A screen capture of the cover of the 12-page Obama "hit piece" inserted into The Oklahoman last week.

The Roundup

Columbia Journalism Review Criticizes The Oklahoman

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Posted 10.01.12

This Land isn’t the only Oklahoma media company attracting the attention of the Columbia Journalism Review. The watchdog organization took notice of The Oklahoman late last week after it published a 12-page anti-Obama supplement produced by The Washington Examiner. The Examiner—a conservative newspaper based in Washington D.C.—and The Oklahoman share an owner in conservative political activist and Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Anschutz’s papers—which include The Weekly Standard, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Baltimore Examiner—frequently share content, and The Oklahoman’s politics page regularly links to Examiner items that have no home-state connection,” CJR reported, but writer Erika Fry called it “disappointing” and “surprising” that The Oklahoman published “a partisan hit piece on Obama.”

The Examiner report, which fits neatly into the GOP-friendly meme that mainstream journalists failed to “vet” Obama in 2008, got the expected pickup in conservative media circles: an advance preview on Fox News’s Special Report with Bret Baier, discussion on Michael Savage’s widely-subscribed conservative radio show, commentary on assorted right-wing blogs.

…(W)hat’s striking about the report appearing in a major newspaper is that it is so clearly the work of the conservative media movement—which is not the same thing as journalism from a conservative point-of-view. A conservative critique of Obama’s presidency might well force some neglected issues and questions into play, and might provide useful information to voters (granted, Oklahoma’s not exactly a swing state). But the decision to focus almost entirely on Obama’s career before Washington, in keeping with the right-wing media’s “vetting” meme, means that the report is part of a well-developed conservative counter-narrative, not something that was written to speak to a general audience.

On one hand, it’s a compliment to The Oklahoman that CJR sees it a major, credible newspaper—in 1999, CJR declared it “The Worst Newspaper in America,” writing, “The Daily Oklahoman has become a newspaper in reverse, sucking intelligence from its readers.”

While noting it’s still a “staunchly conservative” paper, CJR does give it credit for winning three First Amendment Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.

But it subtracts points for soft-balling the profile it ran of its new owner after the purchase was finalized last year. CJR’s Ryan Chittum wrote about it then, saying the story “left out essential background about the interests of its new billionaire owner,” like his aversion to interviews with the press and his financing of conservative—especially anti-gay—organizations. And it disabled the comments on every story it produced about Anschutz.

Chittum noted that “The Oklahoman has improved” since CJR’s 1999 lambasting, but wrote “it’s a disservice to readers not to report” on the owner’s political leanings and contributions. “Let’s face it: Anschutz is probably not buying a newspaper in 2011 to make money,” he commented.

Last week’s story quotes an unnamed staffer who said the organization “has seen many wonderful changes,” including a growing newsroom, since Anschutz took ownership from the Gaylords. But none of those staffers seem to know how The Examiner’s report made it into their pages, and the paper’s editor and vice president of news, Kelly Dyer Fry, “did not respond to calls or emails.”

Perhaps that’s the trade-off to Anschutz’s ownership, the staffer speculated—and it doesn’t bode well for the future of the paper.

“Bottom line: It diminishes what we do when the lines between opinion and journalism are blurred. If we are nothing more than a William Hearst-era New York Journal and the editors and publisher are fine printing yellow, blatantly opinionated ‘journalism,’ then I think we have bigger problems than one special report …”

Holly Wall, News Editor