Dallas Morning News reporter Karen Brooks discusses armchair moral relatavism and the surprisingly progressive legacy of the Waco tragedy.

When Warren Jeffs, spiritual leader and “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, caught the media’s attention, again, for buying land in Eldorado, Texas, more than one paper responded with UFO analogies: aliens invade a sleepy, back-water town; locals stumped, spooked. That’s what Joseph Reaves wrote in The Arizona Republic, adding on the fright of “a stay-at-home mother of two pre-teen girls,” who speculated, “We’re a small enough town that if they wanted to, they could just take us over.”

It was also the description of Randy Mankin, editor of the Eldorado Success, the sole, weekly paper for the 2,000-person outback town. “‘We had a media frenzy after the bus crash [that took place in Louisiana years ago] and I said to myself: “This is the biggest story you’re ever going to cover.” Then the UFO landed north of town. Well, it wasn’t a UFO, but it might as well have been.'” Mankin, his wife and their one employee have gleefully covered Jeffs and his attempts to build a “ranch-retreat” for his most faithful followers on the outskirts of town ever since. (The paper’s website still features zoom-in aerial photographs of the buildings-in-progress on their site today, almost two months since the story broke.)

Part of the alarmism is typical treatment for outsider religions, part of it may be justified, and part of it is exacerbated by local memory: Eldorado is only 260 miles away, and as Eldorado’s cheif deputy says, “‘I think just about everybody in the state of Texas, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.” Karen Brooks, a staff writer for The Dallas Morning News’s Austin Bureau, took a different approach in her excellent report two weeks ago and shared her thoughts withThe Revealer on reporting “Waco”-like stories. You can read her story first, or go directly to her comments below:

Q: What’s involved in reporting “Waco”-like stories?

Karen Brooks: In Texas particularly, it doesn’t take much to invoke the specter of David Koresh — people here are still recovering from that episode and I’m not sure that anyone has made up their mind 100 percent whose fault that debacle was — Koresh’s or the government. So when I was reporting on this story, it was very common to hear people expressing fear that the group’s leader would become another David Koresh — while tempering that with a very strong conviction that they had a right to be left alone by the government (in a state where the government has never been very popular anyway). It was fascinating to me to see the progressive thinkers that the Waco episode had created, particularly among law officers like the sheriff in Eldorado – people who detested the fundamentalists’ religion but couldn’t justify any action by the law enforcement that didn’t amount to harassment. It was a challenge to keep David Koresh out of my mind, too, as a Texan. That Waco event changed all of us forever — I don’t think it’ll ever go away.

Q: What’s the difference between writing an investigative report and a purely sensationalist story?

Brooks: I think sensationalism is a result of shallow investigation — where you draw conclusions based on meager information and make assumptions. If you investigate something thoroughly, you gain a better understanding of it and are less likely to blow it out of proportion. You’re also less vulnerable to individual viewpoints (which are very disparate and very strong in a story like this), which protects you from becoming a crusader for a cause you know nothing about.

Q: Explain your decision to focus as much on the town’s reaction (i.e., everyone becoming “armchair experts” on moral relatavism, and they “can’t seem to decide” what has set them on edge), and on making them as much subjects of the report as the members of the FLDS.

Brooks: I spent a lot of time in deep philosophical conversations with residents of Eldorado — councilmembers, the editor, city secretary, grocery store clerk, sheriff, teenagers. As someone who grew up in small-town Mississippi, I wasn’t used to discussing the moral relativity of individual religions and freedom vs. spiritual beliefs with people who had been talking about the weather for 50 years. I loved the image of a Baptist housewife whose life revolved around her teenage son’s football practice suddenly checking out books on polygamy and Mormonism and discussing the revelations of Joseph Smith with the grocer.

Everywhere I went — the library, the quickie store, city hall — I would tell people what I was there for and instantly we’d have an incredibly interesting conversation about religion and philosophy and politics — how far do you take the live-and-let-live philosophy, how they felt about their new neighbors and how they came to that conclusion. The townspeople were not just knee-jerk, torch-bearing villagers who wanted the heretics out of their town, although there was some of that. I decided that a big part of the story was how the issue had changed them as people – I thought they deserved to be portrayed as the multidimensional, human characters they are instead of cliches — presenting them as one-sided would have been selling them out and not being honest, even though on the surface it might have seemed like a better story and it certainly would have been easy to do. But when you think about it, the best novels, short stories, movies, etc. have characters who go through some sort of change because of what happens to them. The reason for that is people realize that life can change you, they relate to people who are personally affected by what happens to them. In the end, I think, the story was better because the people of Eldorado were a lot deeper than I or anyone else had been giving them credit for. Whether I agreed with them or not.

Q: How do you report on rumors or preconceptions (i.e., about women having babies “until their insides fall out”) as indicative of a town’s climate without appearing to either validate or repudiate them?

Brooks: Paying attention to the rumors the townspeople were listening to, repeating and believing was a great way to suss out what the climate was because it’s hugely telling — for example, if they hear that the girls are forced into marriage and believe it, without real proof, then that shows a willingness to find evidence, real or imagined, that supports their prejudgement: these people are bad people, and this is why, and I told you so. The ones who respond with, “yeah, but they’ve never proved that” are the ones who are less likely to have stereotyped them.

It’s equally telling to hear what rumors they’re rejecting, like a rumor of the escape of a teenage girl from the compound. The newspaper looked into it, found no evidence, and the only people who kept talking about it were the ones who also happened to be most paranoid.

As for the “insides” quote, I used it because it was just so darn graphic and sensational — two words that also, incidentally, perfectly describe the spirit of that press conference, which is what I was trying to do. I think the best way to report these types of things is to be as honest and forthright as you can be: Present the context (a hysterical press conference with frightened and uninformed people), present the reaction (locking doors and windows) and then present the evidence if there is any and if its pertinent (in this case, it really wasn’t – obviously, the women’s insides don’t fall out). If you can do that, then you’ve just painted a very telling picture of the mindset of the town without giving the rumor any credibility, taking away any of its credibility, or passing judgement on the people of the town. It’s like a snapshot that speaks for itself. You just say what is.

The fundamentalists themselves were particularly defensive when it came to the media, having been portrayed for 100 years as evil, nasty, barbaric people. When I was in Hildale and Colorado City, they tailed me in their cars and tracked my movements and monitored what I was doing, which was kind of creepy — although I didn’t ever feel threatened. It’s a closed society, so they’re intensely private people and it wasn’t easy to get them to talk to me. When I did finally get to know a family, though, Terrill and Barbara Johnson, they were exceptionally friendly, open and welcoming. What I learned more than anything is that usually our preconceived notions about people are wrong, there are good people everywhere you go, everyone is human, and you can always find something about another person to connect with, no matter how strange their beliefs or way of life might seem.