By: M.L. STEIN
ABOMB EXPLOSION at the Spokane Spokesman-Review ? one of three recent bomb blasts in the city ? may be connected to the newspaper’s intense coverage of right-wing militia groups, its editor said.
The explosion at the Spokesman-Review’s Valley suburban office shredded a metal door, blew out windows and filled the building with smoke as employees dashed outside. No one was hurt.
“It rattled your teeth,” said advertising executive Sandy Anderson. “It felt like a sonic boom.”
Valley Voice editor Mike Schmeltzer recalled that the blast “lifted all 200 pounds of me out of my chair.”
Eleven minutes later, a similar device was detonated at a bank 30 blocks away as robbers made off with a reported $50,000.
The latest explosion on April 30 was a nail-filled bomb outside Spokane’s city hall. Later that day, a bomb scare was reported at the Ridpath, one of the city’s leading hotels.
Spokesman-Review editor Chris Peck noted that the Valley office incident followed the paper’s series, “The Ragged Edge,” about militia groups, survivalists and other anti-government radicals primarily in eastern Washington and Idaho.
Editors, reporters and photographers spent five months on the project, traveling more than 14,000 miles and interviewing more than 300 people, many of them hostile toward the media and government.
“I cannot say specifically that the bomb at our plant was tied to the series, but I believe we are on their [radicals’] radar screen,” Peck commented.
In any event, the Spokesman-Review has beefed up security by hiring extra guards and installing electronic entry devices and doors that can be automatically locked from the inside.
A typewritten note sealed in a plastic bag was found a few feet away from the newspaper office’s outside stairwell, where the bomb went off.
“It said something about this being a message from Yahweh,” said Valley operations manager Greg Bever. “It had a lot of religious quotes. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Yahweh is the name applied to God by certain religious-right groups. The term reportedly has been invoked by the so-called Freemen holed up in a Montana ranch in a standoff against the FBI.
A Spokesman-Review circulation worker discovered the bomb with its lighted fuse and yelled for another employee to call 911. It exploded a minute later.
Authorities said notes left at the Spokesman-Review and the bank suggested possible ties to radical Aryan militias, known as the Phineas Priesthood.
In its series, newspaper staffers interviewed an array of disaffected people: a man who said he prayed for President Clinton’s death, an individual who accused reporter Jeannette White of being a CIA agent, and militia units that would permit photos only if members were masked.
One self-styled “patriot” leader demanded that reporter Bill Morin sign a statement swearing he would convey his comments “without bias,” or accept the filing of liens against his home. Morin refused and was escorted out.
At the close of an interview, Idaho activist Gary DeMott warned reporter Jim Lynch that if he were misquoted, “I’ll own your newspaper.”
Spokesman-Review’s interactive editor, Rebecca Nappi, who has been running the paper’s civic [public] journalism project, told E&P that a major hurdle in “The Ragged Edge” series was overcoming the distrust of radical elements that had labeled the paper the “Socialist Review” for its perceived liberal, pro-government viewpoint.
Still, according to project editor Richard Wagoner, some media-wary sources were friendly and generous with their time, including one man who told a reporter on the phone: “Sure, come on up. We’ll put away the shotguns.”
However, the project did not go over well with some staff members, even after hours of discussion, Nappi said.
One photographer refused to shoot any pictures in connection with first-person articles solicited by the paper from interviewees. Others, she said, opted to cover the story only through conventional reporting.
“It was an emotional time for all of us,” said Nappi.
“We were out of our comfort zone, but these are important elements in our backyard.”
Several sources were given space to express their thoughts in first-person articles, among them a couple who advocated a county ordinance requiring a “gun and ammunition in every home.”
Peck said many readers with moderate views were disturbed by the series.
“Believe me, this series was not PR,” he went on in reference to a comment in a speech by New York Times managing editor Gene Roberts that public journalism was akin to public relations.
“The business and tourism community didn’t want to know about it. But we felt it helped build a sense of community for people who feel very alienated,” said Peck.
Added Nappi: “Did we succeed? We don’t know and may never know. But we all acknowledge that the journalists involved understand much better why and how the phenomenon arose. We won’t be as quick to label anti-government people as kooks or dismiss their views.”
The FBI has labeled the Spokane bombings as domestic terrorism and said at least four men carried out the acts, which remain unsolved.
On April 23, according to the Spokesman-Review which obtained a copy, the FBI sent out an “alert” to law enforcement agencies that there is a potential for further terrorism if the Montana standoff erupts into violence.
The bureau cited a militia “war warning” that lists “targets of opportunity,” including communications facilities, senior federal law enforcement officials and “selected news media.”