Once in a while a Tulsa news story gains national attention but goes almost unnoticed by local media. The story may get a mention when it first happens as spot news, then it gets picked up by the wires or the blogs and becomes a topic of discussion everywhere else, while local media remains oblivious to the fuss.
The most recent example involves the March 6 death of Eleazar Torres-Gomez, who was killed when machinery pulled him into a dryer at an industrial laundry facility belonging to the Cintas Corporation.
Last week's UTW story by Brian Ervin and Shannon O'Connell was the first in the Tulsa news media to put Torres-Gomez's death in the context of Cintas's nationwide record of safety violations, complaints of unfair labor practices and racial and sexual discrimination, and congressional calls for tougher workplace safety regulations. The story was featured at the top of last week's cover.
Tulsa's daily paper has mentioned the accident five times: an initial report the day after, March 14 coverage of a congressional statement challenging Cintas's safety record, a brief mention at the end of a March 17 AP story about an NLRB ruling against a Cintas work rule banning employee discussions about workplace conditions, a paragraph in the March 23 "Local, State Briefs" on Cintas CEO Scott Farmer's statement blaming Torres-Gomez for the accident, and a story on a Washington press conference held by Torres-Gomez's son to promote the launch of new workplace safety legislation sponsored by Mass. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
But despite the national attention it's received, this tragic death-by-dryer story has never been given prominent placement on the daily's front page or the front of the local news section. The stories appeared on page A14, A6, A6, A16, and A7 respectively.
The blind spot was even more pronounced in Cincinnati, where Cintas has its headquarters and is a major corporate citizen, owning the naming rights to Xavier University's new 10,000-seat Cintas Center.
Torres-Gomez's death didn't rate a mention in either of the city's daily papers until March 14, when the Cincinnati Post reported on a statement about the incident issued by the five Democrats on the U. S. House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. The report appeared five days after the statement was issued. The death didn't make the Cincinnati Enquirer until March 23, after the company's statement blaming Torres-Gomez.
Of Tulsa's TV news operations, KOTV (channel 6) has given the most coverage to the incident, going by the number of archived stories on the TV station's websites. It appears to be the only local news outlet to carry an April 24th AP story previewing Thursday's announcement of Kennedy's bill.
As far as I can find, it's the only local news outlet to mention another recent serious industrial accident involving Cintas, a March 2 accident at their Yakima, Wash., in which a laundry worker had his arm caught and severely broken in a washing machine.
This is not the first local story to make waves nationally while garnering little attention here.
Last fall, Pakistani immigrant Jamal Miftah was angrily confronted at Tulsa's al-Salam mosque by the mosque's imam (prayer leader), the president of the operating council of the Islamic Society of Tulsa, and several other Arab men over an op-ed he wrote condemning those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam.
Miftah's expulsion from the mosque was reported by KOTV's Omar Villafranca. When KOTV's Oklahoma City sister station KWTV carried the story and posted it on their newsok.com website, it attracted the notice of bloggers who follow the activities of Islamic extremists. No other Tulsa news outlet covered the story.
The story found its way back to Tulsa by way of several out-of-state blogs: Atlas Shrugs (atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com), Isaac Schrödinger (isaacschrodinger.typepad.com), and JunkYardBlog (junkyardblog.net).
The latter blog's proprietor, a native Oklahoman, alerted me to Miftah's situation, and I highlighted the story on my blog, BatesLine.com, later publishing a detailed story in this column. The mosque's action against Miftah was picked up by countless other blogs.
The daily paper did not cover the story until Dec. 1, two weeks after Miftah's expulsion and a week after KOTV's story ran. They seemed to wait until they had something to report that put the mosque's leadership in a positive light.
Since that story, Jamal Miftah has been interviewed on Fox News's "Hannity and Colmes" and was the subject of a feature story by CBN News counterterrorism reporter Erick Stakelbeck. The story has been framed in the context of a bigger trend: the growing influence of the radical, Saudi-supported Wahhabi sect over American mosques and the between mosque members who resist that influence and those who support it.
But other than here in the pages of UTW and on a few local blogs, the story has not received any further coverage by Tulsa media.
Want a couple more examples?
When Joel Henry Hinrichs blew himself up outside OU's football stadium during the OU-Kansas State game on October 1, 2005, the bombing was quickly dismissed by official sources as a case of a depressed loner ending his life, an attitude columnist Michelle Malkin sarcastically summarized as "Nothing to see here. Move along."
Played down were Hinrichs's failed attempt to buy ammonium nitrate (a component of the 1995 Murrah Building truck bomb) at a Norman feed store and the discovery in his apartment of the large quantity of TATP, the same explosive that Richard Reid, the "Shoe Bomber," attempted to ignite on a transatlantic flight in 2001.
Readers of Erick Stakelbeck's blog (www.cbn.com/blogs/erick_stackelbeck/index.aspx) would have learned that there were two other situations within the following week and a half involving improvised explosive devices found on college campuses -- one at Georgia Tech, one at UCLA. Possibly a coincidence, possibly not, but no one locally connected the dots -- or even knew that the other dots were there.
The final example is partly personal. In February 2005, when the daily paper sent me a threatening letter for linking to and quoting from their articles for the purpose of comment and criticism, the story was picked up by hundreds of blogs worldwide, attracted the legal assistance of the Media Bloggers Association, and was featured on three editions of CNN's "Inside Politics," but it scarcely received a mention here where it happened.
KTUL's web editor Kevin King deserves special credit for not only covering the story, but taking the initiative to contact the daily's publisher for comment. But the station never covered the story on air.
Perhaps to local media, the story was seen as a case of the newspaper vs. one of its persistent critics. Bloggers saw it as part of a trend of mainstream media using legal means to try to silence critics in the blogosphere.
Why aren't local media outlets better at connecting the dots between local stories and national or global trends? I don't think there are necessarily sinister motives at work.
Our brains are wired to recognize patterns, but we can only make patterns from the information we have in front of us. A local reporter covering a local story can easily put it in the context of related local events, but he isn't likely to be exposed to similar stories that occur in other parts of the country.
This is where news aggregators and analysts focused on a specific topic -- single-subject blogs like Little Green Footballs (which covers Islamofascist terror groups) and Eminent Domain Watch, special interest groups like the Media Bloggers Association and the labor union UNITE HERE, specialist reporters like Erick Stakelbeck -- have an important role to play. As they search the web for their topic of interest, using tools like Technorati and Google News, they are able to spot developing patterns among stories gleaned from thousands of sources.
But the local audience for the initial news story may never become aware of the possible patterns that outside analysts have identified, unless a local media outlet calls it to their attention. We probably can't expect the electronic media or the daily paper, with their focus on what's happening now, to pause for a new perspective on a week-old story.
This is where a paper like Urban Tulsa Weekly is able to make a difference with stories like last week's piece on Cintas and the death of Eleazar Torres-Gomez.
After reading the story by UTW's Ervin and O'Connell, Tulsans can't easily shrug off Torres-Gomez's horrific demise as a mere freak accident, regrettable but nothing that anyone can do anything about. Whatever the OSHA investigation ultimately determines, this is not just an isolated industrial accident, not just a one-day story.
When the rest of the world is talking about a Tulsa news story, UTW has the opportunity and the responsibility to let you know about it.
When a local event may be a piece of a national or global picture, UTW may be the only place you'll get to see how all the pieces fit together.
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