Nevada Journalists: Conservative Media Darling Rancher Is Clearly “Breaking The Law”

Local journalists covering Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's case stress he is no victim and is breaking the law, regardless of conservative media's sympathy for his defiance of government orders to remove cattle from federal land.

Those reporters and editors -- some who have been covering the case for 20 years -- spoke with Media Matters and said many of Bundy's neighbors object to his failure to pay fees to have his cattle graze on the land near Mesquite, NV., when they pay similar fees themselves.

“We have interviewed neighbors and people in and around Mesquite and they have said that he is breaking the law,” said Chuck Meyernews director at CBS' KXNT Radio in Las Vegas. “When it comes to the matter of the law, Mr. Bundy is clearly wrong.”

Bundy's case dates back to 1993, when he stopped paying the fees required of local ranchers who use the federally owned land for their cattle and other animals. Local editors say more than 85 percent of Nevada land is owned by the federal government.

Bundy stopped paying fees on some 100,000 acres of land in 1993 and has defied numerous court orders, claiming the land should be controlled by Nevada and that the federal government has no authority over it.

Last year a federal court ordered Bundy to remove his cattle or they would be confiscated to pay the more than $1 million in fees and fines he's accumulated. The confiscation began earlier this month, but was halted because the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had “serious concerns about the safety of employees and members of the public” when armed militia showed up to block the takeover.

Despite his lawlessness, Bundy has become a sympathetic figure for many in the right-wing media.

But for local journalists, many who have been reporting on him for decades, that image is very misguided.

“He clearly has captured national attention, among mostly conservative media who have portrayed him as a kind of a property rights, First Amendment, Second Amendment, range war kind of issue,” Meyer noted. “That's how it has been framed, but the story goes back a lot longer and is pretty cut and dry as far as legal implications have been concerned.”

He added that, “Cliven Bundy and his supporters are engaged in a fight that has already been settled. There are a number of people around these parts who have strong reservations about Bundy's actions.”

Las Vegas Sun Editorial Page Editor Matt Hufman said depicting Bundy as a victim is wrong.

“The BLM had court orders against him in the 90s telling him to get off federal land,” Hufman said. “He's got a bunch of these arguments about state's rights, it's not federal land, blah, blah, blah. All of the arguments have been knocked down.”

Hufman cited Bundy's claim that his family has been on the land since the 1870s, adding, “a federal judge said the land's been owned by the federal government since 1848.” He later added that Bundy “was paying grazing fees until 1993 then he stopped. At some point it was okay for him to pay grazing fees.”

Ron Comings, news director of KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, offered a similar view.

“You have to keep in mind that huge percentages of western states are owned by the feds and that has rubbed people the wrong way for a long time,” Comings said. “But they are the same people who will say that 'we all pay grazing fees and you have to pay and you should work this through other channels.' There are a lot of farmers and ranchers who pay the grazing fees whether they like it or not, and they see him as someone who is not. They say to stop paying their fees is like not paying your rent and you don't have a leg to stand on.”

Comings also pointed out that many of the armed “militia” who came to Bundy's aid are from out of state, describing them as “just anti-government and ... just seen as outsiders who are coming in to jump on this issue.”

Even Las Vegas Review-Journal Editor Michael Hengel, whose paper published an editorial in support of Bundy, admitted he is not legally in the right: “He's breaking the law, that fact is true, they have ruled that ... The courts have ruled that he is on federal land and he is grazing on federal land and he has not paid.”

In St. George, UT., the closest city with its own daily media, the online St. George News weighed in with a critical piece Sunday that also took aim at the national press supporting Bundy, stating: “The Bundy Range War was perpetuated by an irresponsible media vying for nothing more than ratings and an ill-informed and willfully ignorant public who, much like a NASCAR fan, come to the race simply in hopes of seeing a crash.”