Shawn Vestal: Bill Morlin, a legendary hard-nosed journalist – and kind of a sweetheart, too
Nov. 22, 2021 Updated Mon., Nov. 22, 2021 at 4:11 a.m.
In March, a tip arrived from a familiar source: Bill Morlin.
Joseph Duncan, the notorious kidnapper, rapist and murderer, had late-stage brain cancer. He had been sitting on death row in an Indiana prison for years and exhausting the appeals process. His doctor’s diagnosis, which had not been reported publicly and was buried in the mountain of court records, made it seem likely that he wouldn’t survive for long.
A column ran shortly thereafter. Three weeks later, Duncan died.
I wrote that first story, but it was Bill Morlin’s scoop. He just handed it over. Even years into his retirement, Morlin – the unrivaled GOAT among journalists covering hate groups in the Northwest and a generous mentor to so many others – had better sources, got deeper tips, held more background knowledge and chased down more news than most of us who are still on the job every day.
The Duncan story was not some enormously important piece of journalism, but it was typical Morlin. He was constantly finding news, pushing to get it out to the public and willing to help a colleague.
Also typical was what happened after I wrote it: Bill reached out to ask – in a manner that was irascible, exasperated, but still friendly – why in the world I had done the story the way I had, choosing to include this part and omit that one. He did not pull any punches, and yet I did not feel punched.
After we talked it through, we pledged to get a beer sometime and catch up.
We always said that. We should get a beer some night.
But we didn’t.
Morlin died late Saturday, following a brief, brutal illness. Among journalists and readers, his passing is monumental – the loss of a committed, unrelenting reporter, second-to-none at rooting out cancerous secrets, whose career stretched from the days when this was a two-newspaper town to an era when most of the freelance work he did in retirement appeared online.
He was also a kind, generous mentor and friend.
Sort of a hard-nosed sweetheart.
Morlin’s rapid passing stunned everyone who knew him. I’d been on the phone with him not two weeks earlier after he’d sent me yet another column idea about local extremist yahoos.
We should get a beer some night soon, we said.
Maybe after Thanksgiving.
Many people worked more closely with Bill than I did, and many knew him better personally. By the time I met him 20 years ago when I arrived at The Spokesman-Review, his legacy was already intimidatingly legendary. That’s a term that is often overused when memorializing people, but it is simply accurate in his case.
He sat in the back corner of the newsroom then, at a time when it was so crowded with reporters and editors that there weren’t enough desks. He was surrounded by fortresses of files – from which he could extract the precisely apt bit of background information or photograph.
He was fussy about the lighting; there would often be a workman up on a ladder at his desk, trying to get the brightness just right. He was a Chronicle guy, years after The Spokesman-Review had swallowed it up.
He had well-placed sources he protected vigorously. He was continually passing along tips, suggestions, ideas for how to get the story. He could be generous with younger reporters and sometimes critical when he thought they were swallowing the party line too readily, or failing to work a story hard enough – yet he was not harsh or discouraging.
As a reporter, he was relentless. He would knock on any door. Ask any question. He faced personal threats over his work – the newspaper itself was bombed by white supremacists in 1996. He had the memory of an elephant. He was passionate about how he thought stories should be covered, and had a long recollection for the times when he thought one hadn’t been done right. He cared.
He was not perfect, of course. He sometimes got tips that didn’t pan out, or that couldn’t be confirmed, and he sometimes wanted to publish when the editors didn’t think he had it nailed down. These conflicts also became a part of the lore of Morlin: the times Bill got a story the editors wouldn’t run.
He was at the heart of many of this newspaper’s finest moments, as well as of some of its thornier controversies. All of it, every heroic thing he did alongside every merely human one, combined to produce a journalistic career that stands alone.
So much of the dark side of this region’s history – from The Order to The Aryan Nations to Ruby Ridge to the arrest of Robert Lee Yates – was discovered and relayed, in large part, by Morlin in his years at the Spokane Daily Chronicle and Spokesman-Review. He wrote about the corners of the community that many would prefer to ignore, and he was a determined evangelist for the disinfecting power of sunlight and the refusal to ignore uncomfortable truths.
His reporting was a testament to the power of old-school, hit-the-pavement journalism to change communities for the better. It is impossible to imagine the ouster of the Aryan Nations in North Idaho without years and years of Morlin’s deep, detailed reporting, to cite just one example among many.
On the other hand, it is very possible, especially these days, to imagine living in a community without a Bill Morlin, where the dark side remains in the dark, and where the hard work of digging up the difficult truths just never happens, because staffs are too small or the willingness to take part in the effort isn’t there or simply because the world is not full of journalists like Bill Morlin.
Now it’s even less so, for which we’re all poorer.
In passing, he left one final, crucial tip: Don’t wait around to see the people you keep meaning to see. Get that beer.
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