Telling stories of the sagebrush

RN&R editor receives writing honor, stresses need for local reporting

PHOTO/MARK S. BACON: Frank X. Mullen, left, and Gi W. Yun, associate dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the 2021 Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer lecture at the University of Nevada, Reno on Nov. 4.

When a newspaper reporter pulls back the curtain surrounding events and public policy to tell readers what’s going on behind the scenes, threats often follow.

“Sometimes you get death threats, sometimes people want to beat you up,” Frank X. Mullen told an audience at the University of Nevada, Reno Nov. 4.  “You get screamed at a lot, but that’s the job.”

Mullen, a veteran Reno reporter who is now editor of the Reno News & Review, delivered the lecture as the 2021 Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer. The 20-year-old program is in honor of Laxalt, who along with Mark Twain and Walter Van Tilburg Clark, is remembered as one of the Silver State’s premier writers. The program is administered by the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno and Nevada Humanities. The lecture video is on YouTube and related Zoom panel discussion about the future of local news reporting also can be viewed online.

During his talk, Mullen, 68, recounted some of the most memorable stories of his 40-year journalism career and advocated for local, independent news outlets. He described his path to newspaper journalism, beginning with a neighborhood paper he created when he was 10, by using carbon paper to make multiple copies by “pressing really hard” on the top sheet.

Ink on his hands

PHOTO/SUSAN SKORUPA: Mullen on Election Day 2020.

Mullen, who was inducted into the Nevada Press Association’s Newspaper Hall of fame in September, said his mom shut that homemade newspaper down because working with carbon paper stained his clothes. But the ink stayed in his blood. He eventually worked for several daily and weekly newspapers and is the author of “The Donner Party Chronicles,” a book documenting the pioneer group’s deadly journey into the Sierra.

He worked for the Reno Gazette Journal for 25 years until 2013, but came out of retirement 18 months ago to help revive the RN&R online after the 28-year-old print edition shuttered in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the question-and-answer session following his talk, Mullen was repeatedly asked about investigative stories he wrote for the Gazette Journal and reactions to his work. An audience member asked about his in-depth series, one of two nominated by the Gazette Journal for a Pulitzer Prize, that focused on abuse and neglect of animals at the UNR School of Agriculture in the early 2000s.

“There were sheep that had drowned in the middle of a field in Reno,” Mullen said, “even though the neighbors of that field had been calling and saying (the water) is up to their ankles, it’s up to their knees, and they were told, ‘don’t worry about it.’

Animal abuse and neglect

“The whole flock of sheep drowned during a rain storm. There were other problems, too. It was a long list.” Other stories in the series involved the university’s covert video surveillance of a faculty whistleblower and the improper disposal of animals that had been injected with human stem cells, a practice that could have resulted in the birth of a novel virus like the one involved in the current pandemic.

When his stories about the animal mistreatment started to run, Mullen said, the university — under a previous campus administration — tried to get him fired from the journalism school, where he taught part time.

“They also tried to get me fired from the newspaper and they organized a letter writing campaign … saying I was being paid off,” he said. Mullen did not lose either job and, he said, in 2005 “UNR (paid a “reduced” fine of $11,400) … levied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture against the university” for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

The Burning Season

“I enjoy digging deep into issues,” he said, one of which was munitions demolition at the Sierra Army Depot in Lassen County, Calif., near the Nevada border.  He said since the 1940s the depot had been exploding millions of tons of obsolete or unstable ordnance in the open air creating smoke plumes that drifted into Reno’s north valleys and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.

After finding Army studies of toxic results from munitions demolition in Kuwait after the first Gulf War, Mullen started digging. As a direct result of his stories, “the Pentagon banned the open burning and detonation of munitions – not just in Lassen County—but everywhere in the country.” The disposals are now carried out in enclosed chambers, he noted.

While he was reporting the story, Mullen said, “I’d get calls saying, ‘I’d watch what you put in the paper. We work with explosives all day long.’”

In addition to recounting investigative challenges, Mullen, who received the Nevada Press Association’s Outstanding Journalist award in 2002 and 2005, emphasized the essential value of local news reporting while explaining how he got started as a writer — his goal from the time he started that neighborhood newspaper in Ridgefield, N.J.

A writing life

After attending high school, he spend several years traveling and working at various jobs, including unloading boxcars, working in factories, driving trucks, delivering live poultry and trimming trees. During his travels he found, “a goldmine for story ideas. But I didn’t write down any of them.”

Eventually he wound up in Denver, cooking in restaurants. But he realized that “since leaving high school I hadn’t written so much as a letter to Santa.”

Thinking he was a failure at 21, he started writing feature stories for local newspapers, and was encouraged when some made it into print.  He signed up for journalism classes at Metropolitan State College in Denver, supporting himself by freelance writing and cooking in restaurants. 

Stories on stage

Inspired by a journalism professor, he finished his degree and got a job with the Denver Post, and later became managing editor of the Rocky Mountain Business Journal where he met his future wife, Susan.  When Scripps Howard, the journal’s corporate owners, shut that paper down, the couple moved to Reno, after a stop at a paper in Missouri.  They both found jobs on the Gazette-Journal.

“His mantra was accuracy, accuracy, accuracy — because when the events of people’s lives pass through our fingers to be set in neat rows of type, we’d better get it right the first time… Be aware of your own biases and don’t allow them to leak into the story; give everyone their best defense in print… (You) never have to hang anybody in a story – ask the relevant questions and if they are in the wrong, they will always hang themselves.”

– Frank X. Mullen, describing lessons he learned from Prof. Greg Pearson.

 While working on the Reno paper, Mullen began teaching at the Reynolds School. He also earned a Master of Arts in environmental journalism/new media at UNR.

And took to the stage to tell more stories. As part of Nevada Humanities’ Chautauqua program, he created living history presentations performing as Babe Ruth, Benedict Arnold, Edward R. Murrow, Comstock-era newspaperman Dan DeQuille and others.  He has taken many of those historical characters on the road to Chautauqua festivals and theaters in other states.

Preserving local voices

The continuing importance — and the dire state of — local newspapers was a recurring theme throughout Mullen’s talk. 

“More than 2,000 American newspapers have vanished since 2015 and I didn’t want the Reno News & Review to add to that number,” he said, explaining why he took the editor’s job in June 2020. He accepted the post, he said, because the paper’s demise in print was due to COVID-19 and, “wasn’t related to corporate greed or even my mom’s aversion to laundry problems.”

Local newspapers, he said, “tell residents what’s going on in their neighborhoods and the halls of government; celebrate the good things that often are overlooked, and pull back the curtain to show citizens what the wizard is really doing back there in the shadows.”

Without local news outlets, he said, “people are less engaged, people are less engaged in public matters, voter turnout plummets; government corruption and malfeasance runs rampant.”

Mark S. Bacon of Reno is a former journalist, journalism professor and advertising copywriter. He is an author of non-fiction and fiction books, most recently the Nostalgia City series of mystery novels. His latest in the series, "Deep Ride Deception" was released this month. Bacon's freelance  feature articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, San Antonio Express News, Orange County (Calif.) Register, Denver Post and many other publications. Most recently he was a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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