Weekly Oregon Publication Honored by The Reynolds School for Tenacity and Bravery in reporting

Weekly Oregon Publication Honored by The Reynolds School for Tenacity and Bravery in reporting

Good journalism upholds the tenets of the First Amendment and works to uncover the stories that matter, and The Malheur Enterprise, a small weekly publication in eastern Oregon, is being honored with the Reynolds School’s Frank McCulloch Award later this month for doing just that.

When Les Zaitz took over The Malheur Enterprise, a small weekly publication in eastern Oregon, he expected to work a few days a week and settle into semi-retirement. After a long and exciting career at the Oregonian, it was time to cover local events and help train new reporters.

But when a huge story broke and the investigation led to a fight over public records with the state of Oregon – Zaitz’s retirement dream was upended. In January, Anthony Montwheeler was indicted for murder, kidnapping and assault after he abducted his wife, stabbed her to death in his pickup and hit an oncoming car as he fled police. As the Malheur Enterprise team dug into the case, they found Montwheeler had kidnapped his previous wife and son years prior and had been released from authorities just 23 days before the recent crime.

The plot thickened when the team found Montwheeler avoided a seven-year prison sentence by faking mental illness. He spent years in a mental hospital, only to be released by the state Psychiatric Security Review Board when he admitted he was faking it.

Zaitz received audio from the December hearings when Montwheeler was freed, but the state refused to release 15 exhibit records used in the hearing.

The audio recording was enough for Zaitz to write, “Deadly Decision: Malheur County murder suspect feigned insanity for 20 years to avoid prison.”

Zaitz didn’t stop there, he wanted to get ahold of those 15 documents the state refused to release. He wrote the Oregon attorney general who ordered the board to release the documents, but they defied the order citing privacy concerns. Then the board sued the Malheur Enterprise to block access to the records.

But they kept fighting.

“Frankly, it really got my hackles up,” Zaitz told Poynter. “It’s just offensive to me that they would use the brute force of the state to try and slam our fingers in the file cabinet drawer to keep us away from the records.”

As he whipped up reader support, larger publications began to take notice and write about the fight. Eventually the governor of Oregon stepped in, calling the review board’s block “plain wrong” and demanding the records be released.

It’s because of this courageous fight and the tenacity of this small publication that the Reynolds School is awarding the Malheur Enterprise the Frank McCulloch Award. Zaitz will be on campus September 20th to accept the award and address Reynolds School students  at noon.

“It’s difficult for any news organization to muster the resources for a lengthy and costly First Amendment challenge, let alone a small weekly such as the Malheur Enterprise,” said Reynolds School Dean Al Stavitsky. “This inspiring case reflects what Frank McCulloch would have done, and exemplifies what this award is all about.”

The award is presented in an introductory journalism class and is not open to the public, but media are  welcome to attend. For more information on how to attend, or to interview Zaitz, contact Melody Stone at melodystone@unr.edu or (707)832-2099.  


About the Award:

Frank McCulloch was born on a ranch in Fernley, Nevada in 1920. His interest in news prompted him to study journalism. He worked at the Reno Evening Gazette investigating links between organized crime and Nevada casinos. From there he moved to write for Time/Life, writing Time magazine’s 1955 cover story on Thurgood Marshall and conducted the last interview given by Howard Hughes. In 1960 he became the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and helped transform it  into the world-class publication  it is today.

He left the Times in 1963 to cover the Vietnam War for Time, Inc. He became the Times-Life bureau chief in Washington D.C. and New York City. He continued his career as managing editor of the Sacramento Bee and eventually executive editor of all McClatchy newspaper. He retired as managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner in 1990. Frank McCulloch established a fund through the Reynolds School of Journalism to award a journalist who demonstrates courage by resisting intimidation, whether from use of a political or corporate power or physical threats, to be awarded annually.

McCulloch hoped this endowment would encourage student journalists to regard their future jobs at public trusts.  

Previous McCulloch awardees include: David Rhode, then of the New York Times (now with Reuters); Barbara Davidson of the Los Angeles Times; Adela Navarro Bello of the Mexican magazine Zeta; and Dan Kane of the Raleigh News & Observer.

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