By: M.L. Stein
DRIVE 30 MILES of bad road, pass two FBI roadblocks and then swelter in near-100-degree heat on a hilltop, waiting for something ? anything ? to happen.
That was the life of a swarm of print and broadcast journalists who covered the standoff between the FBI and the rebellious Freemen in Jordan, Mont., a hamlet that could almost serve as a setting (circa 1875) for a Western movie. No planes, trains or buses serve the community and the nearest town of any size is Miles City (pop. 10,000), 83 miles away.
Previously, journalists in Jordan had struggled through violent rain and snowstorms, which made the bumpy, potholed, gravel road to the lookout site even more dangerous. There were four vehicle accidents on the bone-jarring stretch, one of which killed an FBI agent.
And when night fell and work was done, what awaited them was a dusty community of 454 people with only one full-service restaurant ? which could charitably be called passable ? no physician or movie theater and two cow-town bars, where they could mingle amiably with FBI agents who, during the day, were about as communicative with the press as Gen. Eisenhower was just before D-Day.
And yet, reporters interviewed by E&P at the scene would not have been anywhere else. The Freemen holdout was a big story ? for some, the biggest they had ever covered.
“It was and is an important story,” said Howard Pankratz of the Denver Post, who had reported it for 41 days and has the sunburn to prove it.
“Yes,” added Tom Laceky of Associated Press, “but there were all kinds of frustrations. The FBI wouldn’t talk to us. They considered us just in their way. There was no one on the ground as an information source.”
“It seemed like a dumb way to run an operation,” said David Crisp of the Billings (Mont.) Gazette, which had staffed the story since February when the standoff started.
Deeann Glamser of USA Today, a veteran of the Ruby Ridge shootout and an earlier FBI confrontation with the Freemen at Roundup, Mont., last year, recalled: “It was easier [for the media] then.”
While not holding regular news conferences, agents did from time to time at Roundup call reporters over to their area for briefings, Glamser said.
On what became known as Media Hill, journalists relied on binoculars and telephoto lenses to glean whatever information they could through observing the Freemen settlement they called Justus Township.
Tara Wallis, a producer for a Washington state cable operation, did not have Glamser’s experience but got the Jordan assignment anyway.
“I’ve been out of journalism school for just a year. It was great,” she exclaimed.
CBS staffer Hunter Bloch, who rotated as the pool, long-range cameraman for CBS, NBC and ABC, took it all in stride, commenting: “It was just another story. I’ve been in this business 30 years and I’ve been on lots of big ones.” He chalked up 72 days on the Jordan job.
Media Hill was an area of high ground about two miles from the Freemen’s compound. There, CNN, CBS, AP Radio, AP and an assortment of newspaper reporters and photographers gathered to watch and wait. Hilltoppers included representatives of Reuters, Washington Post, New York Times, Rocky Mountain News, Germany’s Stern magazine, Sydney Morning Herald, AP Radio and Swedish and German television.
Huge vans and satellite-mounted trucks on the hill made for a startling change in the the high-plains landscape. Television cameras with powerful zoom lenses and night scopes were constantly trained on the Freemen’s compound, occasionally spotting negotiations between the FBI and the rebels outside the buildings.
Actually, there were two media hills. But one, a short distance from the other, was occupied solely by Fox News, whose presence cost the broadcasting company $10,000 a day, a staffer said.
Fox, like all the other media, paid ranchers hundreds of dollars to occupy the Media Hill site and hundreds more for housing their people.
Jordan has only two motels. Both were fully occupied by FBI and a few media. Townsfolk and ranchers rented out rooms and sometimes whole houses to media personnel. The rate per night, per room generally ran from $50 to $100, while houses rented for up to $600 a day.
CNN producer Susan Kroll believes the company got a good deal.
“For $100 a head, in our house we also got breakfast and lunch for 10 to 14 people, which was brought up to us on the hill every day,” she explained. “The guy who owns the home we were staying in said he would have lost the house to the bank if it hadn’t been for our revenue.”
The only rent Rick Mofina of the Calgary Herald paid was a flat $50 to park his camper on the hill. One of the Freemen holdouts was Dale Jacobi, a former Calgary cop.
The unofficial tallyman of the number of journalists who were covering the story or who had covered it was Joe Herbold, owner of the Hell Creek Bar, their favorite gathering place.
Herbold, a mustachioed barkeep with an attitude, asked each media patron to sign in on a list that grew to about 380 names of journalists who covered the story.
However, the proprietor who, by all appearances, raked in thousands of dollars from the influx, is not neccesarily a media fan. He banned the AP’s Laceky from the bar for several weeks because he didn’t like a part of one of the correspondent’s stories in which a local man was quoted as saying the community favored an FBI assault on the Freemen’s compound and that he “would like to see some blood flow.”
Laceky, who stands by the quotes, said Herbold eventually lifted the ban with the admonition that the reporter refrain from quoting anyone in the bar.
“That was fine with me,” Laceky said, chuckling. “I didn’t have time to go there anymore anyway.”
Herbold refused to be interviewed by this reporter and warned him not to interview anyone in the saloon, including other media members.
“People are in here to relax and enjoy themselves,” he continued. “If you break the rule, you’ll have to find yourself another home.”
He didn’t say anything about having conversations with customers.
On the other hand, Tom Fogel, who operates the competing Rancher’s Bar and Cafe, which did not nearly match Herbold’s traffic, thought the media were just fine, believing they were a factor in the continuing dialogue between the FBI and the Freemen that led to their surrender without a shot fired. “The media kept things cool,” he said.
Fogel’s one and only menu item, a six- or l0-ounce sirloin steak, was a popular item with journalists seeking a change from the aforementioned restaurant, the Q.D., a smoker’s paradise.
Fogel’s benign view of the press was shared by many Jordanites, a spot survey showed. Early anecdotal reports of local hostility toward them seemed unfounded.
“They [reporters] are human beings like everyone else,” said Patricia Clark, a middle-aged housewife, as she made her purchase at Jordan Drugs. “They have a job to do.”
Sipping a Coke at the store’s soda fountain, Father Michael Schneider, a circuit-riding priest who was celebrating mass that week at St. John the Baptist church, recalled: “Initially, there was some resentment in town over so many media coming in, but people adjusted. I think many of them realize it’s good to have other influences in the community.”
Druggist-owner John Fitzgerald scoffed at the notion that the press was not welcome.
“As far as I’m concerned, the press was never a problem,” he said.
A similar view was held by rancher Bill Dutton, who had dropped in to Fogel’s bar.
“The media didn’t bother me,” he said. “They were good for the town. And for the businesspeople, they were a gold mine.”
Another rancher, a woman in town with her two children, opined: “I’d say we all got along just fine.”
Her view seemed accurate. The media, FBI and the residents settled into a generally comfortable relationship. From their pickup trucks, the latter would wave cheerily to agents and journalists strolling the dirt streets. At the checkpoints, agents exchanged pleasantries with the reporters they recognized from previous crossings.
Unfortunately for the media, the agents’ good nature did not extend to giving out hard news.
At the FBI command post in the county fairgrounds, reporters were met at the gate ? they could go no farther ? by two agents, who said they were not authorized to give out any information. The agency’s Jordan spokesman was in Billings, l75 miles away, the media were told.
When the Freemen appeared in U.S. District Court June 14 in Billings, the FBI was no more forthcoming than it had been at Jordan, according to Laceky. However, Montana U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci held an impromptu press conference outside the courtroom following the hearing before a U.S. magistrate.
?(Wire service rivals Tom Lackey (left) of Associated Press, and Gene Laverty of Reuters scanned the Freemen compound for signs of activity.) [Photo & Caption]
?( USA Today’s Deam Glamser, covering the Freemen for the second time, prepares a story outside her Media Hill tent) [Photo & Caption]
? (The Hell Creek Bar was the home away from home for hundreds of journalists and FBI agents during the standoff) [Photo & Caption]
?( Main Street, Jordan, Mont.) [Photo & Caption]