The Oklahoman

Local Investigative Report Promotes Corporate Agenda

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Isn’t it convenient that a recent investigative report published in The Oklahoman and on about Oklahoma employees who commit workers’ compensation fraud just happens to fit with a right-wing world view?

That world view has been encapsulated for history by the newspaper’s pick for president in the last general election, Republican Mitt Romney, who claimed at one campaign stop that he could “never convince” 47 percent of American voters “that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Surely, all those Oklahomans who commit workers’ compensation fraud, according to The Oklahoman, are going to be a collection of deadbeats and part of Romney’s 47 percent.

But the problem is the newspaper report hardly makes a case for massive fraud, and it doesn’t even pretend to address the other side, which is the continuing problem of workplace safety, which leads to a huge number of annual workers’ deaths and injuries on a national and state level.

The report is an unfair, unbalanced ideological treatment of a small problem, and it merely promotes the financial interests of corporations, especially when compared to the number of workers who face the real possibility of severe injury or even death each day they go to work.

The Oklahoman Publishing Company (OPUBCO) is owned by Philip Anschutz, 73, a Colorado right-wing oilman who now dabbles in media ownership. He bought the newspaper in 2011 from the well-known and local Gaylord family, which also had a conservative agenda. The newspaper remains completely out of the mainstream in American journalism.

In general, workers’ compensation is a program in which employees hurt on the job get medical treatment and continued wages in exchange for giving up certain rights to sue an employer. It also provides for benefits to the families of people killed on the job.

The anchor story in the report, written by Robby Trammel and Nolan Clay, outlines some cases in which Oklahomans faked or exaggerated injuries to supposedly game the system and notes that during the “last three years, prosecutors at the Oklahoma attorney general's office have filed more than 50 workers' compensation fraud cases.”

That number, which averages out to approximately 17 cases a year, seems remarkably low when you consider that there were over 49,000 recorded nonfatal cases of occupational injury and illness in the state in 2011 alone.

The other big statistic used in the story is the $2.5 million ordered in restitution because of fraud by Oklahoma workers’ compensation judges over the last 13 years. That breaks down to about $200,000 a year, which hardly seems that big of a deal when you consider that there were 91 fatal Oklahoma workplace incidences in 2010 alone.

The right-wing effort to demonize workers and diminish their rights in order to increase profits for corporations, including insurance companies, is an ongoing campaign, expressed clearly by Romney in his campaign and more subtly by the special report in The Oklahoman. Is there some employee fraud when it comes to the workers’ compensation system in Oklahoma? Yes, and it’s wrong, and it should be investigated and punished, but it pales in comparison to corporate negligence when it comes to workplace safety.

Here’s a statistic: In 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 4,606 recorded work deaths in the country. Here’s another one: There were close to 3 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in that same year.

Of course, the reporters of this non-story failed to tell the other side, and now the state’s ultra-conservative Attorney General Scott Pruitt has vowed to fight employee workers’ compensation fraud. The Oklahoman editorial page has long urged “reform” of the workers’ compensation system here, which means it wants more money for corporations and less protection for workers.

Reporters such as Trammel and Clay, and even college professors, like me, go to work in tremendously safe environments each day, but for other workers in construction or in the oil fields or in factories there’s always the lingering specter of serious injury and death. These people need more of a voice than rich newspaper owners, but they aren’t going to get it from The Oklahoman.

Era Ends: Buffett Buys World

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The state’s two largest newspapers will no longer be locally owned by families with strong roots in Oklahoma, but it’s unclear what that might portend for their readers or for Oklahoma’s media landscape.

Philip Anschutz, an ultra-conservative Colorado billionaire in the oil and gas industry, added to his media holdings when he purchased The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, in 2011. On Tuesday, the Tulsa World announced its sale to Warren Buffet’s BH Media Group, which also owns the Omaha World-Herald. Buffett is chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway, a highly successful investment group based in Omaha.

An era in the state has definitely come to an end. The Oklahoman was owned since 1903 by the Gaylord family, a family highly active in the local Oklahoma City community. The World has been owned by the Lorton family since 1913. The Lortons have also been a major part of Tulsa’s history.

The family-owned newspaper in large markets has become a relic in a time of massive media consolidation, changing reading habits and declining circulation. Readers increasingly are turning to digital formats to stay informed, and the hard-copy newspaper is considered by some cultural critics to be an endangered species. These are volatile and changing times for the media, especially for large metropolitan newspapers. Media consolidation allows for shared costs and shared platforms.

Perhaps, it was simply inevitable the state’s two largest news organizations would end up with out-of-state ownership, but here’s why it’s important: Most people don’t realize the large newspapers dictate what news gets covered and how it gets covered in their local markets. Local television news has become crime-obsessed, and, at least in Oklahoma, rarely engages in enterprise journalism or thorough political coverage, but if The World or The Oklahoman newspaper covers a particular, non-sensationalized story, the local television stations with their reductionist herd mentality will sometimes follow it, just as long as they don’t have to do the initial journalistic legwork. Radio remains a vast wasteland of extremist right-wingers here, with the exception of the state’s National Public Radio (NPR) stations. The point is that The World and The Oklahoman, for better or worse, help to create the state’s public reality and public discourse.

On the down side, without local ownership, the depiction of that “public reality” by the two newspapers could become dull and robotic. Why would their out-of-state corporate handlers even care what’s going on in Oklahoma City and Tulsa? What’s the bottom line, right? Will both newspapers become generic, one-size-fits-all web sites with reduced reporting staffs? It increasingly appears so, and that’s not a good thing.

The one major distinction between the two sales is that Anschutz appears to have an ultra-conservative political agenda when it comes to his media holdings, which also includes The Washington Examiner. Indeed, The Oklahoman has remained relentlessly conservative under Anschutz’s ownership. BH Media Group has claimed The World will remain autonomous, but that remains to be seen. The World, a historically Republican newspaper, has become decidedly less conservative than The Oklahoman in recent years, but it still supported U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a conservative extremist, in his last reelection bid.

The billionaire Buffet, of course, has supported President Barack Obama’s efforts to raise taxes on the country’s wealthiest citizens to narrow income inequality. This political view—an anathema on the right—might signal to the editorial leadership of The World that it’s okay to broaden the spectrum of voices it allows on its opinion page and in online formats. This would be a healthy development in a state completely dominated by Republicans.

It’s difficult to predict where all this leads because of rapid change caused by digital media and the fragmentation of advertising dollars among different platforms. It would not surprise me if both The World and The Oklahoman are sold again within a few years.

I should note that both the sales announcements of The Oklahoman and The World lacked specific financial information. How can reporters at these news organizations demand openness in government when their own corporations gloss over what people really want to know, such as the sales amount, current profit or loss margins and historical circulation comparisons?

This lack of information does not bode well for people who want to stay informed in this state, but that’s the reality we face.

Newspaper IS The Great Divider

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An unsigned Oklahoman editorial recently published on calling President Barack Obama “The Great Divider” is a reductionist, evidence-lacking piece of silly drivel, sophomoric in its approach and basically untruthful in its meager content.

No, it’s The Oklahoman that is The Great Divider, a newspaper that for decades hasn’t allowed consistent dissenting views on its ultra-conservative editorial page and a newspaper that only reports the news with objectivity when it doesn’t concern its conservative ownership, whether it’s the current owner, Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, or, in the past, the Gaylord family.

The idea that an editorial in The Oklahoman could have anything more to say about the country’s first African American president than a few, reused conservative clichés should make anyone, even Republicans here, knowingly chuckle and roll their eyes. But the faux dramatic voice of The Great Divider piece deserves some extra heckles from the reality-based community here. Shall we?

So there it was, folks, published on Feb. 10, two days before Obama’s state of the union address, titled “President Barack Obama Has Earned Great Divider Label,” complete with a goofy piece of artwork that depicted the president above a broken-in-two United States. Get it? He’s the awful “divider.” Isn’t it so sad? Boo hoo. You can’t make this stuff up.

The editorial was a pathetic, provincial attempt at preemption before Obama’s speech, and, really, who would take it seriously anyway, but the absurdity of its main thesis deserves our attention.

Here’s the gut of the argument:

The Great Divider is an apt choice for Obama. He has earned it. The sobriquet isn't overtly partisan: Much of the man's political success owes to his penchant for dividing people into camps and appealing to one group by diminishing the other. This has been good for his career. But it has not been good for the United States of America.

Note the clever use of italics by this clever writer in this clever newspaper. Note “diminishing the other,” which in the twisted logic of The Oklahoman means diminishing the powerful reach of billionaires and millionaires who run his country. “The Other” has been used as an intellectual construct to describe marginalized people; the editorial uses it in just the opposite way.

The Oklahoman sobriquet, then, is a complete reversal of the truth. It’s the right-wing noise machine and recalcitrant, ultra-conservative Republicans who have divided this country, not Obama. It’s Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck who have divided this country, not Obama. It’s U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin who have divided this country, not Obama. It’s the greed of corporate America that has divided the country, not Obama. It’s the Koch brothers and Karl Rove. It’s Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. It’s The Oklahoman. The list goes on.

Perhaps, more than anyone else, it was former President George W. Bush who divided this country with his two long-term military occupations and his lack of financial stewardship that caused the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The editorial’s only attempt of providing any real evidence beyond rhetorical comparisons to former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt for its name calling is this:

Obama solicited ideas from diverse coalitions — on health care, deficit reduction, business growth — but refused to listen. He pushed through a health care package with zero Republican support. He ignored his own deficit commission. He formed and then ignored and then disbanded a council of advisers drawn from the business sector.

As any rational person will recall, it has been Republican stubbornness and political maneuvering that has held up compromise, not Obama’s refusal to listen to anyone.

The health care reform was demonized by Republicans at its inception despite the fact Obama displeased many progressives, myself included, for not pushing for a single payer system. Giving up on a single payer health care system, at least for now, was a huge, historic compromise.

When it comes to deficit reduction, Obama has even offered cuts in future Social Security payments, which goes against the majority of his party. Obama has also consistently stressed business growth in his tenure, even coming to Oklahoma to give his support to the southern part of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

The idea that Obama has ignored commissions and councils is ridiculous. Any bipartisan group will mirror the political reality of its time. We know what the issues are, and we know the disagreements. No one group of pontificating egotists is going to change that. The Oklahoman just recently published another editorial criticizing the whole idea of commissioning studies instead of taking action.

The editorial ends with an empty and goofy rhetorical flourish. Read these sentences in your best pseudo-I’m-giving-an-important-speech voice, and be sure to stress “unrelenting”:

We need reasoned debate. We need a reasonable president. We need a uniter.

What we have instead is unearned, unwarranted, unrelenting scorn from The Great Divider.

Powerful stuff, right? There’s that clever use of italics again with the word “unrelenting.” Note all the series of “uns.” Takes a brilliant mind to come up with that, right? What does “unrelenting scorn” mean, anyway? What are we supposed to think? Obama: “I feel only scorn for you people and it’s unrelenting.” It’s just nonsense.

Here’s the scornful “Great Divider” in his state of the union address:

I realize that tax reform and entitlement reform won’t be easy. The politics will be hard for both sides. None of us will get 100 percent of what we want. But the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy, and visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans. So let’s set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future. And let’s do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors. The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.

Note the sentence, “None of us will get 100 percent of what we want.” In the world of The Oklahoman editorial page, the only fair compromise is one in which ultra-conservative Republicans get 100 percent of what they want even though the presidency and the U.S. Senate are controlled by Democrats. Anything less, people, is unrelenting scorn and division.

I will say it again and again: Oklahoma City and state residents deserve a reasoned, balanced editorial page from its largest newspaper.

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