courage
A Local Newspaper Endures a Stormy Backlash
'We had the opportunity to tell the story of powerless people who'd been hurt by powerful people who counted on the public never learning what they'd done.'
By Dean Miller
Some days we felt like one of those plucky anglers in a small boat who solidly hooks a halibut, only to be beaten to death by the thrashing brute when it's hauled aboard. The Post Register
is a wee dory of a newspaper: With 26,000 daily circulation, it's not buoyed by any corporate chain and has an opinion page often reviled in this livid corner of reddest Idaho for its reliable dissent.
Last year, by exposing Boy Scout pedophiles and those who failed to kick them out of the scouting program, we energized three of our community's big forces against us, including those most able to punish our newspaper -- the community's majority religion, the richest guys in town, and the conservative machine that controls Idaho.
First came the tip: A pedophile caught at a local scout camp in 1997 had not had two victims, as we reported at the time; he had dozens. When we went to the courthouse to look for the civil suit filed by these victims, the clerks (and the computers) said there was no such case. We later learned that the national Boy Scouts of America and its local Grand Teton Council had hired two of Idaho's best-connected law firms to seal the files and hide what came to be known as the Brad Stowell case.
The Post Register
went to court in late 2004, and by January 2005 we'd dragged the case file into the light of day and read it from beginning to end. Turns out that as early as 1991 scout leaders had been warned about Stowell; they hired him again anyway.
The Post Register's front page on the second day of its six-day series.
Top-level local and national leaders of the Mormon Church, which sponsors almost all Grand Teton Council scout troops, had also been warned, but to no effect. From these files we learned that while under investigation Stowell confessed his problem to his bishop in 1988 and had been sent to church counselors for sex abuser treatment. Seven years later, this bishop told scout executives he knew of no reason Stowell should not be a scout camp leader. The files also showed lawyers for the Boy Scout organization knew about more victims, but never told those boys' parents. The victims were probably asleep at the time, one lawyer said, and even if not, it was a bad memory best ignored.
In February 2005, the Post Register
launched a six-day series. The first day's story featured 14-year-old camper, Adam Steed, who forced adult leaders to call the cops on Stowell.
Steed was the son of a Mormon seminary teacher and a cinch to become an Eagle Scout. But he'd quit scouting and school; instead of being praised for his efforts to stop Stowell from harming others, scout leaders and fellow scouts had shunned him for bringing down this man whom they described as charming and accomplished.
The Backlash Begins
Rank-and-file church members were among the first to complain: "Are you a Christian?" a woman in her 70's hissed across the newsroom conference table at me Monday morning, as she quoted from scripture. Why had the paper dredged up this story, she wanted to know.
"The rest of the boys want justice," I replied.
"Tell 'em to get over it," she snarled. "Just tell 'em 'tough!'"
If hers represented the voice of our community, stormy weather was ahead. Though our stories were aimed at decisions made by the Grand Teton Council (which at 30,000 members is bigger than our newspaper's readership), some Mormon church members characterized our coverage as an attack on their faith. "The Church," as it's known here, dominates eastern Idaho even more than it does Salt Lake City. Some counties that our newspaper serves are more than 70 percent Mormon, and for generations scouting has been the official youth program for Mormon boys. More than 90 percent of the troops in our local Grand Teton Council are sponsored by Mormon congregations.
For four generations, the Post Register
has been controlled by the Brady family, Irish Catholics, and Democrats, so there are readers who imagine liberal papists on every beat. They are encouraged in this belief by some local politicians and businessmen who benefit from making the paper Mormon Republicans' straw man. Even with careful editing to preserve only germane mentions of religious affiliation, we knew that some talk-radio hosts would start banging the "Post Register
is anti-Mormon" drums.
The drums banged, and we were flooded with calls and e-mails and letters to the editor from readers who told us that holding the Grand Teton Council accountable was Mormon-bashing. We responded to every call, letter and e-mail we received. The backlash came from advertisers, too. One of our big advertising accounts, a man who runs a furniture store, demanded an explanation and angrily informed me Stowell was a fine young man wrongly accused. Other advertisers just cancelled their ads, vowing never to return.
It's one thing to lose an account when you're an employee. It's quite another when you're also a stockholder; 140 employees hold close to 49 percent of the company's stock. For many families, this is their retirement. Many of them have been scouts or scout leaders, and at least a third are Mormon. Even non-newsroom staff were catching heat about the series at church gatherings and scout meetings. Even so, throughout this time most of what I heard inside our building were words of support.
With each additional day of the series, economic pressure built. Publisher Roger Plothow wrote an open letter to readers in which he criticized scout executives' decisions and said these stories were a victory for open public records. He was unapologetic and reminded readers he grew up Mormon and proudly claims the rank of Eagle Scout. A lot of what is popularly called courage is simple integrity. Plothow, by standing up with a stoic and clear-eyed defense, spoke for us, but also for the values of journalism.
Attacks Get Personal
One month after the series ran, Stowell, who had served a brief jail term for his scout camp predations, violated his parole and was sent to prison for two to 14 years. Around this same time, Grand Teton Council staff had been telling volunteer scoutmasters that the stories were all lies cobbled together by a gay reporter on a vendetta against the Boy Scouts. Our reporter, Peter Zuckerman, was not "out" to anyone but family, a few colleagues at the paper (including me), and his close friends. When the magnitude of the story became evident, I vetted him thoroughly, making sure he had not been active in the debate over gay scouts and had not been kicked out of a troop.
Peter's personal life and the series itself went under the microscope in June when a local multimillionaire, Frank VanderSloot, began buying full-page critical ads in our Sunday paper. He devoted several paragraphs to establishing that Zuckerman is gay. He noted the Mormon Church opposes gay marriage and that the Boy Scouts no longer allow gay men to lead troops, but briefly added: "We think it would be very unfair for anyone to conclude that is what is behind Zuckerman's motives."
A local business man, Frank VanderSloot, bought full-page ads to criticize the paper's reporting on the Boy Scout story.
Strangers started ringing Peter's doorbell at midnight. His partner of five years was fired from his job. Despite the harassment, Peter kept coming to work and chasing down leads on other pedophiles in the Grand Teton Council, while continuing to cover his courts and cops beat. I spoke at his church one Sunday and meant it when I said that I hope my son grows into as much of a man as Peter had.
The local Boy Scout executive had declared Stowell was the only child molester he'd discovered in the Grand Teton Council. But by midsummer, the paper was hunting for documentation on a dozen leaders whom victims and their families had identified to us as pedophiles. Meanwhile, the Post Register
kept on printing VanderSloot's ads, even when they included serious mischaracterizations, errors of fact, and glaring omissions, such as the fact that the Boy Scouts' national staffer in charge of youth protection had just pleaded guilty to trading in child pornography. VanderSloot said his ads, which he labeled "The Community Page," were intended to bolster people who were too scared of the mighty Post Register
to speak up.
But no one who was named in our articles asked for a correction, retraction or clarification. They couldn't and still had not a year later. The stories were based on information in deposition transcripts found in the secret lawsuit file. Not satisfied with the impact of his ads, VanderSloot demanded a debate. Insiders had warned us not to pick fights with VanderSloot. He owns an international multilevel marketing/health products company, Melaleuca, Inc., and often threatens to start a rival newspaper. But we felt we couldn't run away from this challenge, so we agreed to two half-hour debates on a local TV station.
A few minutes into the debate it became clear to me that VanderSloot had not, as I had, read the entire case file or even the most significant depositions. Broad assertions that had been prepared for him by a young lawyer fell apart in the face of details from the court record. The day after the first debate aired, the Post Register
published documentation that at least two other pedophiles had preyed on Grand Teton Council scouts, including a vicious child rapist who had been reported to the Grand Teton Council in the 1980's, convicted in Utah, and was now back at work for the council. Two weeks later, we documented another pedophile in the council. In this case, his criminal file had been sealed and hidden.
By now the paper had secured evidence of four recent pedophiles in the local scout council, about as many documented cases as the 500,000-member Catholic diocese of Boston when that scandal erupted in The Boston Globe.
Losing the Company President's Support
Full-page VanderSloot ads kept arriving -- a half dozen in all. The last declared victory. His words weren't hurting our circulation -- which was rising -- but we were growing tired of the smear campaign. VanderSloot did score a victory in the fall. In the September 23rd Post Register
, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brady published an open letter headlined with Will Rogers' quip: "The only thing wrong with Boy Scouts is there aren't enough of them." Brady recited a litany of the benefits of scouting, pledged his and his wife's support, and said "We regret any negativity that might be associated with the great Boy Scouts organization ... the entire community should support the scouts."
Brady is the president of the Post Company and serves as chairman of its board. Religion, "big" money, and the conservative movement's rabid protection of local scout leaders had gotten to our boss.
Now the newsroom was really on its own as we started to cover the lobbying campaign of Paul Steed, father of the boy who forced the Grand Teton Council to turn Stowell over to the cops. The elder Steed had quit his Mormon Church job to push for changes in Idaho law. He was the kind of divisive force that Brady scolded in his campaign ad. But then Idaho surprised us. When the Republican-dominated legislature convened in January, a sympathetic legislator introduced the Steed family's proposal. A flinching and at times tearful house committee heard the awful stories in testimony from the wounded boys and their parents. The lawmakers unanimously voted to do away with the statute of limitations on child molestation, and the governor signed the bill into law with the Steeds and Jeff Bird, another scout victim, standing by. The house committee chairman wrote to the Grand Teton Council to ask why its leader had not been fired.
What Courage Means
Judges called the Post Register
's coverage of this story "courageous" when they awarded it the Scripps Howard First Amendment prize. That's a hard word for those of us at the paper to wear comfortably. After all, we'd witnessed the courage of Adam Steed and his younger brother, Ben, and Jeff Bird when, as grown men, they went public in the paper and revealed humiliating details of what had been done to them at scout camp. Even now, we fear for them and their families, as VanderSloot's full-page attack ads continue.
But was what any of us did courageous? With no corporate bankroll to fall back on and coping with the pressures any newspaper publisher faces today, our publisher, Roger Plothow, took lonely risks to uphold the principle of open government. In doing so, he gave victims the opportunity they needed to speak out against those who had harmed them. By his example, Plothow stiffened the spines of minority stockholders (many of whom are staff members at the paper), who stood firm.
Laboring in obscurity, and without resources their peers at larger papers have, community journalists often end up dreaming small. But my 34 colleagues at the Post Register
-- in particular the cadre of editors who have worked together for a decade and lead a largely entry-level staff -- refused to pull back in the face of much opposition. They were dogged in their work until the victims' stories -- and the aftermath of their telling -- were complete. Peter Zuckerman, in particular, persevered despite repeated threats that were inflamed by a carefully orchestrated ad hominem attack on him and his work.
One of the sweeter moments of our year occurred when we received figures from our circulation audit. While the sales numbers of other U.S. newspapers were in free fall, we were among the nation's faster growing daily papers. For us, these numbers testified to the value of fortitude. Publishing uncomfortable truths needn't be an act of hot-blooded courage; it should be a cool-headed exercise in focus: Find the civic heart of a story, steer a steady course to it, and serve the public's legitimate interests in openness and justice. Do that and, even when the story rocks your boat, trust that the waves won't capsize it.
Dean Miller is executive editor of the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho. For his work on this series, Peter Zuckerman won the Livingston Award in the category of local reporting, a prize recognizing the nation's best journalists under the age of 35.