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Journalists blow the Bundy story

There are flaws in news coverage. By its very nature, conflict is news and normality is not. We don’t report the banks that have not been robbed each day.

Most Nevada ranchers go about their business day by day, year by year, paying their grazing fees and abiding by the law even when they oppose it. They’re not news. But a scofflaw such as Cliven Bundy is, so the exception gets all the ink and air time. It distorts the view the public gets of ranchers.

Another flaw is the lack of context and background in our stories. For instance, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller and Republican attorney general candidate Adam Laxalt, in supporting Bundy’s conduct, faulted the way the Bureau of Land Management used what they both called “military style” force in confiscating Bundy’s cattle after he refused to pay his grazing fees. Actually, it was more “special weapons and tactics” force, and reporters failed to put into context why the BLM acted as it did.

For 20 years there has been an anti­federal campaign going on in this state, with Bundy helping to lead it. During those 20 years U.S. Forest Service and BLM offices in Nevada have been bombed, and there also have been other instances of lesser violence and harassment.

Why didn’t reporters include that information in their coverage of the Laxalt/Heller statements so the public would have some context to judge their comments? It’s particularly important in a state such as Nevada where population turnover is so rapid.

Another example of lack of context: Gov. Brian Sandoval and innumerable others faulted the BLM for providing free expression areas out of the areas of risk. In coverage of those complaints, where was the exploration of what free expression areas are all about?

For instance, in 2004 George W. Bush used the Secret Service for political purposes at the Republican National Convention, where it confined protesters to a caged free speech area that was out of line of sight of the convention (the Democrats did something similar). Sandoval, then state attorney general — he apparently believed in enforcing the law back then — was there. Indeed, he spoke to the convention. And he never said word one about the free speech area. His indignation applies only when his political allies are being inconvenienced.

The Berkeley Free Speech movement in 1964 was about a free speech zone. There’s a free speech zone next to the children’s fountain in downtown Sparks. The Virginia Community College System last week agreed to get rid of its free speech zones. The College of Southern Nevada has this in its campus rules: “Campaign signs and handbills … may be distributed by hand outdoors in the Free Speech Area only.” Until recently there was a free speech area at Mount Rushmore.

There are free speech zones across the nation. They’re also set up for reporters in hazardous situations such as wildfires.

In the 1950s reporters were confined to a site on the Nevada Proving Ground called “News Knob” during atomic tests. Conservatives invented free speech zones. Generally, only liberals objected. Now because one is pinching them, their consciousness has suddenly been raised. Where was this kind of information to provide context for readers and viewers?

Another instance: Conservatives did not speak with one voice. Conservative leaders were split on Bundy. Charles C.W. Cooke of the National Review (the magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr.) wrote that the United States doesn’t stop being a nation of laws and not of men just “because one of those men happens to have an agreeable tale, a photogenic complaint, and a romantic genealogical past.” Yet innumerable reporters portrayed this as a liberal vs. conservative dispute.

Then there’s the flaw in journalism of letting players or interest groups write our stories for us. In his many previous controversies, Bundy was always described as a rancher. For instance, in a March 2002 Associated Press story about the sentencing of one of his cronies, Bundy was described as “a Clark County rancher.”

But in the current dispute, Bundy has been described by reporter after reporter as a “Mormon rancher.” If he were a Catholic or Jew, can anyone imagine a responsible reporter using the adjective? The Bundy family’s religion is irrelevant to this story, but some of the players in this controversy have pushed the usage because it serves to slant the story in a fashion they want.

A final flaw — where was the exploration by reporters of the implications of a lawbreaker receiving acclaim from a small but militant group? Jamelle Bouie of Slate asked what the reaction of Bundy’s supporters would be if the ranch was owned by African-Americans. Would the Bundyites “applaud black militiamen aiming their guns at white bureaucrats?”

Take it further — if these were student radicals ignoring court rulings and defying law officers, would Bundy’s supporters cheer them on?

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.