Dec 7, 2021 9 min read

The Mentorship of Bill Morlin

The Mentorship of Bill Morlin

The reporter who broke the biggest stories of our generation mentored generations of reporters and researchers

Perhaps fitting for a man who broke some of the biggest stories in our region (and  occasionally the biggest story in the whole country) in a straight-forward, no nonsense way, Saturday’s celebration of life for Bill Morlin was brief, but powerful. It was also really funny. Videos of Bill with his grandkids making a mocking infomercial about Impossible burgers (actually pink slime or play-dough on buns).

Spokane’s most hard-nosed reporter was a ham.

Filled with photos of family and some of his favorite music, it seemed at first as if no one would mention his legendary career, but after remembering the husband, father, grandfather and friend, stories began flowing about Bill Morlin, the reporter.

His wife Connie spoke about getting phone calls from all over just before or just after reporting on dangerous people, including one time she asked him to stay safe and he said he would, but if he didn’t, “it’ll make a hell of a story!” The former KXLY reporter John Allison called him a bulldog, not just for the way he chased after stories, but for his loyal protection of those he held dear.

The writer Jess Walter, who was on the team who reported about Ruby Ridge for the Spokesman, spoke powerfully about how Bill was always a step ahead of everyone else — able to even get a scoop on Walter’s fiction writing. Bill had placed a story in the New York Times about the doomed town of Taft, Montana just weeks before the town featured in Walter’s bestselling novel, The Cold Millions.

Despite that doggedness, everyone seemed to have their own story about how philosophically unique Bill was within a profession that has a tendency to be territorial, competitive, and to guard secrets and sources jealously.

Until the very end, Bill was generous with tips, leads and perhaps most importantly, mentorship. “The most generous I’ve ever seen,” Walter said.

There have been beautiful remembrances of Bill in the Spokesman by Jim Camden and Shawn Vestal. The writer Dave Neiwert — legendary in his own right for covering a similar beat — offered a beautiful tribute and followed it up with a great twitter thread showing not just Morlin’s dedication and fearlessness in the face of real danger, but also how a single story can spiderweb out to reveal many more, some of which are still relevant today:

These weren’t the only stories we’ve heard over the last few weeks about how Bill had also helped them along, with sources, with stories, with mentorship. There were dozens of other journalists and researchers of the far right — mostly folks who don’t have the cachet to get a special byline, or wouldn’t seek it out — that Bill Morlin had also helped them.

At the memorial we heard someone say, “I thought I might have been one of maybe five people Bill had really mentored. Now I think I might be one of 500.”

Turns out Bill wasn’t just a mentor and sounding board for shoe-leather print journalists. We reached out to some of the folks who don’t have frequent bylines covering hate groups. They include researchers and academics and, for our money, the best news director in local TV.

It isn’t an exhaustive list, but it paints a real picture.

Kate Bitz, Program Manager, Western States Center

When people ask me how I got interested in researching bigoted, anti-democracy groups, I often talk about a moment from my childhood in the suburbs of Spokane. My mother set a page of the Spokesman-Review in front of me, with a picture of an Aryan Nations parade through Coeur d’Alene. Pay attention, she said, pointing to the picture of children younger than me, dressed in replica Nazi uniforms. To her, this was important; she taught me never to look away from hate, to always keep an eye on the nastier side of what was happening in our community in the 1990’s.

Usually, that’s a story I tell about my mom. But it’s also a story about the news, and about the journalist whose byline I looked for from a young age. There was an active debate in the community about whether it was helpful and important to chase down rumors about the Aryan Nations or whether it was just an unfortunate stain on our region’s reputation to speak about white nationalist organizing and the problems that stemmed from it. We can all count ourselves incredibly lucky that Bill Morlin committed himself to exposing the truth and bringing those insights to the public. The curiosity and dedication that he brought to his work were true gifts. His journalism provided an invaluable education in how to think and talk about issues that were once considered fringe topics, but which have become more and more central to our civic life today. What exactly is a hate group? How do we understand the kind of people who organize violence in our communities by spreading bigotry? And what can ordinary people do to push back? These are questions I spend my whole day working on now. I was introduced to them by Morlin’s courageous reporting, first at the Spokesman, and then in Hatewatch.

When I returned to Spokane in 2017 and began digging back into local research and organizing, I learned that Bill Morlin continued to keep tabs on white nationalists in the area. We only chatted on the phone a few times, and I never quite overcame my disbelief that I was someone he’d find interesting to speak with. Still, his presence felt like a warm welcome into anti-bigotry work in the region. If Bill was still checking up on us, we’d be OK, right? It didn’t seem possible that this journalistic legend from my childhood would ever pass away; he was like a permanent feature of the landscape.

As remembrances poured in, I came to realize a few things. Bill Morlin was talking to a lot of us. The people he inspired to do great journalistic work are all around me. No one person will be around forever, but their legacy can shape an entire field of incredible reporters, leaders, activists and organizers who know that sunlight is the best disinfectant and that uncomfortable truths are worth telling.

I think we’ll be alright.

Dr. Joan Braune, Philosophy & Leadership Studies, Gonzaga University

I wish I had known Bill Morlin better, because every encounter I had with him impressed me by his kindness, courage, and encyclopedic mind. I was first put in contact with him four or five years ago, after I received some anonymous hate literature mailed to me at work by Nazis. While Morlin will be remembered most for his brave reporting on hate groups, I experienced him also as an advocate and ally for those impacted by hate. He helped me do research on the source of the mailing, reassured me and protected my privacy, and sent the material to the Southern Poverty Law Center. When you first receive mail of that sort, it can feel very isolating—you wonder who to talk to about it, whether it will alarm your friends and family too much to share it, whether it will seem to others like you are just after attention, or whether people will think you must have done something wrong to attract it. Bill Morlin helped me to respond proactively, to be an investigator—a hunter, not hunted. I kept in touch with Bill a bit as I began to do more research and activism against hate groups in the region. Most of our communication was emails and phone calls.

I only met him in person once, for coffee, but that conversation had a profound impact on me. He mentored me on the research, talked about building a file system, and honestly, the thing that sticks with me most is that he did a lot of yard work. Some of the people I’ve met who have spent decades researching hate and violence spend a lot of time outside. It’s clarifying; it returns you to yourself, your body, and your humanity.

Bill Morlin is a larger-than-life legend in the Spokane area’s historic and ongoing struggle against fascism, a tradition that stretches back to Spokane activists deplatforming the fascist Silver Shirts in 1938. He was man of extraordinary courage whose values led him to confront some of the world’s worst people for the sake of truth and human dignity. But I remember him most for his kindness.

Stephen Piggott, Program analyst, Western State Center

When I joined the Southern Poverty Law Center, Bill Morlin was one of the colleagues I was most looking forward to working with. Anyone who has spent some time researching America’s far-right over the past three decades has come across Bill’s dogged reporting, which serves as a seminal account of the white supremacist movement.

What impressed me most about Bill was his willingness to spend time with young researchers and journalists like myself. He loved being part of a team and working on pieces together. The fact that the people he was working with were decades his junior in experience and age was irrelevant. Bill inspired and mentored an entire new generation of journalists and researchers in this field and the fruit of his labor is paying off in this time of increased political violence and attacks on democracy, where this reporting is more critical than ever.

Melissa Luck, News Director, KXLY

Sometimes, I stress about the thousands of emails in my inbox. Emails I should have long deleted, just sitting there taking up space. Today, I'm glad I'm an email packrat, because I have this message from legendary reporter Bill Morlin. "It's proof why I've always respected and appreciated your work," he wrote on March 29th, in reference to a story I wrote about a dead serial killer that Bill and I both reported on. "Let's hope some of your thoroughness in reporting rubs off on the younger folks."

Now that Bill is gone, I'll cherish that message as one of the greatest compliments I'll receive as a reporter.

Generally, newspaper reporters don't have much use for TV journalists. Maybe we seem vapid, our work too frivolous and without weight. Bill Morlin never made me feel that way. When I was first starting out as a reporter in Spokane in the early 2000's, I desperately wanted to find my way. I found a beat that was largely uncovered in my newsroom — federal court — and was immediately in over my head. At one of those hearings, I must have looked lost. Bill came over to me and offered to help. I didn't know yet what a local legend he was. I quickly learned he was as good as he was humble. He never stopped helping me, even as recently as a few weeks ago. He emailed with a compliment — and a story tip. I wish I would have taken the time to say thank you.

Bill Morlin's work speaks for itself. He never backed down, he chased dangerous people and ideals into the darkest corners. He didn't need to brag about it, but it was clear from his work that he was guided by a pursuit of the truth. He exposed corruption as easily as he reflected on local history. He quietly did his job, but could intimidate any public official with something to hide. He also never lost track of the stories that mattered to him. Last year, I reported on a cold case death in Spokane that Bill had reported on decades before. He sent me names of people to contact, background information I never would have found on my own. He didn't want credit, he just wanted me to do the story justice. The scope of his work inspires all of us to do better.

I always carried a deep sense of pride that Bill found me worthy of his mentorship and advice. On the day he died, I read tweets and quotes from so many other journalists for whom he did the same. That didn't make me feel less special, it made me feel even more proud that I was among that group. I'm forever grateful for the work he did in our community that laid a mantle for the rest of us to now carry. I hope he knew how much I appreciated him; I hope I can continue to make him proud.

Now for my modest story:

I only ever spoke with Bill once, just a couple months ago. He didn’t know me at all, and surely had better things to do than take my call, but he did.

We talked for about an hour about a new group of white supremacists who had recently moved to Spokane and he gave me a couple people to try reaching out to, and when I asked him if he’d ever consider writing for our little outfit, he kindly said maybe. He had a book he was working on that he wanted to finish. He ended it in a way that stuck with me (I’m paraphrasing, I wasn’t taking notes):

If you find someone to write that story, and if you ever need advice, call me. I’ll pick up

It’s the sort of thing people say almost as a matter of course. I almost always assume people are just saying that, especially when you’ve asked for help and they’ve declined. Not right now, but call me any time. This was different.

I had no doubt that Bill Morlin meant it.

In my experience, journalism — and maybe just this whole, alienated American moment — is brutally short of mentors. When you find one, it’s such a precious thing. Our dear friend and writer Leah Sottile put her heartbreak at losing hers beautifully:

The most fitting thing I can think to do to honor Bill Morlin’s legacy then — as a journalist, sure, but just as a person who wants us all to find a way out of these lean, dark times — is offer to help as many people as seem like they need it, and make sure to answer when they call.

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