Ruby Ridge: What a shootout in the woods can teach us about perception and an attempt to control the media

Opinion

By Zach Garner, SPJ Region 3 intern, SPJ student member

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Members of the media and local residents gather around Bo Gritz, a former Green Beret and volunteer to then negotiate with Randall Weaver at Ruby Ridge, while he spole about what was happening at the standoff. – Spokesman Review photo

 

When you control the message, you control the story. Maybe.

Choosing what someone sees or hears about a situation can have a dramatic effect on his/her perception. Depending upon their level of knowledge, people may agree one day, learn a bit more on the subject, and vehemently disagree once they understand the subject matter.

As journalists, it is our duty to represent both sides of an issue. Whether we agree or disagree with what’s happening, we should not have an impact on what our audiences sees or hears. But what happens when you don’t have both sides of a story? How can that story possibly be represented fairly?

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During the early times on Ruby Ridge, Vicky Weaver, Randall Weaver’s wife, stands with the Weaver children. Along with Vicky, their 14-year-old son Sam Weaver (left) was killed during the standoff. In 1992, Weavers’ three daughters Rachel, 16, and Sara, 10, eventually moved to Iowa, along with their 10-month-old sister Elishabeth not shown in the photograph. Photo credit unknown

‘Ruby Ridge’ tells the story of a simple court order turned firefight, and the transformation of a family man into an enemy of the state in the eyes of the people. More importantly, it demonstrates the importance of transparency when dealing with the press and the mortal repercussions of government agencies operating without all the facts.

Randall Weaver and his wife, Vicky, were known as true ‘God-fearing” Americans. Believing in the eventual apocalypse the Bible’s book of Revelations foretold, Randall, Vicky and their four children moved to a cabin in northern Idaho to await the end times. A remote location, deep in the hills of northern Idaho, the Weavers lived a simple life, void of most electricity. At the time of their move, little did they know how close their location was to the Aryan Nations organization. This organization is considered a white supremacist group originally based in Hayden, Idaho.

Meanwhile, Randall Weaver started attending Aryan Nations’ groups to meet other people in their vicinity. Weaver never actually joined the Nations, nor did he participate in their beliefs. In such a remote location, so far from anyone else, they were his only point of contact.

Little known to Weaver, an undercover federal agent had infiltrated into the Aryan Nations. The agent convinced Weaver to saw off some shotguns for him to turn a buck. When Weaver accepted the work and was finally arrested for doing so, he refused to appear in court.

Here in America, we are in a country that relies heavily on its judicial system. Weaver had broken the law and was now, essentially, giving the feds the finger. To government authorities, Weaver had to be brought to justice.

How this justice was carried out would eventually cost the lives of a federal agent, Weaver’s wife and his only son, Sam.

The relationship between the press and federal institutions wasn’t nearly as developed in 1992 as it is now in 2017. Twenty-five years ago, there weren’t emails, texting, Twitter or drones to follow the story closely. So the press relied upon the authorities to keep them posted.

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In 1992 ATF Agents stand near Randall Weaver’s home located close to Naples, Idaho.  Seattle KUOW photo

As federal agents, deputies and U.S. Marshals were ordered to scale the mountain to bring down Weaver, the reporters covering the event were given only small bits of information, leaving most everything else to guesswork.

During the 11-day siege, national newspapers, who knew next to nothing of the content of Weaver’s character, were given only a few facts:  he was resisting arrest, had dealt in illegal firearms and was associated with the Aryan Nation. And Weaver was a former Green-Beret.

The newspapers read that the ‘survivalist,’ the ‘desperado’ or the ‘ex-special ops agent’ was holed up in his bunker of a cabin, armed to the teeth.

Sounds like a dangerous, violent individual to me.

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Ruby Ridge home site of Randall Weaver and his family. This image could be found on the cover of national newspapers and television stations throughout the U.S. Photo credit unknown.

Then again, these were the only details given to the press at the time. What else could they tell their readers?

Once Vicky and the young Sam Weaver were shot and dead, the full story was given to the press, but by then the entire narrative changed and those descriptions of Weaver disappeared.

Funny how that works.

The danger of the situation was exacerbated to the point due to lack of proper communications. Both among the various federal agencies involved and with the media.

FBI snipers were told, “you can and should use deadly force,” while the U.S. Marshals were given completely different orders. One agency shot and killed Vicky Weaver, while another agency was starting loudspeaker negotiations with her.

One set of federal authorities were negotiating with a dead woman for hours and never even knew.

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There were different messages coming from various U.S. authorities to the press during the Ruby Ridge crisis. FBI Special Agent Gene Gwen gives a press conference in 1992. PBS photo

As for the media, they were painting a picture of a crazed ex-special forces agent resisting the government. That same man was comforting his three daughters while mourning over the bodies of his wife and 14-year-old son, having already been shot, himself.

As a journalist, Ruby Ridge is prime example of what happens when someone tries to purposely control what the media gets to know. It’s the media’s responsibility to tell people what is happening – not what to think about it – and that’s a responsibility not taken lightly. Handpicking who gets to hear information and when to receive it is a dangerous gambit to take.

When someone controls the message the people receive, or rather, don’t receive, it might have the potential to disrupt a fundamental piece of our society.

The effects, of which, can be grave.

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Zach Garner

Zach Garner is a senior at Washington State University studying Journalism and Media Production. In May, Garner will be receiving a bachelor’s degree in communication with minors in philosophy and psychology. garnerreporting@gmail.com. “I am a run-of-the-mill college white guy.”   

 

Editor’s Note: Randall Weaver was acquitted of most of the serious charges from the Ruby Ridge incident and arrest charges. Weaver along with his daughters filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government. Weaver received a $100,000 settlement and his three daughters received $1 million settlements each in 1995. After the firefight on Ruby Ridge, Weaver’s daughters were sent to Iowa to live with his wife’s family.

 

 

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