Letter from the Editor: Murder of US investigative journalist highlights threats to journalists

An investigative journalist was killed this month in Las Vegas, and a government official he was investigating has been charged with the murder.

I never imagined that I would type these words. It is fortunately very rare that investigative journalists in the United States are threatened with death – or actual physical injury – as a result of their work.

Jeff German (pronounced GARE-man) is one of nine journalists killed in the United States since 1992, including a mass shooting at the offices of the Capital Gazette, according to statistics kept by the Committee to Protect Journalists. He had written several articles and was preparing another about a Las Vegas official, Robert Telles, who now faces stabbing death charges.

“We are relieved that Telles is in custody and outraged that a colleague appears to have been killed for whistleblowing an elected official,” Las Vegas Review-Journal editor Glenn Cook said in a statement last week. “Journalists cannot do the important work that our communities need if they fear that reporting the facts will lead to violent reprisals.

I’m not saying that threats against The Oregonian/OregonLive reporters never happen, just that credible death threats are rare. Certainly, journalists and photographers regularly suffer bullying and abuse, especially on social media.

Les Zaitz, a former investigative reporter and editor of The Oregonian/OregonLive, was threatened by his dogged reporting on the Rajneeshee sect in the 1980s.

As a young reporter, he landed on the “blacklist” of the Rajneeshees, who had improbably formed a commune on a ranch outside a remote town in Wasco County.

“Government officials and township insiders have been singled out for assassination,” Zaitz wrote in a retrospective for The Oregonian, recounting his work with fellow investigative reporter James Long. “Me too, probably because I was the ‘bad cop’ to Jim Long’s ‘good cop’ in our reporting job.

“Later, grand jury testimony described how the list was put together, including my name. “They had to be killed,” said a witness.

The Rajneeshees were, in fact, quite dangerous. Some Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh followers poisoned salad bars in the Dales in 1984, still the largest bioterrorist attack in US history. Some 700 people fell ill. Several other adherents served time in federal prison for an assassination plot against the then-Oregon US attorney.

Long, now retired, told me, “We knew we were a target whether we were at the ranch or not.

Once, a few Rajneeshees disguised themselves as janitors and attempted to enter The Oregonian’s after-hours newsroom to try to sabotage Zaitz and Long’s work. A cleaning supervisor turned them away when she failed to recognize the crew.

Long has spent decades investigating corruption in Oregon. “I once got a death threat from a guy who had actually been convicted of murder, so I had to take it seriously,” he recalls.

A friend lent him a German Luger. “I kept it on my closet shelf, charged, for a few months,” he said.

More recently, Zaitz went on high alert while investigating the reach of drug cartels in Oregon.

Police sources bluntly told him to be very careful. Shortly after, his remote ranch was hit by gunfire. “I was working in my stable when shots were fired, one of which hit a tree next to the stable,” he said. “Perhaps a coincidence, but the shots came from the county road that crosses the front of my house.”

His reporting project went on to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2014.

During the protests that erupted nightly in Portland beginning in late May 2020 for more than 150 nights, our journalists were harassed, sometimes intimidated and sometimes physically injured by police and protesters.

Masked and black-clad marchers frequently threatened to harm our photographers or destroy their equipment, fearing that our work as freelance journalists would somehow help the police identify suspects through photos and of videos.

Longtime court reporter Aimee Green covered many tense moments at the courthouse, but had few actual conflicts. Once, however, family members of a defendant started yelling at her and physically prevented her from leaving the courtroom. Sheriff’s deputies offered to escort her to her car, but she refused.

Some journalists recalled veiled threats such as “I know where you live”. Others didn’t want to share specific experiences by name because the people who made the threats are “still out there.”

My thoughts are with those in the Review-Journal newsroom, who have no doubt been shaken by German’s murder. No journalist should be threatened or intimidated for the work they do on behalf of the public.

Investigative journalists typically dig into the secrets that people have worked hard to hide.

“Jeff has spent more than 40 years covering the worst of the worst in Las Vegas,” newspaper editor Cook said in an Associated Press article. “He was a guy who knocked down gangsters, sages and killers.”

Diana Fuentes, executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, said in a statement: “Journalists do their job every day, digging deep to find information the public needs to know and has a right to see.”

German’s murder, she said, “is a sobering reminder of the risks inherent in investigative journalism.”

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Robert M. Larson