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John Temple’s work as a journalist and writer goes beyond telling a good story

John Temple is sitting in an apartment in Las Vegas with a group of people he barely knows. They are wary of him — his motives, his identity, his intent. But Temple has a job to do; he’s gathering information for his latest book. He can’t just leave when things get uncomfortable.

All of a sudden, the group stops talking and asks to see Temple’s driver’s license. They quiz Temple about the information on his identification, making him recite his address, date of birth, height, weight. But something doesn’t match up. Temple’s license says he needs corrective lenses, and he doesn’t have glasses on.

They are suspicious. And they have a right to be.

Identifying with the patriot movement, the group is already distrustful of the federal government, and even more so since news recently broke that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had created a fake documentary company called Longbow Productions, where undercover agents had posed as journalists to conduct interviews. 

Is Temple a journalist like he says? Or is he really an FBI agent?

Trust is an important commodity when you’re a journalist. And veteran investigative reporter John Temple knows that trust is earned — not easily, and sometimes, not at all.

The standoff that started it all

Five-years ago, alarming images were circulating media outlets and gaining national attention. One of the most shocking photos depicted a man lying flat on his belly on a highway bridge near the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s base camp in Bunkerville, Nevada. He’s wearing a tactical vest, and he’s aiming a Saiga .223 semiautomatic rifle that is wedged between the gap of two concrete jersey barriers. His weapon is trained on a group of federal agents overseeing the roundup of cattle belonging to rancher Cliven Bundy.

This image and surrounding events stuck with Temple — so much so, that he decided to write a book about it. "Up in Arms: How the Bundy Family Hijacked Public Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Movement” is the fourth nonfiction book for the West Virginia University Reed College of Media journalism professor and its recent release is getting a lot of attention.

The book chronicles Cliven and Ammon Bundy’s 2014 standoffs with the federal government over land-grazing fees in Nevada, as well as Ammon’s transformation from successful businessman to the leader of the armed insurgency that took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for 41 days in 2016.

Temple found that no mainstream media outlets have contextualized all the factors — religious, political, environmental and economic — that set the stage for these events, so he set out to accomplish that.

“I had other books in mind, but the Bundy’s story felt so timely and related to all of the civil discontent that our country is experiencing,” said Temple. “It felt like it was the first big public event that awoke mainstream Americans to the idea that people were really unhappy with the federal government, and I thought that was worth exploring.”

At the heart of the book is the idea that groups of people can live distinctly different realities based on where they’re getting their news. Temple employs an intriguing cast of characters in a dramatic series of events to convey this notion.

“One of the goals of the book is to show what it was like to be in the media bubble that the Bundys and followers were in, and how they took advantage of that. Their actions don’t seem quite as outlandish if you understand what their reality was,” Temple said. “If you’re getting your news from mainstream news sources, then your reality is totally different than if you’re taking in information from patriot movement sources.”

In all, it took Temple about two years to research and write the book — a shorter time than any of his others. But the subject matter was timely, and he wanted to use this story to try to shed some light on the divisions and information silos happening in current-day United States. He sometimes spent 10 hours a day just writing. He also spent countless hours reviewing lengthy court documents and records, assessing the major media coverage and viewing dozens of cell phone videos uploaded to the internet by members of the Bundy family and their followers. Altogether, he catalogued upwards of 1,000 documents and interviewed nearly 50 people, including the Bundys themselves, their friends, supporters and militia members. For Temple, being in the field and interviewing these extraordinary people is the most exciting part of book writing.

“I find it stressful sometimes but ultimately exhilarating to me to go somewhere completely different than my usual surroundings and to talk to people who are totally different from the people I’m usually around,” said Temple. “Invariably, you tend to realize that most people just want to be heard and have someone tell their story.”

Uncovering the truth

From the patriot movement to the opioid epidemic, Temple’s books have covered a variety of topics. These are largely based on his areas of interest and have all fallen into the true crime genre. But the journalist in Temple has an obligation to address bigger, overarching themes that are important and relevant to the American public.

Temple’s three other nonfiction books include “American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed American’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic,” “The Last Lawyer: The fight to Save Death Row Inmates” and “Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner’s Office” – all of which have shed light on current events.

“American Pain,” Temple’s most successful endeavor thus far, is the true story of twin brothers Chris and Jeff George who built the largest pill mill in the United States using a painkiller distribution scheme that filtered the highly addictive drug through a chain of pain clinics in Florida. The physicians at the clinics distributed substantial quantities of oxycodone to addicts posing as patients—giving rise to a new prescription drug industry and tipping the scales of the current opioid epidemic.

The book has received critical acclaim since its publication in 2015 and was recognized as a 2016 Edgar Allen Poe Award nominee for Fact Crime by the Mystery Writers Association, one of the most prestigious awards a writer can receive. It was also named a New York Post Favorite Book of 2015 and Warner Brothers recently bought the rights to create a film based on the story.

Since the book’s release, Temple has spoken widely about the opioid epidemic to a variety of groups, including addiction counselors, medical professionals, lawyers, journalists, medical students and law enforcement. He has also been featured by numerous media outlets including the Washington Post, Huffington Post, USA Today, CSPAN, Bustle, the Daily Best and Variety.

Temple’s work has even become a resource for lawmakers. U.S. Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia used original data reported by Temple to question acting Drug Enforcement Administration head Robert Patterson about the opioid manufacturing quota during a televised hearing.

“It was very interesting and gratifying to write a book about the opioid crisis, a topic that is so relevant right now. People seemed to want as much information as they could get about this topic,” said Temple. “I’m hoping that ‘Up in Arms’ sheds light on the division in our country the same way ‘American Pain’ shed light on the opioid epidemic.”

Becoming a storyteller

Storytelling is something Temple always wanted to do. But it wasn’t until he took a journalism class in college that he realized writing could actually be a career. He began reporting for the school newspaper, saw his name in print and his mind was set. He majored in journalism at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), received his bachelor’s degree and went to work for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review as a general assignment reporter and a health and education beat reporter.

He would spend six years as a newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida, before returning to Pitt to teach creative nonfiction writing and earn his master’s degree in fine arts.

Throughout his career, Temple became more and more interested in complex issues and social problems. He began taking on writing projects to address issues affecting his community like the condition of halfway houses and complications that arise from premature births. But life as a newspaper reporter doesn’t allow much time for in-depth research or passion projects. He wanted to pursue work with a sense of purpose and academia would allow him to do that.

He joined the College of Media in 2002, where he could use his career as a journalist to enhance the classroom experience for his students. Just like he was influenced by his first journalism class in college, students of Professor Temple are forever impacted by having taken his course.

“Taking Professor Temple’s capstone class helped me solidify the path I want to take with my journalism career,” said Kristen Uppercue (BSJ, 2019). “He taught my classmates and I not only how to accurately complete a multimedia piece, but to also focus on an underreported topic, such as highlighting the people behind an issue. He’s practicing daily what he’s teaching us, bringing his knowledge as an investigative journalist and nonfiction writer to his teaching.”

In addition to teaching, Temple is able to focus more heavily on research and long-form writing. And he has ambitious goals: tell good stories, bring attention to the world’s problems and encourage empathy for those with different views and backgrounds.  

“The value of empathy in journalism was really driven home for me while I was writing my latest book. I’ve definitely thought about this in the past, but the country and political environment is so divided right now, so it feels even more important to write stories that put ourselves in the shoes of people who aren’t like us,” explained Temple. “I think the truth is always complex, and journalists and storytellers should look for ways to present their subjects as human beings, despite their flaws or bad deeds.”

For more information about Temple’s books, visit  www.johntemplebooks.com 

Writing Tips

It takes a long time to corral some 100,000 words into a coherent, complete, and accurate story. After doing it a few times, I’ve developed a few rules that work for me.

Make an appointment to write. Writing is hard, so if I wait around for a time when I “feel like writing,” I’ll find easier things to do. As W. Somerset Maugham put it, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” I’m sharpest in the morning, so that’s when I schedule my most important work. I write it into my calendar, and treat that time as I would any other appointment.

Get going. A blank page is hell, so I lower my standards and fill it with something, as quickly as possible. When I’m beginning something new, I often just write about the idea, filling the screen with stream-of-consciousness ramblings rather than trying to come up with the perfect first sentence or paragraph. Before long, I’m immersed in a scene or an idea and making real progress.

Know your priorities. Every day, there are colleagues I need to meet with, student work I need to grade, classes I need to prepare for, and kids who need to go to rehearsal. Those things feel more urgent than completing my word count, but they’re not more important than finishing a book. So, I make sure that all those urgent things don’t take precedence over the important thing.

Kill the internet, especially social media. No explanation needed.