(I am writing short stories about some of the stories I have covered so far in my career as a broadcast journalist. Each one taught me something.)
According to one of the people I interviewed for a major investigation I did, I am a “blue-eyed traitor”. It was an accusation that led to the end of an interview session and a very tense, potentially dangerous next few hours. Threats against journalists are not a new phenomenon.
I first interviewed the grand dragon of the California Ku Klux Klan in the early 1980’s. That interview led to the realization that a new group was forming under the disguise of a pseudo religion. I was a reporter at KCBS in Los Angeles and we set out to expose them and their potentially dangerous tactics and methods.
The so-called Aryan Nation Church of Jesus Christ Christian was headquartered in Sandpoint, Idaho and was led by a man claiming to be a minister. Pastor Richard Butler set up a camp in the wilderness where followers could come for rifle target practice and meetings that were more like pep rallies. Their ranks were growing and branching out to states all over the west, including California.
I went to Idaho, along with a photographer and a producer. We checked into the Holiday Inn on the shores of Hayden Lake. We did not have an interview scheduled. The plan was to drive to the camp and talk our way in. The dirt road into the Aryan Nation camp was protected by a guard house and a gate. Standing next to the small shack was a guard carrying a semi-automatic rifle. A sign on the front of the gate said, “no Jews allowed”. It was clear this was not a friendly bunch. After a few minutes and some calls back and forth to the camp headquarters, we were turned away. We would not be allowed in. However, Pastor Butler agreed to meet with us and answer questions the next day in a room at the Holiday Inn in town. We agreed.
I had done plenty of confrontational interviews before, but this one would be different. We were on their turf and didn’t know if those around us at the hotel were part of the group. We kept a low profile in town that evening.
The next morning at breakfast it became clear we were being watched. We noticed several people in the hotel restaurant who were clearly there to keep an eye on us. About 10 am we got the call. Pastor Butler would meet us in room 1425 at 1 pm.
After lunch we took the elevator to the 14th floor. We had our camera gear and the notes and research we had worked on outlining the hateful and racist publications and teachings of the Aryan Nation. We wanted to find out just how dangerous this new group could become.
I am white. My producer was white and the photographer was white. According to the group’s teachings, of course, we were not the “enemy”. We were greeted by Pastor Butler. He looked like a grandfather. He was in his 60’s with white hair, wearing a dark suit. He handed me his card. It had the Aryan Nation symbol on it. He asked how we heard about his group and why we were interested. I told him about my interviews with the Klan in Los Angeles and we talked about the gang problem in the big cities of the west. It was benign conversation while our photographer set up his gear.
The interview began. We talked about the organization and Butler told us why he started the Aryan Nation church, as he called it. After about 10 minutes of general philosophy, I wanted to get to the meat of his philosophy. It was a hate group, but Butler claimed it was simply an organization to promote the ideals of white Americans.
I pulled out one of the flyers we had found posted on a telephone pole in the small community of Hayden Lake. It was clearly posted there to terrorize. It showed pictures of black people depicted as monkey’s. It showed caricatures of men with big noses with the words “kill the mongrel Jews”. It showed other pictures of Asians with their eyes exaggerated. One of the flyers headlines said, “don’t let these animals invade our town”.
I looked at him and held up the flyer. Pointing to it I said, “Pastor Butler, why do you hate blacks?”. He said he didn’t hate them. I said, “Why do you hate Jews?”. He said he didn’t, despite me holding up the flyer. So, I said, “Why do you hate Asians?” Again, he said “I don’t hate Asians”. He was clearing getting agitated. Finally, I said, “Well, I am looking at this flyer and it’s clear that you do. So, If you don’t hate blacks, Jews or Asians, who do you hate?”
There was a long pause. The armed men standing just outside of camera range began to inch toward Butler. I didn’t now if I had crossed a line. Butler leaned forward and said, “Who do I hate? I hate blue-eyed traitors like you. This interview is over”.
He stood up. The armed guards walked him to the door and he was gone. We were left in the room at the hotel with two other men with guns. Clearly, they were not happy about the way this had ended. They told us to pack up, now.
The ride down in the elevator was tense. The two men led us to the lobby and warned us to stay away from the camp. We were now the enemy of the Aryan Nation. I was the blue-eyed traitor. It would not be the end of my confrontations with members of this group.
We found out that day that racism has no color. It’s more about being an enemy and we became the enemy to a group of dangerous people. Butler had to know I was going to ask those questions. Turns out he didn’t really have to answer them. His actions spoke much louder.
(We found out about a year later that one of the armed men guarding Pastor Butler that day was later convicted of murdering Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg)