An award-winning journalist spoke on the importance of understanding and representing our societal fringesin a speech Monday at the University Center Theater.
Leah Sottile, creator of the award-winning podcast “Bundyville,” is the School of Journalism’s Pollner professor this fall. The position rotates every semester and involves teaching a class and advising UM’s independent newspaper, the Montana Kaimin. Her work, which has been featured in publications such as The Atlantic, Vice, The Washington Post and The New York Times, focuses heavily on people living in the extremes of society.
“I think all of my work has shown that, by understanding the people at our edges, we can understand a lot about who we are as a society,” Sottile said. “About who we’re failing, about who feels rejected. About the anger that can turn into violence.”
Sottile addressed the nearly full 300-person auditorium at the 24th annual T. Anthony Pollner Lecture. The lecture is put on by the School of Journalism and occurs once each semester. It is held in honor of T. Anthony Pollner, a UM j-school grad who died in a motorcycle accident.
Her speech, “Stories of the Wild, the Innocent and the Downright Disregarded,” followed her winding journalism journey and how she found a niche in the margins of society, writing stories about extremists.
“The stories I was writing were journalistic explorations of topics like violence and gender constructs and power structures. I was interested in writing about people who were throwaways, who had been lost to systemic failures,” she said.
Sottile got her start in the rural west after graduating from Gonzaga with a major in journalism and minor in political science. She worked at a small community paper before joining the Spokane Inlander, an alt-weekly publication.
“I came up in the world of alt-weeklies, which thrive on telling the stories other reporters just aren’t finding,” Sottile said.
Realizing she could write stories about underreported topics came after feeling unfulfilled by her experiences in newsrooms, Sottile said.
It got to the point where she left the field entirely, focusing on other pursuits like art design.
But she couldn’t escape her love of writing.
“Nothing ever satisfied me like journalism had,” she said.
She jumped back in, using her passion for reporting on marginalized, disenfranchised or plain old unusual characters who may have otherwise been looked over.
“In a way, looking back at all my work and seeing this attraction to writing stories about people living at the edges of society, all that time I think I was perfectly positioning myself to become an expert on extremist groups,” Sottile said. “Regardless of their political stance.”
Her self-titled “white whale” came in the form of the Bundys, a family of ranchers who organized multiple armed insurrections against the federal government for its handling of public lands. Sottile closely followed the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Ammon Bundy, the youngest Bundy brother.
Sottile latched onto the story right off the bat, eager to show the side of the narrative she felt most media outlets were missing.
“Their movement wasn’t just about land rights and some cattle,” Sottile said. “It was about believing that they were the saviors of the constitution, saviors of humanity, and that’s something I think the world needs to know.”
“From what I saw of the media coverage, what was on display at the Malheur Refuge and Bundy ranch was being dismissed,” she continued. “These were just hillbillies with guns. They were a punch line. And so they were disregarded.”
In her highly-praised podcast “Bundyville,” Sottile took a deeper look into the motivation behind the anger, and what ultimately lead a group of rural ranchers and farmers to take a stand.
UM Provost Jon Harbor attended the speech Monday evening. He said he thought Sottile provided an important viewpoint on the power of alternative journalism.
“What particularly impressed me was the emphasis on alt-journalism,” Harbor said. “Often we think about the mainstream media and how important that is, but she told a really compelling story on the value of taking a different path and getting a different form of insight.”
Claire Sirmon attended the speech to cover it for a journalism class.
“It’s really interesting,” Sirmon said. “With alt-journalism being the focus of this speech, it makes you think a lot about the kind of stories you’re writing as a journalism student. It’s definitely a different viewpoint.”
Sottile’s primary message to the crowd Monday, however, had less to do with journalism and more to do with humanity: A reminder that at the core of each of us lie human motivations and emotions and reactions. That, she said, is the desire to overcome.
“It’s important for us to remember that we came from people who were not perfect, but who endured, and persisted and lived life hard, despite the odds,” she said. “That underdog blood is what is flowing in our veins.”