Local Investigative Report Promotes Corporate Agenda

Satirical image of Walter Conkrite

Isn’t it convenient that a recent investigative report published in The Oklahoman and on NewsOK.com 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.