Summer 2006

A Local Newspaper Endures a Stormy Backlash

‘We had the opportunity to tell the story of powerless people who'd been hurt by powerful people who counted on the public never learning what they'd done.’

By Dean Miller
Scouts' honor
– Post Register Online
Some days we felt like one of those plucky anglers in a small boat who solidly hooks a halibut, only to be beaten to death by the thrashing brute when it's hauled aboard. The Post Register is a wee dory of a newspaper: With 26,000 daily circulation, it's not buoyed by any corporate chain and has an opinion page often reviled in this livid corner of reddest Idaho for its reliable dissent.

Last year, by exposing Boy Scout pedophiles and those who failed to kick them out of the scouting program, we energized three of our community's big forces against us, including those most able to punish our newspaper — the community's majority religion, the richest guys in town, and the conservative machine that controls Idaho.

First came the tip: A pedophile caught at a local scout camp in 1997 had not had two victims, as we reported at the time; he had dozens. When we went to the courthouse to look for the civil suit filed by these victims, the clerks (and the computers) said there was no such case. We later learned that the national Boy Scouts of America and its local Grand Teton Council had hired two of Idaho's best-connected law firms to seal the files and hide what came to be known as the Brad Stowell case.

The victims were probably asleep at the time, one lawyer said, and even if not, it was a bad memory best ignored.The Post Register went to court in late 2004, and by January 2005 we'd dragged the case file into the light of day and read it from beginning to end. Turns out that as early as 1991 scout leaders had been warned about Stowell; they hired him again anyway. Top-level local and national leaders of the Mormon Church, which sponsors almost all Grand Teton Council scout troops, had also been warned, but to no effect. From these files we learned that while under investigation Stowell confessed his problem to his bishop in 1988 and had been sent to church counselors for sex abuser treatment. Seven years later, this bishop told scout executives he knew of no reason Stowell should not be a scout camp leader. The files also showed lawyers for the Boy Scout organization knew about more victims, but never told those boys' parents. The victims were probably asleep at the time, one lawyer said, and even if not, it was a bad memory best ignored.

In February 2005, the Post Register launched a six-day series. The first day's story featured 14-year-old camper, Adam Steed, who forced adult leaders to call the cops on Stowell. Steed was the son of a Mormon seminary teacher and a cinch to become an Eagle Scout. But he'd quit scouting and school; instead of being praised for his efforts to stop Stowell from harming others, scout leaders and fellow scouts had shunned him for bringing down this man whom they described as charming and accomplished.

The Post Register's front page on the second day of its six-day series.

The Backlash Begins

Rank-and-file church members were among the first to complain: "Are you a Christian?" a woman in her 70's hissed across the newsroom conference table at me Monday morning, as she quoted from scripture. Why had the paper dredged up this story, she wanted to know.

"The rest of the boys want justice," I replied.

"Tell 'em to get over it," she snarled. "Just tell 'em 'tough!'"

If hers represented the voice of our community, stormy weather was ahead. Though our stories were aimed at decisions made by the Grand Teton Council (which at 30,000 members is bigger than our newspaper's readership), some Mormon church members characterized our coverage as an attack on their faith."The Church," as it's known here, dominates eastern Idaho even more RELATED WEB LINK
Watch "In a Small Town," Exposé's documentary on how the Post Register broke this story »
than it does Salt Lake City. Some counties that our newspaper serves are more than 70 percent Mormon, and for generations scouting has been the official youth program for Mormon boys. More than 90 percent of the troops in our local Grand Teton Council are sponsored by Mormon congregations.

For four generations, the Post Register has been controlled by the Brady family, Irish Catholics, and Democrats, so there are readers who imagine liberal papists on every beat. They are encouraged in this belief by some local politicians and businessmen who benefit from making the paper Mormon Republicans' straw man. Even with careful editing to preserve only germane mentions of religious affiliation, we knew that some talk-radio hosts would start banging the "Post Register is anti-Mormon" drums.

The drums banged, and we were flooded with calls and e-mails and letters to the editor from readers who told us that holding the Grand Teton Council accountable was Mormon-bashing. We responded to every call, letter and e-mail we received. The backlash came from advertisers, too. One of our big advertising accounts, a man who runs a furniture store, demanded an explanation and angrily informed me Stowell was a fine young man wrongly accused. Other advertisers just cancelled their ads, vowing never to return.

It's one thing to lose an account when you're an employee. It's quite another when you're also a stockholder; 140 employees hold close to 49 percent of the company's stock. For many families, this is their retirement. Many of them have been scouts or scout leaders, and at least a third are Mormon. Even non-newsroom staff were catching heat about the series at church gatherings and scout meetings. Even so, throughout this time most of what I heard inside our building were words of support.

With each additional day of the series, economic pressure built. Publisher Roger Plothow wrote an open letter to readers in which he criticized scout executives' decisions and said these stories were a victory for open public records. He was unapologetic and reminded readers he grew up Mormon and proudly claims the rank of Eagle Scout. A lot of what is popularly called courage is simple integrity. Plothow, by standing up with a stoic and clear-eyed defense, spoke for us, but also for the values of journalism.

Alocal businessman, Frank VanderSloot, bought full-page ads to criticize the paper's reporting on the Boy Scout story.

Attacks Get Personal

One month after the series ran, Stowell, who had served a brief jail term for his scout camp predations, violated his parole and was sent to prison for two to 14 years. Around this same time, Grand Teton Council staff had been telling volunteer scoutmasters that the stories were all lies cobbled together by a gay reporter on a vendetta against the Boy Scouts. Our reporter, Peter Zuckerman, was not "out" to anyone but family, a few colleagues at the paper (including me), and his close friends. When the magnitude of the story became evident, I vetted him thoroughly, making sure he had not been active in the debate over gay scouts and had not been kicked out of a troop.

Peter's personal life and the series itself went under the microscope in June when a local multimillionaire, Frank VanderSloot, began buying full-page critical ads in our Sunday paper. He devoted several paragraphs to establishing that Zuckerman is gay. He noted the Mormon Church opposes gay marriage and that the Boy Scouts no longer allow gay men to lead troops, but briefly added: "We think it would be very unfair for anyone to conclude that is what is behind Zuckerman's motives."

Strangers started ringing Peter's doorbell at midnight. His partner of five years was fired from his job. Despite the harassment, Peter kept coming to work and chasing down leads on other pedophiles in the Grand Teton Council, while continuing to cover his courts and cops beat. I spoke at his church one Sunday and meant it when I said that I hope my son grows into as much of a man as Peter had.

With each additional day of the series, economic pressure built.The local Boy Scout executive had declared Stowell was the only child molester he'd discovered in the Grand Teton Council. But by midsummer, the paper was hunting for documentation on a dozen leaders whom victims and their families had identified to us as pedophiles. Meanwhile, the Post Register kept on printing VanderSloot's ads, even when they included serious mischaracterizations, errors of fact, and glaring omissions, such as the fact that the Boy Scouts' national staffer in charge of youth protection had just pleaded guilty to trading in child pornography. VanderSloot said his ads, which he labeled "The Community Page," were intended to bolster people who were too scared of the mighty Post Register to speak up.

But no one who was named in our articles asked for a correction, retraction or clarification. They couldn't and still had not a year later. The stories were based on information in deposition transcripts found in the secret lawsuit file. Not satisfied with the impact of his ads, VanderSloot demanded a debate. Insiders had warned us not to pick fights with VanderSloot. He owns an international multilevel marketing/health products company, Melaleuca, Inc., and often threatens to start a rival newspaper. But we felt we couldn't run away from this challenge, so we agreed to two half-hour debates on a local TV station.

A few minutes into the debate it became clear to me that VanderSloot had not, as I had, read the entire case file or even the most significant depositions. Broad assertions that had been prepared for him by a young lawyer fell apart in the face of details from the court record. The day after the first debate aired, the Post Register published documentation that at least two other pedophiles had preyed on Grand Teton Council scouts, including a vicious child rapist who had been reported to the Grand Teton Council in the 1980's, convicted in Utah, and was now back at work for the council. Two weeks later, we documented another pedophile in the council. In this case, his criminal file had been sealed and hidden.

By now the paper had secured evidence of four recent pedophiles in the local scout council, about as many documented cases as the 500,000-member Catholic diocese of Boston when that scandal erupted in The Boston Globe.

Losing the Company President's Support

Full-page VanderSloot ads kept arriving — a half dozen in all. The last declared victory. His words weren't hurting our circulation — which was rising — but we were growing tired of the smear campaign. VanderSloot did score a victory in the fall. In the September 23rd Post Register, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brady published an open letter headlined with Will Rogers' quip: "The only thing wrong with Boy Scouts is there aren't enough of them." Brady recited a litany of the benefits of scouting, pledged his and his wife's support, and said "We regret any negativity that might be associated with the great Boy Scouts organization ... the entire community should support the scouts."

Brady is the president of the Post Company and serves as chairman of its board. Religion, "big" money, and the conservative movement's rabid protection of local scout leaders had gotten to our boss.

Laboring in obscurity, and without resources their peers at larger papers have, community journalists often end up dreaming small. But my 34 colleagues at the Post Register — in particular the cadre of editors who have worked together for a decade and lead a largely entry-level staff — refused to pull back in the face of much opposition.Now the newsroom was really on its own as we started to cover the lobbying campaign of Paul Steed, father of the boy who forced the Grand Teton Council to turn Stowell over to the cops. The elder Steed had quit his Mormon Church job to push for changes in Idaho law. He was the kind of divisive force that Brady scolded in his campaign ad. But then Idaho surprised us. When the Republican-dominated legislature convened in January, a sympathetic legislator introduced the Steed family's proposal. A flinching and at times tearful house committee heard the awful stories in testimony from the wounded boys and their parents. The lawmakers unanimously voted to do away with the statute of limitations on child molestation, and the governor signed the bill into law with the Steeds and Jeff Bird, another scout victim, standing by. The house committee chairman wrote to the Grand Teton Council to ask why its leader had not been fired.

What Courage Means

Judges called the Post Register's coverage of this story "courageous" when they awarded it the Scripps Howard First Amendment prize. That's a hard word for those of us at the paper to wear comfortably. After all, we'd witnessed the courage of Adam Steed and his younger brother, Ben, and Jeff Bird when, as grown men, they went public in the paper and revealed humiliating details of what had been done to them at scout camp. Even now, we fear for them and their families, as VanderSloot's full-page attack ads continue.

But was what any of us did courageous? With no corporate bankroll to fall back on and coping with the pressures any newspaper publisher faces today, our publisher, Roger Plothow, took lonely risks to uphold the principle of open government. In doing so, he gave victims the opportunity they needed to speak out against those who had harmed them. By his example, Plothow stiffened the spines of minority stockholders (many of whom are staff members at the paper), who stood firm.

Laboring in obscurity, and without resources their peers at larger papers have, community journalists often end up dreaming small. But my 34 colleagues at the Post Register — in particular the cadre of editors who have worked together for a decade and lead a largely entry-level staff — refused to pull back in the face of much opposition. They were dogged in their work until the victims' stories — and the aftermath of their telling — were complete. Peter Zuckerman, in particular, persevered despite repeated threats that were inflamed by a carefully orchestrated ad hominem attack on him and his work.

One of the sweeter moments of our year occurred when we received figures from our circulation audit. While the sales numbers of other U.S. newspapers were in free fall, we were among the nation's faster growing daily papers. For us, these numbers testified to the value of fortitude. Publishing uncomfortable truths needn't be an act of hot-blooded courage; it should be a cool-headed exercise in focus: Find the civic heart of a story, steer a steady course to it, and serve the public's legitimate interests in openness and justice. Do that and, even when the story rocks your boat, trust that the waves won't capsize it.

Dean Miller is managing editor of the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho. For his work on this series, Peter Zuckerman won the Livingston Award in the category of local reporting, a prize recognizing the nation's best journalists under the age of 35.

10 Comments on A Local Newspaper Endures a Stormy Backlash
Janadele says:
February 20, 2012 at 5:20pm
As Mike says " The scoutmaster was also ex-communicated from the LDS church." This shows that LDS Leaders are diligent in being aware of pedophiles and taking action. Instead of criticising the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, anti Mormons should do more themselves to protect the community from predators.
Louis Dunn says:
February 18, 2012 at 3:26pm
Well done Post Register! If only all newspapers had your integrity! Keep up the good work and good luck to all of you.
Nancy WH says:
February 18, 2012 at 3:22pm
You did the right thing. Never forget that. You did the right thing.
Kaye says:
February 8, 2012 at 1:14am
I also would like to know why the paper continued to publish the ads...I mean, I understand how much power Vandersloot has over the community, (money is, unfortunately, power; and he is loaded with it) but wouldn't some of the things he said in his "Community Page" qualify him for having a lawsuit or two smack him upside his big, dumb, ignorantly opinionated head? I know the folks at the paper didn't want him to put them out of business, but come on! This whole story sickens me, and reeks of corruption and cover-ups! Brad Stowell is a man who should have been locked up long before he finally was, and there are many others like him, men and women, and they are out there, working with kids, every day. I think that quite a lot of Mormons have a fear of sex, a fear that they are either purposely, or through implication, taught to have as very young children (I know this because I was one of those kids) and then that fear translates into a strange denial and unwillingness to talk about anything sexual. I also think that there is an irrational embarrassment and shame that comes with considering whether someone in your midst has victimized children. It's hard to admit to yourself that you let your child, or anyone else's child, for that matter, be around a person who could do something like this to kids, something that you would really prefer not to think about in too much detail. I wonder if some members of "The Church" would rather just avoid something like this armed with their hopeful denial, rather than facing the truth and thereby facing ridicule or disdain from ever-judging peers. Ignorance is bliss, right? Our kids would tell us if something happened...right? And if it were to turn out that something did happen....well, maybe we should we just "tell 'em to get over it," like the nice lady in the article said? I mean, they will get over it. Eventually, someday...right?

I don't want people to think that by my saying this, I am saying that all Mormons are this way. I know and love plenty of them who most certainly are not. But what I AM saying is that I am sure some of them do subscribe to this devastatingly childish way of thinking, just as I am sure there were plenty of Catholics who held the same kind of silence (or worse, outrage!) against the accusers when the allegations started coming out about abusive priests. Hell, there were people who knew about Jerry Sandusky and didn't say anything to anyone either, and that had nothing to do with religion! What I am saying is that this kind of behavior from grown people is deplorable, and if our kids can't count on the adults in their lives to protect them, then who CAN they count on?

And my final point? Frank Vandersloot is an ignorant, homophobic, and close-minded fool of a person who just gave a million bucks to Mitt Romney...yet another creepy rich Mormon guy. I went to Frank's website, containing all of his "Community Pages" but unfortunately, the "ad" slamming gay marriage that he ran a few years ago, titled, "The Marriage Amendment Needs Your Help!" is no longer up on the site. Hmmm. I wonder if he took it down in the hopes that people wouldn't find out what kind of opinions and closeted skeletons lie behind the substantial money now funding his favored flip-flopper's presidential campaign.
John says:
February 6, 2012 at 2:41am
I find Vandershoot's obstruction incredulous. Vandershoot is Romney's campaign finance national co-chairman.
Mike Sciotto says:
October 18, 2011 at 9:04pm
The Steed family is a courageous one, and they have told MY STORY! I was a Scout in the late 70's and an Eagle Board of Review away from becoming an Eagle Scout when my Scoutmaster, a KNOWN PERVERT, forced me out because for years he kept trying to put his hands on me, and I refused EVERY TIME! He drove me off somewhere privately and tried to touch me as well!

After he forced me out, he preyed on other boys until someone braver than I took him to court. I was the state's key witness when my former Scoutmaster pled no contest. He was caught several more times and finally committed suicide when he knew he was facing a three-strikes law!

The sad part was, like the Steed family, other Scouts knew and KEPT THEIR MOUTHS SHUT because they wanted to be Eagle Scouts! God bless Adam Steed for turning the award down the way he did! I would have and did the same! I'm going to write a letter to the Steed family and praise them UNCONDITIONALLY!

What amazes me is I have the President of the Boy Scouts right here in my city, Orlando, FL, and he ignores my calls and e-mails to this day! My former Scoutmaster made all my records disappear, and I am told I can never get my Board of Review! It was swept under the rug and me with it! Now I have a friend to share this bond with in Adam Steed!
Mike says:
April 7, 2011 at 9:27pm
When I was a kid, decades ago, I was in an LDS church scout troop. The scout master was a GI in the army. I liked him, he was personable. We went through the summers, camping out, swimming in lakes. It was a lot of fun. I was 13 I think. I noticed, as the younger kids, the cubs, went to their tent, the scoutmaster would "tuck them in" laughter, then it would get very very quiet. We went to bed. Somehow, he wanted to come to my home and we were working on a merit badge, it got late, and he asked to stay over. He shared the bed with me. Early in the morning, 3 AM, I awoke with him on top of me, fondling me. I pushed him away and he said "forgive me". I told him "I don't forgive you, I pity you". I told my Dad who went balistic. He contacted the LDS leadership, notified the Military authorities and the scout master was thrown in the brig and dishonorably discharged. The scoutmaster was also ex-communicated from the LDS church. It kind of screwed me up. I stopped going to scouts and my parents supported that. When I became a father, I was reluctant to allow my kids to join any scout organization. My wife became a cub scout leader but that was about it. I discouraged my kids from having anything to do with scouts, concentrating on sport, little league and football. Since that time, I have had the occasion of seeing guys in their 30's and 50's running around in scout uniforms. Too many of them remind of a Homosexual, feminine, and odd with similar characteristics of that scoutmaster that fondled me. Pedaphiles gravitate to Scouting like moths to a candle. My hats off to the Idaho Register for their "bucking the Power" and doing what is right for the community. Too bad, the 72 year old lady was naive to think this was Morman bashing. It is NOT. Until you admit there is a problem, nothing will be done about it. In the LDS culture, hiding scandal is a norm. But, when the scandal gets the light of day, the problem is usually corrected. It is just getting the light of day, with an attitude of TMI or suppression of a scandal. Hopefully, the scouting system of reporting guys like this will curtail it. However, I think that accusing someone of being a pedaphile can be abused. Hopefully it will all work out. But rest assured, when you are a youth, and a molestation happens, it does mess up your mind. It took me a lot of years to get over it. Thanks again to the Idaho Falls Register for their courage under fire.
I.Phillip says:
March 14, 2011 at 3:46pm
A friend sent this to me after talking about Melaleuca. I still love the products, but after reading this article I can't continue supporting the company. If Mr Vandersloot did was reported it is an abuse of his wealth, it could have been better spent educating the public on the destructiveness of pedophiles. I admire the courage of the newspaper to run his ads knowing that they were false. Even though it might not seem so, the truth eventually sets you free
Mark Kind says:
February 18, 2011 at 11:36am
Interesting story. Not disclosed is the advertising department's process for deciding to accept ads that were clearly intended to be false with regard to actual facts known to the newspaper staff. Given that the ads were also intended to be defamatory of individuals and damaging to the newspaper's mission, it'd be very interesting to read an explanation for the process that resulted in the acceptance of these ads.
Nancy says:
September 7, 2009 at 12:00pm
Dean, I just read this piece - such a compelling story. Did the Melalucca guy ever come to Jesus with respect to the facts and real victims? I fear that this kind of truly important journalism is becoming extinct. The experience you report in this story certainly gives you solid experience for what you are embarking on at Stonybrook.
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