In his column last Thursday Bulletin reporter Steve Nash expressed his frustration - no his disgust - with the national media. The Associated Press was singled out specifically. Lest one think that this is a case of envy or sour grapes because Nash practices his craft at a small community daily newspaper, consider the following.
A program on the agenda of the West Texas Press Association meeting last weekend was titled “When a Local Story Goes National.” The presenters were Randy Mankin, owner of the Eldorado Success and Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran. The program was fascinating and extremely timely. A Texas grand jury was scheduled to meet the following Tuesday and indictments were expected to be handed down.
If you look up the staff box in the Success, you will notice that Mankin not only owns the paper, he is the publisher and editor, and his wife, Kathy is the ad manager and photographer. That is the staff. Oh, their son J.L. helps out some with photos when he is available. Since 2004 the Mankins have been tracking the development of the Yearning For Zion Ranch. The saga for the newspaper began with a bizarre telephone call they received one evening from a woman named Flora Jessop. It seems a large land purchase in the county that residents and the newspaper thought was going to be for a hunting preserve was, according to the woman, slated to be the new home for members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Over the past four years, the Success has chronicled the massive construction of an entire community on the ranch. They have kept readers informed of developments like the building and permitting of a water plant that is larger and better than the one the city has in Eldorado. They published photos of the rock quarry where residents mine and crush their own road base, grain storage structures meant to feed people, not livestock, numerous large housing units and a temple that is larger than the world famous tabernacle in Salt Lake City.
Sheriff Doran said his department’s approach from the beginning was to greet them as West Texans, establish contact and to stay connected with them. He said the inhabitants of the ranch are reclusive, extremely secretive and deceptive. The ranch is completely surrounded by security fencing and surveillance vehicles patrol it regularly. He always called before he visited the ranch, but he was allowed onto the compound. His intent was to ascertain the size of the population and its growth for emergency response purposes. He was always told the numbers were around 100 to 130. Doran said, “We always felt that some day we were going to get a call.”
The Mankins were eating dinner with friends on April 3, 2008, when the call came, but it wasn’t from the sheriff. The local fire marshal asked Randy if there was a reason there would be an Armored Personnel Carrier just outside of Eldorado? Mankin left dinner and arrived at the sheriff’s office about the time the one dispatcher, who had not been briefed about keeping quiet reported for duty. He learned of the perimeter law enforcement officers from several state agencies had established around the YTZ Ranch. The operation was not using regular police frequencies, but Mankin was able, with the help a local radio operator, to find a way to rig a device and listen in on the “secure” frequency.
Sitting at his desk Mankin listened on the improvised scanner and posted briefings onto his Web site as they unfolded, his print newspaper would not publish for a week. His office was deluged in the hours following the raid with national and international news media. In many cases the news people sent to cover the story were rude and demanding, according to Mankin. He said one television reporter arrived, announced he was from CNN, and asked where’s my desk?
The Success reported Child Protective Services had taken 167 children into custody -the account was immediately disputed by the television reporters. They had reported CPS claimed to have 52 children. When questioned about the discrepancy in a television interview, the director of CPS said, “ I guess the Success has better sources.”
A Tarleton State University journalism professor, and a judge of the West Texas Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest perhaps said it best - “Having the privilege of reading the contest entries shows me that journalism, at least among members of the WTPA, is alive and kicking. Your members are doing the sort of journalism we can all be proud of.”
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.