The Oklahoman

Riffing Charlie Hebdo

Image of DocHoc at the The Centre Pompidou Paris, France

I thought I might use France’s Charlie Hebdo tragedy and an absolutely inane guest editorial column published this week in The Oklahoman about it to riff briefly on the local media scene here.

As you know, two Islamist extremists stormed into the Paris-based office of the satirical magazine Jan. 7 and killed 12 people and wounded 11 more. Ostensibly, the terrorists murdered and injured people in the office because the magazine had a long history of running satirical cartoons mocking Mohammed, who is considered a prophet by Muslims.

It was an act of utter, unmitigated evil, and it really has the potential for a self-imposed suppression of freedom of expression and the press. Most major American publications, such as The New York Times, for example, were too scared and cowardly to even publish one or two of the provocative cartoons in their coverage of the event and consequently the terrorists won yet another victory. But at least Charlie Hebdo goes on. It was published today with another cartoon mocking Mohammed. Good for those who published the magazine after the tragedy. Good for Paris for standing up to evil and hate. Vive la France!

All the basic facts of this act of terror are well known to anyone who cares about geopolitics and our connection to the rest of the world in this country so it seems almost an act of tedious repetition to comment on it here in backwards Oklahoma, which is not known for embracing the outside world in great numbers and has produced image-destroying politicians like U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe and state Rep. Sally Kern. I tried to talk to one of my students about the incident yesterday, and the student didn’t even know what I was talking about.

But The Oklahoman did publish what appears to be a right-wing and extremist guest column about the terrorist act that might tell us something larger about the local media scene here that goes beyond the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. The question is one of, again, suppressing or not suppressing freedom of expression in a press too scared and too timid to speak truth to power.

First, let me deal with one of the most asinine columns ever published by The Oklahoman. It was written by John W. Traphagan, described as a “professor of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin.” I don’t know how this Texan’s column ended up in The Oklahoman, and it really doesn’t matter. I will say unequivocally that Traphagan’s column is ridiculous.

Let me summarize Traphagan’s absurdist argument: The Charlie Hebdo tragedy is bad because it’s a threat to the freedom of expression, but this country has its own threats to the freedom of expression, most notably when a large group of students at Rutgers University protested a scheduled commencement address by former right-wing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who later withdrew from giving her speech. I really do try to refrain from loaded hyperbole, but in this case I will make an exception. Traphagan's column is idiotic.

It simply amazes me this argument was even published in a media outlet if The Oklahoman still qualifies to be known as a media outlet. Perhaps, it was published in many publications as astute commentary. No, it’s not astute. It’s asinine. Do I even need to go through the major false comparison here for discerning readers? Essentially, Trahagan is arguing that those protesting Rutgers University professors and students are just like the Islamic terrorists who killed journalists in Paris. That’s a major error in thinking and logic.

I will spend one more paragraph on this stupid, stupid argument. The Rutgers University professors and students were the ONES exercising their right to freedom of expression. They already knew the warmongering and right-wing positions of one of former President George W. Bush’s favorite toadies and useful tools to promote war and death and torture. Rice has a plethora of ways to express her views. She can speak at conservative colleges or other colleges that would welcome her. She can write op-eds that I’m sure major publications, such as The Times, would automatically publish. She can appear on Fox News, of course. In fact, she could probably have her own show on Fox News. She could blog. She could tweet. She probably has enough money or could obtain enough investment money to start her own publication or even television network. She could probably talk to the current President of the United States if she wanted. In essence, she’s the ONE with the huge platform of expression, not some undergraduate English major or some adjunct biology professor at Rutgers University. Traphagan, you’re the one who wants to limit freedom of expression, not the students and faculty at Rutgers University. Shame on you, man.

If anyone has read this far, allow me to use this to frame a little spat among three local medial outlets that DO or at least have tried in the past to speak truth to power. Those publications would be the Oklahoma Gazette, The Lost Ogle blog and the Okie Funk blog.

The Lost Ogle and Okie Funk have recently poked some fun at the Gazette for losing its edge. The Gazette never was a Charlie Hebdo, of course, and the political climate here since its inception has always made it impossible for it to even come close to emulating alternative publications in places such as Austin or New York. But the Gazette in the last three years or so—dating mainly since former editor Rob Collins left the weekly—has lost its edge. There are fewer and fewer in-depth and meaningful stories and the commentary section has been given over, for the most part, to flacks from think tanks or nonprofit organizations and politicians that are pushing definite agendas. It doesn’t matter if I agree with these agendas or not and, believe me, many times I do, but the writing is predictable, constrained and BORING. As I said, there have been exceptions, but not enough to keep my interest. Much of the material can be found in some form on the sites of these nonprofits. The Gazette is just repeating extremely old material already published on the web.

Yet, really, who am I or Patrick Riley at TLO to question this new model at the Gazette? It seems obviously business-based as hard-copy publications decline in popularity because of the Internet. If it works financially for the Gazette, then so be it. I guess Riley and others, including myself, could try to buy it, but what a risk in today’s market. Yet, even given what I’ve just written, I want the Gazette to thrive even in its current form. This might just be a period of retrenchment or discovery or whatever for the Gazette. Things can change. I’ve known the last three Gazette editors and one of the initial, founding editors Randy Splaingard, and I have nothing but good things to say about them. I would give them all a group hug and tell them just to do what you can do to speak truth to power, especially to The Oklahoman, given the circumstances of the media market right now and the limited advertising dollars.

But, as I’ve argued, TLO, in particular, is pushing the edge by not adopting the old, tired journalistic frameworks and cliches. It takes chances. It makes readers at least pay some attention because they never know what might come next. It’s abrasive and sarcastic, and it’s founder, Riley, has found his writing voice through the years. I like his sentences most of the time. As I’ve mentioned before in another way, sometimes TLO can fall flat just like Charlie Hebdo or certainly like this blog, but at least it’s trying. Gov. Mary Fallin deserves satirical treatment just like all powerful politicians.

So, again, if any readers are still with me at this point in this rambling piece, let me say: The Gazette, TLO, and Okie Funk, and other publications here, such as The Oklahoma Observer, the Red Dirt Report and The Gayly, are all trying to speak truth to power in one form or another given our own individual constraints and limitations. What I hope is those journalists involved with all of our publications can say in unison and without any hypocrisy “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), and continue to thumb our nose at The Oklahoman, a testament to how right-wing monopolies shut down freedom of speech to kiss the asses of the powerful and elite.

Pompous Chuckles: Newspaper Monopoly Bullies Democrats

Image of Walter Conkrite

The Oklahoman editorial board issued a snarky piece of commentary Saturday ridiculing state Democrats for no apparent reason other than to ridicule state Democrats.

The ostensible point of the piece, the lead item in the newspaper’s most recent Saturday’s ScissorTales series, seems to be that there are so few Democratic state senators—only seven now out of 48 seats—that they have to serve on a lot of committees and take on numerous party-based legislative leadership roles.

All this obviousness means The Oklahoman editorial board “couldn’t help but chuckle” over the situation, further remarking, “If everyone is a ‘leader,’ who’s left to follow?” Ha ha. Good one. Get it? One plus one equals two. Ha. Chuckle. Chuckle.

The spitefulness and bullying tone of the piece is nothing new for the ultra-conservative newspaper, which often finds mean-spirited delight in its illogical and fallacious editorial stances. Still, it’s worth noting on occasion just how ugly and weird the newspaper’s editorial page can be. It begs the question: What type of people even think up these hateful little missives?

Here are two reasons this specific editorial misses the mark: (1) Different viewpoints about governance are vitally needed in places such as Oklahoma. Democrats have been trounced in recent elections here, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have solid, bipartisan ideas or that they won’t make a comeback in the future. (2) Kicking people—it’s the Oklahoma Democrats in this case—when they are down, to use a cliché, always backfires. It creates unnecessary tension that leads to conflict and revenge. It’s obvious that Republicans completely and utterly dominate state government right now. Why the “chuckle” now? This Republican domination has been the case since former Gov. Brad Henry left office.

I still wonder how the newspaper stays in business with this type of flippant attitude and with the decline of the mainstream media because of the Internet in general and all its fragmentation. Sure, it’s a monopoly newspaper, and that’s one major reason, but there are alternatives now in how people can get local information and news. How soon before the newspaper becomes irrelevant and replaced by a consortium of other news and information outlets? (We can’t help but chuckle at this idea.)

It’s worth noting that there were 885,609 registered Democrats in the state in 2014, according to the Oklahoma Election Board, compared to 854,329 Republicans. Why in the world would any business want to risk alienating 885,609 people with silly ridicule and sarcasm? Undoubtedly, many of these “Democrats” didn’t vote or voted for Republican candidates, but still that’s a large pool of potential customers to risk losing with stupid, petty sarcasm.

Overall, I very much still believe in newspapers and their positive role in informing people, especially when compared to local television news departments. The Oklahoman, however, represents a special case of mediocrity and ideological excess.

Let’s hope right-wing Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, 75, who made his money drilling for fossil fuels, gets tired of his conservative and propagandistic media holdings soon, and sells the newspaper to a company that promotes basic journalistic principles, such as fairness and allowing plural voices on its editorial page.

Lost Okie Pruitt Ogled Funked

Image of Beat writers

I thought I would follow up my post Wednesday on Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s controversial, colluding and quid pro quo relationship with oil and gas companies by commenting on and promoting Patrick Riley’s take on the same issue.

Riley is the founder and main energy source behind the widely popular and excellent local media outlet, The Lost Ogle, which publishes on a wide range of topics with refreshing and rejuvenating satire and wit. Sometimes, it misses the mark or makes me cringe with its blatant, some would say sexist, “hot girl” material or its focus on goofy, stupid local television news “personalities” I could care less about, but The Lost Ogle has taken on a new significance lately with its enduring community presence and the tragic intellectual decline of the Oklahoma Gazette.

(That’s Riley and I with a couple of friends outside the Hilo in the 1950s in the picture on the right.)

Let’s face it: The Lost Ogle IS the real alternative media outlet in the Oklahoma City area and has been for a few years now. It speaks truth to power. It possesses the biting, satirical edge now, not the Gazette. That’s what matters, and it’s vitally important. The Gazette is trying to find its new niche in an uncertain and changing media market, but its new business model limits substance and sustenance for open-minded thinking people here. It has become what The Oklahoman wants it to be: A freebie no one really reads anymore. If that’s what it takes for it to survive financially, then so be it, but it still makes me sad.

I digress. Here’s Riley’s post on the Pruitt affair. Pretty much, Riley’s views on the Pruitt scandal mirror my own. Here’s my post on the controversy. Riley and I didn’t collude on this story. I haven’t talked to Riley in months. We both responded to Pruitt’s unethical actions organically and energetically as The Oklahoman issued its apologia for an immoral attorney general that uses taxpayers’ money to basically serve the interests of oil and gas companies and to sue the federal government whenever it might make a good story for The Oklahoman. The circle of media life here. Nothing real new there. Life on the plains.

Riley and I referenced a New York Times article published last weekend that led with the discovery that Pruitt once sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency under his own name and office that was actually written by an employee of the Devon Energy Corporation, an Oklahoma City-based company. The letter argued the EPA was overestimating the pollution caused by new gas well drilling.

Leave aside the gas well issue. Here’s what matters: Pruitt passed off someone else’s writing as his own. He did so for the benefit of one industry. He has received campaign contributions from that industry and, specifically, from Devon’s political action committee, which I noted in my last post. It’s quid pro quo. The Oklahoman then published an editorial actually DEFENDING Pruitt and even encouraging more plagiarism, favoritism and what I would describe as political bribery.

Riley makes the point in more creative and contemporary relevant language than I can muster these days. Here’s just a taste of his sardonic voice:

The Oklahoman followed their report of the Times story with an editorial on Wednesday that defended Scott Pruitt with the intensity of a pre-2003 Mike Stoops defense. It’s so fair and balanced that it reads like Devon Energy wrote it for Scott Pruitt, who then sent it to The Oklahoman for publication, who then actually published it because that’s what the paper does for their cronies and BFFs.

Like most Oklahoman editorials, it reeks of hypocrisy, contains fallacious arguments and jumps to insane conclusions. . . .

My overall point is that when Riley and I, without any collusion, get animated and sort of rhetorically angry and expend a lot of intellectual energy exposing the latest unethical politician in this place, then people should take note, or alas, I hope they take note. I’m not arguing Okie Funk has the reach or will ever have the hits of The Lost Ogle. What I’m saying is that both Riley and I are heavily invested in this community, and though we have different approaches and backgrounds, we do our best to try to keep things honest. What Pruitt did and is doing is WRONG.

Here’s some honesty: Riley is a former student of mine, who has told me I was only his second-best professor. My former wife, Kelly Dyer Fry, is the top editor of The Oklahoman. We divorced in 1995. She’s the mother of my two grown children, one of whom is Sam Hochenauer, a local musician who often played music at the now-closed VZD’s, still owned I guess by Chad Bleakley, the son of Bill Bleakley, who owns the Gazette. I have written commentaries in the past for the Gazette. I could go on.

The Oklahoma City area is a small world, which sometimes for me is a suffocating small world filled with the anxiety that any day now the local power structure will drop its sledge hammer on me. I think Riley and I are doing our best to speak up and help other Oklahomans to feel free and comfortable to speak up, too. Pruitt probably won’t suffer any political consequences because of his unethical actions and The Oklahoman continues to be the worst big city newspaper in the country, but Riley took the time in a longer, extensive commentary to note all this with acerbic wit and style. I’m proud of him. He IS the reason God made Oklahoma, people. At least I think that today.

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