In late October 1971, William Chaney, Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, was arrested — along with six other Indianapolis Klansmen — on a variety of illegal weapons charges.
The arrests came as part of a joint FBI/Indianapolis police raid on a Marion County apartment, where 30,000 racist leaflets were seized, along with a .38 caliber handgun, a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, an 18-inch bayonet and assorted other knives.
The leaflets were in support of the re-election campaign of Mayor Richard Lugar. The Klan was backing Lugar on the basis of his successful creation of “Unigov,” which merged city and county governments in Indianapolis.
While Lugar disavowed and disdained the support, the KKK publicly backed him because Unigov allowed the overwhelmingly white majority in the suburbs to vote in the mayoral election. As Chaney told me in an interview that year: “Unigov makes it unlikely a negro ever will be elected mayor.”
I was a 26-year-old reporter at the Daily Journal in Franklin (a sister paper of The Republic) and the KKK was part of my “beat” assignments. A resurgence of Klan activity in Indiana had been taking place under Chaney since the mid-1960s. Rallies and cross burnings were frequent — mostly in southwestern Johnson County and Brown County.
Chaney lived near Southport and had a post office box in Greenwood for Klan business. By the time I met him, he already was under indictment on several firearms charges. Eventually he would serve time in federal prison for firebombing an Indianapolis billboard advertising company where he once worked.
Federal hate crime charges were never pursued after the October raid, but the weapons charges went forward, which I noted in my story about the raid. What I didn’t do as I wrote my story was make the obligatory “call to the accused” for comment.
That call — for the sake of balanced and fair reporting — was a standard drummed into my head by editors and professors from the first day I decided to be a journalist. My job was about facts, not about determining the truth. The readers were to determine the truth, based upon my objective reporting of the facts from both sides.
Yet, the facts of the matter seemed clear to me from the police report. I had Chaney’s phone number, but saw no reason to give him the opportunity to respond to the charges.
Early the morning after my story ran, I looked up from my typewriter to see Bill Chaney and two of his hefty Klansmen staring down at me.
“That story you wrote about me was a lie,” Chaney said. “I want a retraction.”
The demand didn’t fall on deaf ears. Two years earlier, Klansmen had put a rifle barrel to the temple of our news editor and stole his camera during a KKK rally in Brown County. My visitors did not appear to be armed, but my heart raced anyway.
Chaney then sat down in a chair next to my desk and proceeded to tell me “his side” of the story. He admitted to having the weapons, but said none of them was for any violent purpose. He told me the bayonet had been used to “cut sticks” for a “wiener roast” for the children at the Indianapolis Baptist Temple. The shotgun was used for “competitive skeet shooting” by a friend. The pistol was a family antique he was planning to sell.
I took it all down and wrote a second story — in no way a retraction, but a follow-up from the “other side.” The quotes were so ridiculous that no one likely missed the humor — not even Bill Chaney.
Still, I always have debated in my mind whether the follow-up story, or the original one, was my failing. Maybe the bigger sin was to give an obvious bigot and racist a forum to indoctrinate the public, while entertaining and building his image among fellow bigots and racists.
In today’s national environment — where serial lies and misrepresentations from the highest office in the land have become the norm — where solid journalism has been labeled “fake news” for no other reason than to hide the facts — are the codes of balance sometimes more dangerous than virtuous?
The time may be at hand for American journalism to adjust to a new world where the ridiculous concept of “alternative facts” has begun to destroy the common, objective information base on which decisions must be made in a functioning representative democracy.
A disgruntled reader once told me our nation is based on everyone in American having an equal opinion. I responded that while Americans should have an “equal right” to an opinion, all opinions are far from equal.
With the 2020 elections just around the corner, I hope American journalists don’t continue to make the mistake I made with Bill Chaney.
Not every “other side” is worth seeking — at least not worth printing or broadcasting.