POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 28, 2011:
The World Without
The history and consequences of the Oklahoman's acquisition
Is a rookie reporter for the defunct Oklahoma Journal, I was assigned to call the publisher of the state's largest and most powerful newspaper, the Daily Oklahoman, for comment on a story about the future of financially troubled Oklahoma City University.
It was the late 1970s, and the Journal was the Oklahoman's chief competition in the state capital -- an upstart daily born of a business-turned-political feud between the Oklahoman's longtime publisher, E.K. Gaylord, and the Journal's founder, Midwest City developer and 1962 Democratic gubernatorial nominee W.P. "Bill" Atkinson.
E.K. was dead, but his son, E.L., was at the newspaper's helm. And it exerted extraordinary influence over Oklahoma City affairs. It was major news when E.L. proposed OCU cease operation as a private, United Methodist Church-affiliated school and become a branch of the University of Oklahoma.
Church leaders were outraged at Gaylord's suggestion. They quickly came up with a plan to secure OCU's future -- and not as an OU satellite.
To his credit, Gaylord's home phone number was listed in the white pages. I rang him up and asked him about the proposal.
"Aw, I was just talkin'," he said. He paused. "You guys don't print the truth over there anyway." Click.
Some years later, as Oklahoma Bureau Chief for the Dallas Morning News, I was assigned to profile Gaylord, who was attempting to purchase the Texas Rangers baseball team. I couldn't reach Gaylord before the story was published, but did afterwards.
"Where do you get your information?" he demanded. "In a bar?" Click.
To this day, I find it remarkable that twice the richest, most powerful man in Oklahoma hung up on me, an ink-stained wretch whose net worth probably wasn't sufficient to fuel his private jet even once.
Those memories came flooding back recently when the Gaylords announced they are selling the Oklahoma Publishing Co. (OPUBCO) to Denver businessman Philip Anschutz -- ending 108 years of Gaylord family control of the newspaper.
Given that mainstream dailies don't wield the influence they once did, it's hard to make the case that someday the Oklahoman's sale will be depicted in the history books as a seminal moment, an event as profound, say, as the Dust Bowl or the Oklahoma City bombing.
But make no mistake: This is a turning point in Oklahoma history -- and not just for Oklahoma City.
The Gaylords' decision to hand the reins to an out-of-state billionaire whose politics may be even farther right than E.K. and E.L. could usher-in a new era of political activism from a newspaper that for years routinely bludgeoned its enemies and cheered its friends with page one editorials.
It also leaves the Oklahoman's content-sharing-partner, the Tulsa World, in a peculiar spot -- Will the symbiotic relationship continue? What are the financial implications for both newspapers if it doesn't?
The Lorton response to the Oklahoman's sale bore the tone of a jilted lover: Couldn't she see how much I loved her? Couldn't she see how well I would have taken care of her...if only she'd let me buy her? What did she see in him?
I'm not privy to their tax returns, but I'd bet Anschutz's pockets are deeper than the Lortons'. And if Anschutz were so inclined, he could afford to extend the Oklahomans' reach east -- breaking an unofficial treaty in the two papers didn't much intrude into each other's half of the state.
Of course, it also may be true that Anschutz, as a Coloradan, was most interested in OPUBCO's Rocky Mountain assets -- particularly the Broadmoor hotel and resort in Colorado Springs -- than the newspaper. If so, perhaps he will steer the Oklahoman into the Lortons' waiting arms.
That scenario doesn't seem likely. Anschutz's political worldview would make a John Birch Society devotee seem positively mainstream by comparison. He's a participant in the Koch Brothers' ultra-libertarian network that uses the Tea Party and other faux grass roots (aka "astroturf") groups to hoodwink disaffected working class Americans into rallying around policies that further enrich society's well-heeled elite. He's also a financial supporter of Seattle's intelligent design-promoting Discovery Institute.
Moreover, Anschutz has dedicated a portion of his fortune to media that help spread his rightwing gospel -- he publishes the iconic conservative periodical The Weekly Standard as well as the San Francisco Examiner and Washington Examiner, both free newspapers that seem built around the unhinged notion that Fox News isn't conservative enough.
Not too many years ago, a friend posed a most interesting question: "Which has done more to hold back Oklahoma's development: the Oklahoman or the state's crazy liquor laws?" Frankly, a compelling case could be made for either. And interestingly, both are now in flux -- the Oklahoman is changing hands and lawmakers are considering changes that would break the liquor wholesalers stranglehold and allow sale of wine and beer in groceries.
Let's turn to one of Oklahoma's political icons for the answer: Sen. Robert S. Kerr -- the "uncrowned king of the U.S. Senate" -- predicted more than a half century ago that then-Democratic-dominated Oklahoma would one day be a Republican stronghold.
How could it be, he was asked? "The Daily Oklahoman and the Southern Baptist Convention," he replied.
Thankfully, the Oklahoman and the Gaylords didn't always get what they wanted. E.K. Gaylord's Oklahoman derided the senator as "water-on-the-brain" Kerr -- yet without Kerr's vision, the Arkansas River ship channel wouldn't be pumping billions of dollars annually into northeastern Oklahoma's economy. E.L. Gaylord publicly vilified then-U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon as "the senator from Moscow" -- but Bellmon, of course, turned out to be one of Oklahoma's greatest statesmen, a two-time senator and governor whose education reform package remains one of the state's finest hours.
It was a kinder, gentler Oklahoman in the eight or so years since E.L. passed away, leaving the newspaper in the hands of his children. The page one editorials disappeared, but the practice of punishing enemies and rewarding friends continued -- less sledgehammer, more stiletto. And it wasn't necessarily what they told readers, it's what they left out that "shaped" the news to fit an agenda focused on enhancing their personal wealth.
It will be some time before we know with any certainty what Anschutz's plans are for the Oklahoman. But this much seems obvious: those who dreamed of a more sophisticated and urbane and less reactionary, pious and parochial Oklahoma, post-Gaylord, are bound to be disappointed.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net
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