About the Threats to—Including the Killing of—Journalists

From CJR’s The Media Today by Jon Allsop:

ON SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, the body of Jeff German, an investigative reporter at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was found outside his home. He had been stabbed to death in an altercation nearly twenty-four hours earlier, police said. His colleagues’ first story on his killing detailed his long career (he was sixty-nine when he died) covering organized crime, gambling, mass shootings, and much more; recently, the story noted, he had “exposed failures in city inspections before the deadly Alpine Motel Apartments fire in 2019; claims of bullying, hostility and mismanagement at the Clark County’s public administrator’s office; and extremist activity in Southern Nevada.” Geoff Schumacher, who was one of German’s editors in his prior job at the Las Vegas Sunand now works for the city’s Mob Museum, told the Review-Journal that German “was not someone who it was, ‘Maybe I’ll be a reporter for a while and then I’ll go do something else.’ He was a reporter probably from birth to death. Ink was running very heavily in his veins.”

Last Monday, police released surveillance images of someone they thought may have been casing the area where German lived with a view to committing other crimes, though the suspect was hard to identify as they were wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat that shielded their face and a reflective orange jacket around their body. A pair of neighbors who were willing to talk to the Review-Journal(many wouldn’t) spoke of recent break-ins in the area and “weird people walking around in the middle of the night”; one said that the killing seemed like a “crime of opportunity,” while the other said that she thought the suspect’s straw hat looked familiar, but that she couldn’t be sure. On Tuesday, police released video footage of the suspect striding down a sidewalk and asked members of the public to notify them if they recognized anything about them, from their clothing to their gait. Officials also said that they had been investigating a string of local burglaries linked to someone in “construction attire,” though they did not definitively link that to German’s killing. And they issued a photo of a vehicle they thought might be connected to the case: a red-ish GMC Yukon Denali.

German’s former colleagues at the Review-Journal quickly located a parked vehicle matching that description using Google Maps, then went to check it out in person. It was being washed by Robert Telles—the same Clark County public administrator in whose office German had recently exposed claims of bullying, hostility, and mismanagement. After that, things moved fast. Early on Wednesday morning, police searched Telles’s home and questioned him. Early on Wednesday afternoon, they towed the vehicle away from his property. A couple hours later, Telles returned home in flip-flops and what looked like a white hazmat suit, ignoring questions from reportersDid you do this?; Can you tell us anything?—as he ducked inside under a garage door. On Wednesday evening, police arrested Telles on suspicion of murder, and a Review-Journal photographer captured a shot of him being carried from his home on a stretcher and into a waiting ambulance. Officials said later that he had cut his own arms. They also said that they’d found incriminating evidence at his home, including pieces of a straw hat. Telles’s DNA was found at the crime scene, too. It was under German’s fingernails.

On Thursday, at a court hearing, Telles was denied bail and prosecutors started to lay out a case against him, arguing that German’s journalism had ruined his career and, probably, his marriage, and that Telles had “lashed out.” (Formal charges will likely follow this week.) German had first reported on Telles in May, detailing allegations of a toxic atmosphere in his office including an alleged disruptive and inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, evidence of which had secretly been captured on videotape. Telles, a Democrat, was soon to face a primary challenge, and responded to German’s story by trashing it in a letter posted to his campaign website, referring snidely to “the writer’s skill at pushing buttons.” Telles went on to lose the primary to his top deputy, who had been one of German’s sources for his initial story. As German continued to cover Telles, Telles continued to rail against him on social media, accusing German of trying to “smear” him. When he was killed, German was still waiting on public-records requests that he’d filed for messages that Telles had sent.

As German’s killing has sunk in, journalists and press-freedom advocates, both locally and nationally, have started to explore its implications—it came, after all, against a backdrop of rising threats to the US news media, supercharged by Donald Trump’s journalist-bashing rhetoric. At a press conference on Thursday, a reporter asked the Clark County sheriff whether he would condemn Trump’s “normalization of violence against journalists”; the sheriff said that it would be “inappropriate” for him to do so in such a setting, but he did describe the killing of a journalist as “troublesome.” The Review Journal ran a story noting that the killing had drawn “national attention and renewed concern about attacks on journalists”; the story quoted the Nevada Press Association as saying that its members “face threats every day for doing their job.” The LA Times wrote that the killing was a “shocking example” that “seemed to many in the news business to epitomize an increasingly perilous environment for their work.” NPR’s Michel Martin noted that US journalists often receive death threats, even if killings of journalists remain rare.

Rare, but far from unheard of: at least thirty-nine journalists have been killed in the US (by the National Press Club’s count) dating back to at least 1837, when a pro-slavery mob in Illinois murdered Elijah Parish Lovejoy, an abolitionist writer and publisher, and tossed his printing press in a river. More recently, in 1970, a law-enforcement officer in Los Angeles fired a tear-gas projectile while covering protests against the Vietnam War, killing Ruben Salazar, a reporter and columnist for the LA Times; six years later, Don Bolles, a reporter at the Arizona Republic, was killed in a car bombing that was initially pinned on the mob but subsequently linked to a land fraud scheme and a local businessman (though the latter was never charged). Between 1981 and 1990, five Vietnamese American journalists working for publications aimed at refugees were killed in what the FBI suspected was a series of assassinations ordered by a group led by former South Vietnamese military officials, though no arrests were made and the killings fell off the public radar. In 1991, two pro-democracy Haitian radio broadcasters, Jean-Claude Olivier and Fritz D’Or, were killed within a few weeks of each other in Miami. Two years later, Dona St. Plite, another Haitian journalist in Miami, was killed at a benefit event for D’Or.

Since 1992, when the Committee to Protect Journalists started tallying the killings of media workers around the world, it has recorded sixteen such cases on US soil, thirteen of which are listed as “motive confirmed” (including German’s). In 2007, Chauncey Bailey, the editor of the Oakland Post in California, was fatally shot while he was walking to work; three people connected with a business called Your Black Muslim Bakery, which Bailey had been investigating, were convicted of his murder. In 2015, Alison Parker, a reporter at a TV station in Virginia, and Adam Ward, her cameraman, were shot live on air by a former station staffer. In 2018, a gunman murdered five staffers in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette, in Maryland. He had previously sued the paper over its routine coverage of criminal charges against him.

Following the latter shooting, Patt Morrison wrote, for the LA Times, that “the targeted killing of journalists is something we think of as happening elsewhere,” namechecking Mexico and Russia as examples, among other countries. This view has always been partial and naïve, about both America’s own historic capacity for anti-press violence (including that perpetrated by agents of the state) and manifestations of other countries’ deleterious media environments to spill over onto US soil. As I wrote two months ago, the killing of journalists in Mexico, while greatly more common than that of journalists in the US, is, at least in some small way, also a US issue, given that some of those targeted have been killed very close to the US border, and either covered it or worked on either side of it; since then, another journalist was found dead just over the border from Arizona. Ultimately, it’s a limited view, at the very least, to see press threats in the US as having escalated from a healthy pre-Trump baseline and to see German’s killing as an outgrowth of this escalation, especially when there’s so much we still don’t know about his case.

And yet, context matters—and we are living through a period of escalation driven in large part by Trump and his acolytes, who have moved seething hatred of the press closer to the heart of a political agenda with significant national power. It’s well-established that physical violence has flowed from, or in parallel with, Trump’s rhetoric; Cesar Sayoc, a Trump superfan, did not end up killing anyone when he mailed pipe bombs to perceived Trump critics, including the offices of CNN, in 2018, but his stunt was plenty frightening nonetheless. Whatever a given assailant’s motives, the fact that minds reasonably jump to Trumpian rhetoric when violence is visited on members of the press is testament to the violence of that rhetoric, as I wrote in the aftermath of the Capital Gazette shooting. After the killing of German, Bob Early, an editor who worked with Bolles at the Arizona Republic in the seventies, told the LA Times that such attacks were more of an anomaly back then, and that today, he sees a “whole society turning violent.”

For as long as journalists have held power to account, there have been violent people who have wanted to silence or punish them for it. Those people don’t live in a vacuum, but within a culture—and right now, American culture is increasingly permissive of the demonization and dehumanization of the press. Most threats to journalists don’t cross the line into physical violence or murder, but the more threats there are, the likelier violence becomes. Again, it’s hard, or at least too soon, to say where exactly Telles fits in this broader story. But we can say for certain that he has contributed to the culture of demonization; it’s written through his posts about German. “Typical bully,” Telles wrote on June 25. “Can’t take a pound of critism [sic] after slinging 100 pounds of BS. Up to article #4 now. You’d think he’d have better things to do.

More on Telles, German, and press threats in the US:

  • Telles: On Friday, the Review-Journal’s Michael Scott Davidson and Arthur Kane shared more background on Telles and the short-term consequences he now faces, beyond murder charges. Nevada’s state bar “has received three complaints about Telles since he took office as the county’s public administrator in January 2019,” cautioning him later that year following a complaint that he dropped a client too close to a hearing, Davidson and Kane report. The bar will now request that Nevada’s Supreme Court suspend Telles’s law license. Despite his arrest, he remains in post as Clark County’s public administrator, though county officials have revoked his access to county property and removed his entries from its website as it explores its broader legal options.
  • German: Rhonda Prast, an assistant managing editor at the Review-Journal, told the LA Times’s James Rainey and Brittny Mejia that the paper has committed to finishing at least two investigative stories that German was still working on at the time of his death. The commitment mirrors, to some extent, what happened after Bolles was killed in the seventies, when reporters and editors belonging to the group Investigative Reporters & Editors teamed up to continue his work, eventually publishing some two dozen stories under the banner of the “Arizona Project.” (In 2017, I wrote about this project in the context of a new, French-based initiative to pick up threatened reporters’ work.)
  • “MURDER THE MEDIA”: On Friday, Nicholas Ochs and Nicholas DeCarlo, two members of the extremist group the Proud Boys, pleaded guilty to charges of obstructing an official proceeding that stemmed from their participation in the riot at the US Capitol on January 6. They will be sentenced in December. According to CNN, Ochs and DeCarlo founded an online group with the name “Murder the Media,” a slogan that DeCarlo infamously scrawled in marker on a door in the Capitol during the insurrection.
  • Some good news: Last week, a judge in Oregon finally dismissed charges filed against April Ehrlich, a reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting, after she was arrested while covering police evicting unhoused campers from a public park two years ago. The journalist said that the charges were unconstitutional. Last year, I reported on Ehrlich’s case as one of more than a dozen that were still pending against journalists nationwide stemming from arrests made in 2020. (Ehrlich has herself written for CJR, about whether reporting on wildfire preparedness is a waste of time. You can read her article here.)

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