It's come to this: Two state senators camped near the Capitol steps on a crisp November night, hoping to shame the governor, the House Speaker, the Senate president -- anyone -- into coughing up enough money to keep providing Oklahoma seniors at least one hot meal a day.
A publicity stunt? Absolutely.
A waste of time? Hardly.
Say what you will about the tactic, but the campout quickly attracted two important visitors: The warm glow of lights from television news cameras and -- just after midnight -- his excellency, Gov. Brad Henry, who has more than a little say over how $600 million in state Rainy Day funds and $105 million in discretionary federal economic stimulus dollars are divvied up.
The guv offered a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul idea to jump-start meals-on-wheels and other nutrition programs before the first freeze [the senior nutrition programs were casualties of across-the-board state budget cuts].
But the plan -- shuffling $7.4 million in the state Department of Human Services budget -- isn't going anywhere without the blessings of the Legislature's Republican poohbahs, whose knickers were knotted over the specter of two Democrats looking positively L.L.Bean-ish as they commanded top-of-the-10 p.m. newscasts to plead for help for seniors and shut-ins.
If you think about it, it's disheartening that it took Sens. Kenneth Corn of Poteau and Tom Ivester of Elk City spending a night on the Capitol lawn -- and several hundred seniors waving empty paper plates outside the governor's office the next day -- to motivate state leaders to ramp-up efforts to resolve something that should be one of our highest priorities.
It reflects two troubling realities of Oklahoma life today: weak political leadership and even weaker mainstream media that all-too-often serve as lapdogs for the state's most powerful interests, rather than watchdogs for the common good.
There's no denying the daunting challenges facing our elected officials in this time of economic distress -- state revenues melted faster than a double-dip cone in the dead of summer. But there's also no denying that many of the individuals they're elected, and paid, to represent are suffering, too: salaries slashed, jobs lost, savings tapped.
Although history is replete with examples where average folks took to the streets to demand help from their government, this is one moment when Henry and legislative leaders -- even DHS chief Howard Hendrick -- could have saved themselves migraines, and seniors a lot of stress, by moving quickly to spare this program.
After all, the $7.4 million necessary to help provide nearly 800,000 hot meals to seniors the rest of the fiscal year [ending June 30] is a tiny fraction of the state's $7 billion-plus annual budget.
The nature of American politics is that monied interests wield the most influence. It's much easier to hire full-time lobbyists and write big campaign checks to curry favor with elected decision-makers than it is to spend the time and energy coaxing -- or begging, maybe -- the masses to take a day off work or turn off their television sets and travel to the Capitol to march and chant.
What brings some balance to the system is individuals willing to be inconvenienced enough to make their voices heard and a Fourth Estate serving as bulldog-like proxies, posing tough questions to, and demanding answers from, the political powers-that-be.
The problem is, many of Oklahoma's mainstream media watchdogs have been neutered, creating a world in which deep-pocketed special interests and their elected toadies can carry out mischief with little fear of exposure.
A generation ago, the Capitol press rooms teemed with reporters -- print and electronic -- combing state government in search of stories that touched everyday life and exposed graft and corruption. Tulsa's two daily newspapers had two reporters each assigned full-time to the Capitol. The Oklahoma City dailies also had four. Most striking: The commercial TV stations in both cities had reporters and camera crews at the Capitol every day during the legislative session, some even year round.
Today, you could fire a shotgun through the print and electronic offices on the Capitol's fourth floor and not hit anyone, thanks to budget cuts and layoffs.
Newspapers have been especially hard hit. The afternoon dailies in Tulsa and Oklahoma City are gone, and with them, three Capitol reporters.
The World is down to one full-time statehouse Capitol correspondent, the Oklahoman two. The two surviving metro dailies used to compete ferociously; now they share content. The hard-working reporters are working harder than ever, but their reward is this: less space in which to present the often complex stories of state government and less prominent display.
On the television side, only OETA now covers state government full-time. Public radio's KOSU [91.7 FM in Stillwater and 107.7 in Tulsa] and Oklahoma City's commercial news-talk station KTOK [including the Oklahoma News Network] are left to provide full-time radio coverage.
The commercial TV stations darken the Capitol doors on rare occasions -- typically when chanting, placard-waving protesters provide reasonably decent visuals. In fact, TV news indifference has become something of a joke at the Capitol: Want more coverage? Ignite a grass fire on the Capitol grounds. Or unfurl yellow crime scene tape and flip on flashing emergency lights.
I'll never forget the frustration expressed by a GOP political consultant after he failed to persuade TV news to cover a speech by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in Oklahoma City. There was a powerful local angle to the story: Thomas' appearance wasn't long removed from his high-voltage confirmation hearings in which then-University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment.
One news director, pressed to explain why he wasn't interested in the story, first noted that Thomas was "only one of nine" justices. One of only nine of the most powerful figures in American life! Later, the news director gave the real reason: A man standing at a podium, delivering a speech, wasn't compelling enough visually.
Unless state lawmakers start throwing shoes, breaking furniture or flailing away -- a la some of the world's deliberative bodies -- Oklahoma's TV news crews aren't likely to take more than a passing interest in the affairs of state.
And herein lies the problem: Without a strong, independent media peering behind the oft-closed doors of government power, how are average folks going to know when they are being taken advantage of -- and when they need to rise up to demand more from their elected officials?
The dust-up over budget cuts affecting the state's senior nutrition programs is a perfect example. You don't think the governor was just out for a leisurely post-midnight stroll when he happened upon the senators' tent, do you?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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