Brennen Rupp was terrified when he stepped into the small Christian school in Libby, Montana. He was looking for Ruthanne Dolezal, mother of Rachel Dolezal—the head of the Spokane NAACP who resigned after her parents outed her as a white woman. She identified as African American.
Rupp had just started working for The Western News, Libby’s local paper, when the Dolezal story broke. He saw the video interview in which an ABC broadcast affiliate in Spokane confronted her about her racial identity and watched the story spread to national outlets like BuzzFeed News, Gawker and MSNBC.
Ruthanne Dolezal and her husband, Larry, talked to many national news sources but later disconnected their phone and refused to talk to any Montana media after the national firestorm. Until Rupp.
A college football recruit before writing for a sports beat in Minnesota, Rupp had only interviewed people for sports stories before the Dolezals.
“I found out from the people that work there that this is where Rachel is from — Libby, Montana. I was like, are you kidding me?” he said. “In one of my first two weeks working there I can do this huge potential story.”
When Rupp arrived, the bi-weekly had covered the sensational story about its famous local on tiptoes, relying mostly on Associated Press stories. Other Montana news organizations also relied mostly on AP stories. Some ran editorials and letters to the editor about their opinions on Rachel Dolezal’s racial identity.
The Missoulian wrote about the story’s effect on the Dolezals in mid-June, but was unable to contact her parents. The article ran in two other Montana papers, despite having no comment from Dolezal’s parents.
Rupp’s editor, Bob Henline, was hesitant to publish a story about Rachel Dolezal. He said the story had already gotten too much attention from the national media.
“He thought that the one story did it justice,” Rupp said. “And he didn’t want to keep going on and on about the story because he thought that people were probably getting sick of it.”
Rupp pursued the interview nonetheless. He had a difficult time getting in contact with Dolezal’s parents and tracked Ruthanne down by finding her at her workplace. When he identified himself as a reporter, he said Ruthanne Dolezal “kind of went white.”
She granted him the interview because he was from the local paper and was able to relate to her in a way others couldn’t, Rupp said.
Maybe after being burned by the national media, it’s easier to talk to somebody your own size.