Jeff German’s articles exposed allegations of intimidation and patronage in the Clark County, Nevada government, and as he expected, had an immediate impact.
The work of the Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative reporter was widely credited with contributing to the June election defeat of Robert Telles, whose office oversaw the estates of those who died without an estate plan. But that kind of work was nothing out of the ordinary for German, who for decades had battled police, judges, casino managers and mob bosses.
That’s why German’s murder over Labor Day weekend, which police say was committed by the slight, unimposing man German reported, deeply affected colleagues at the writer in Las Vegas and across the country. A journalist had been murdered, ostensibly for speaking truth to power, and it seemed to many news actors to epitomize an increasingly perilous environment for their work.
German, 69, loved to regale his friends with the story of how a boxer he described once punched him squarely in the nose. He took that to mean that he had already had the requisite contact with violence. “He wasn’t scared or scared at all,” said Rhonda Prast, associate editor for investigations and projects at the Review-Journal.
Killings of journalists related to their work remain a rarity in the United States, especially compared to countries like Mexico, where 13 reporters have been killed so far this year. German’s stabbing death outside his home last week would make him the 12th journalist murdered in America in the past 30 years in connection with their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Because of the First Amendment and the rule of law, journalists here enjoy far more protections than abroad, where journalists are often killed with impunity.
At the Review-Journal, the reporters are obstinate. After German’s death, his colleagues staked out Telles’ house and may have been integral to his arrest, having identified a red SUV that matched the description of the getaway car.
Despite greater protections in the United States, various professional journalism groups report a recent and significant increase in threats and violence directed against journalists. Newsrooms have significantly increased their security, with guards and metal detectors, while many other journalists and photographers are now receiving training on how to protect themselves at protests, school board meetings and even seemingly innocuous sidewalk interviews.
“What I hear every day across the country is a significant increase in threats and a sense of permission people feel to attack journalists,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the DART Center for Journalism & Trauma. from Columbia University. “We are seeing a lot more threats and a lot more real violence directed at local journalists, in particular.”
The US Press Freedom Tracker found that attacks on journalists peaked in 2020 at 454. But the attacks continued.
This spring, vandals targeted the homes of the news director and a New Hampshire Public Radio reporter, with the threat “This is just the beginning!” painted on one of the houses. In February, a security guard at a Bakersfield health clinic accosted a television news crew, trying to snatch their gear, as they stood on public property.
In July, a television cameraman was chased and beaten while covering the opening of a cooling station in Portland, Oregon. Last November, a KRON TV reporter’s security guard was killed in Oakland while the reporter was covering a robbed store.
Investigative journalists have a long history of encountering turbulent and sometimes threatening subjects. But now writers and photographers are recounting seemingly mundane encounters that have turned sour.
As in the case of German, who was abused via Twitter by Telles before the stabbing, many journalists find their email inboxes and social media feeds overflowing with profanity, threatening asides and even other “hair-raising abuse, for just trying to do a job. it gets harder and harder,” said Shapiro of the DART Center.
The most violent attack on journalists on US soil came in 2018, when a man armed with a shotgun and smoke grenades stormed the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland , killing five personnel and injuring two others.
The killer, Jarrod W. Ramos, apparently thought the newspaper and the justice system were out to catch him, although the Gazette only accurately reported Ramos’ guilty plea in a previous harassment case.
Ramos had taken legal action and waged a social media campaign against the newspaper’s reporters, both to no avail as they understood the story correctly. He was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
“I feel like the importance of journalism is to show the truth to society. To hold people accountable,” said HH Hiaasen, whose father, Rob, was killed in the Capital Gazette shooting. “It’s such an important job and we need it now more than ever. But the system needs to be in place so that people can do this job honestly and sincerely without being threatened.”
In 2017, US Representative Greg Gianforte, a Republican running for re-election, criticized a Guardian reporter at a public event. Convicted of a misdemeanor, Gianforte paid a $385 fine, completed 40 hours of community service, 20 hours of anger management training, wrote a letter of apology and donated $50,000. dollars to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
But the nation’s most visible press critic, then-President Trump, saw no need to apologize. Says Trump: ‘Any guy who can do a body slam is my type!’ The president also called the press an “enemy of the people”.
Professional journalists’ organizations have accused this rhetoric of emboldening attacks on the media.
Martin G. Reynolds, co-executive director of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said he began to see a change in attitude after Donald Trump’s “really explicit language positioning journalists as enemies of the state”.
“In doing so, he really did a lot to raise the level of hostility and vitriol towards journalists in the national discourse,” Reynolds said. “The use of terms such as ‘fake news’ simply implies that there are bad intentions on the part of journalists whose job is truly to inform a democracy and serve cities and communities across the country. It has a real chilling effect. »
Trump’s defamation of journalists has contributed to the threats they face, many experts say. But on social media this week, Trump supporters were quick to go on the defensive and accuse the media of bias. “ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC avoid mentioning suspect in journalist’s murder is a Democrat,” Fox News tweeted, with many MAGA supporters pointing to Telles’ party affiliation.
Diana Fuentes, executive director of the professional training body Investigative Reporters & Editors, said German’s death understandably causes anxiety among some journalists, but is quickly followed by resolve and determination. to contiue. “What’s happening now is resolved,” Fuentes said. “People are determined not to be arrested. That it won’t stop us and we won’t be intimidated.
This was the response to previous killings of journalists.
In 1976, a car bomb killed Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, one of the paper’s top investigative reporters. Initially, his colleagues wondered if it was related to his reporting on Mafia numbers.
Shortly after, police arrested John Adamson, who testified that he had been hired by a wealthy contractor to kill Bolles for writing articles detrimental to the business interests of Kemper Marley Sr., a wealthy cattleman and marketer of Arizona liquor. Marley was never charged in the case.
Other journalists who were members of Investigative Reporters & Editors were determined to carry on on Bolles’ behalf. The result was the Arizona Project, in which a group of reporters and editors from across the country produced nearly two dozen stories.
Bolles town editor Bob Early said in an interview that the violence was much more of an anomaly in those days. Today, he sees “all of society turning violent” and adds that it is common “for journalists to be targeted by people they offend or people who think they offend them. People have to be very careful today.
The pattern repeated itself in 2007, when Chauncey Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post, was shot dead on a downtown street in broad daylight in an attempt to stop his coverage of the finances of a local business named Your. Black Muslim Bakery. Three young men associated with the bakery were convicted of the murder.
After Bailey’s death, dozens of reporters and editors gathered in Oakland to complete his work, creating the Chauncey Bailey Project, loosely modeled after the Arizona Project.
Reynolds, who was among the project’s editors, said a phrase from that time has always stuck with him: “You may kill the messenger, but you can’t kill the message.”
At the offices of Review-Journal, a small shrine has bloomed over German’s vacant desk, complete with flowers, a soccer ball commemorating his fantasy football triumphs, and an empty notepad marked “RIP Jeff.”
Two investigative stories the relentless reporter had started will be completed in the next two months, his editor, Prast, said. But no one can replace the decades of local sources and knowledge that German took with him until his death. No one will be able to pump movers and shakers into a favored haunt, the Triple George Grill, quite like the former pro did.
Prast had been exchanging notes on the Slack messaging platform with his star reporter on September 3, when he abruptly cut off the conversation. She realizes now that the reason was probably her encounter with the one who killed her.
But German wouldn’t leave the world without providing perhaps his final clue to investigators. Under his fingernails, authorities said they found skin. He was linked by DNA analysis to Telles, the man now accused of killing him, authorities say.
“It’s all been so strange, so unbelievable,” said Prast, who had to choke back tears as he spoke in German. “We are all now intensely dedicated to understanding what happened here and to helping get justice for Jeff.”
(Los Angeles Times writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.
©2022 Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.