Saturday, December 05, 2009

Quo Vadis, Oklahoman?

Originally published November 10, 2009; updated December 5, 2009

Some of you elder-types will remember the fine 1951 movie Quo Vadis starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, and Peter Ustinov, as well as its exceptional musical score by Miklós Rózsa. "Quo vadis" is a Latin phrase meaning "Where are you going?" or "Whither goest thou?"


This article asks the Oklahoman, "Where are you going" and "Whither goest thou," as well as more particular questions, in an open letter to the Oklahoman concerning its handling of issues relating to the MAPS 3 campaign.

Although I'm a strong supporter of MAPS 3, that does not mean that issues about the process, particularly as relates to the Oklahoman, have escaped my senses and/or that they do not cause me great concern. I am aware that many of you who read my stuff feel the same.

Update - Oklahoman Gets National Ethics Attention

This article posts my open letter sent by e-mail on this date to David Thompson, president of the OPUBCO Communications Group and publisher of the Oklahoman, Christy Gaylord Everest, chair and chief executive for the Oklahoma Publishing Company, and David Kelley, editor of the Oklahoman. It will also contain any unedited responses which any of them may care to give.

The content of this my e-mail to them appears below.

November 10, 2009
E-mail to Messrs. Thompson and Kelley and Ms. Everest,

To introduce myself, I am Doug Loudenback, an ordinary Oklahoma City voter, and I operate a modestly successful Oklahoma City internet blog which largely focuses on Oklahoma City history, with a strong side-emphasis in Oklahoma City's NBA team, the Thunder (and before that, the Hornets). The general address of my blog is http://dougdawg.blogspot.com/.

Most often I avoid getting into political issues since I am much more interested in our city's history than I am its contemporary local politics. To be sure, there are lots of great historical political tales to tell such as the city's first-year battles between the Kickapoos and the Seminoles, the Daily Oklahoman's controversies with Henry Overholser (1904 and 1905 articles described him in the most unflattering of terms — see this article), as well as many other great political tales of times gone by.

But there are contemporary exceptions. I immersed myself without reservation in the earlier March 4 Ford Center vote and was an outspoken cheerleader in Mayor Cornett's and the Chamber's successful campaign. I think that the Chamber, much-more-than-ably lead by its CEO Roy Williams, did an outstanding job in that campaign, and I generally regard the Chamber very highly. I'm also very much interested in, and have blogged at length about, the city's Core To Shore vision for downtown's future.

Most recently, though, I am writing and have written at length about MAPS 3. I readily align myself with the opinion piece by Meg Salyer which appeared in the Oklahoman only yesterday. Even though I do have deeply felt issues with MAPS 3 which largely relate to procedure, I am nonetheless a strong supporter of MAPS 3 and will be voting to approve MAPS 3 on December 8 and I am encouraging others to do the same. About that general goal, your views, and mine, are the same.

But, as I said, there are important concerns about MAPS 3 that many voters have. One principal concern has to do with the relationship between the city and the Oklahoman given that, Mr. Thompson, you are wearing two hats — (1) president of the OPUBCO Communications Group and publisher of the Oklahoman, the principal print media in Oklahoma City, and (2) president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and leader of the pro-MAPS 3 campaign. Some, myself included, see that the duality of roles has directly impacted the thoroughness and completeness of the Oklahoman's journalistic coverage of MAPS 3. The reasons for concern are expanded in the "Background Information" which appears immediately after the following questions which I'm addressing to each of you, should any or all of you care to respond to the ...

QUESTIONS I'M ASKING YOU TO ANSWER
  1. Have the Oklahoman's owners, managers, or editors given advice and/or instruction to its reporters about the content and/or manner in which they report about MAPS 3?

  2. If so, what has been that advice and/or instruction?

  3. If not, are you of the opinion that the Oklahoman has provided an in-depth serious analysis and critique of MAPS 3 in its articles since mid-September?

  4. Does the Oklahoman plan to assign to long-established journalists to MAPS 3 investigative, analysis, and reporting roles?

  5. Does the Oklahoman intend to identify, with particularity, what state law (e.g., a constitutional and/or statutory provision or appellate case decision) prohibits a "log rolling" ballot and ordinance like that done in the 1993 MAPS ballot and ordinance, or does it intend to accept without further analysis that a 1993-like log-rolling ballot in municipal tax measures is improper under current state law?

  6. Voters are led to believe that a "Yes" vote on December 8 will mean that the projects identified in the City Council resolution (adopted concurrently with placing the MAPS 3 ballot and its underlying ordinance on the ballot for vote on December 8) will absolutely be done, and no equivocation has been presented by the city in that regard. Since it is a given that a City Council resolution can be changed by a City Council vote at any time during the 7 3/4 years that the MAPS 3 tax would be in effect, does the Oklahoman intend to explore, analyze, and report on that potential and possibility?
If any of you are willing to respond to any or all of these questions, I hope that you will. Any response will be reported verbatim and in proper context and with no changes made by me. From a pro-MAPS 3 voter's perspective, and that includes me, it would be great to see that MAPS 3 concerns which have to do with the relationship between the city and the Oklahoman simply go away.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

My research demonstrates that, notwithstanding that the Oklahoman's editorial position strongly favored passage of the original 1993 MAPS and MAPS For Kids, the journalist function of the Oklahoman nonetheless continued to critically analyze and render articles which were independent of, and sometimes differed from, the Oklahoman's editorial position. During these times, the editorial and news reporting functions appear to have seamlessly coexisted, neither negating or particularly influencing the other. As an example, see this example which appeared in the Oklahoman on December 10, 1993, only four days before the December 14 election.

I have already written in my blog and at www.OkcTalk.com that my sense and opinion is that a similar respectful duality does not exist concerning the MAPS 3 issues and campaign. My view is that the journalist side of the Oklahoman has been severely chilled if not altogether stopped dead in its tracks. It does not take a great deal of reading to see that much more comprehensive and analytical reports have been presented in the Oklahoma Gazette and the Journal Record on MAPS 3 than have thus far been published in the Oklahoman, certainly since mid-September. At least, that is my take.

Two reasons exist for my concern:

(1) First off, I want MAPS 3 to pass. If the Oklahoman has embraced a policy which subjugates its journalist side to its editorial side, such a policy may actually backfire and diminish the chances that MAPS 3 will pass. For those who are undecided, such a policy could easily influence a backlash negative vote. In my opinion, what the Oklahoman's owners and editors appear to be doing is exactly that and it doesn't take an incredibly insightful person to see that — the Emperor's New Clothes fairy tale comes to mind and I don't suppose that I need to explain how such an analogy might be seen as appropriate in this instance.

(2) Second, since I am a supporter of MAPS 3, why do I care? Even if what I have said, above, is completely true, why would I be concerned since I want MAPS 3 to pass? The reason is this: I am not an "ends justifies means" person. I care about the "means." As much as I hope MAPS 3 will pass, a larger and more important matter is the integrity and independence of the press. The role of an independent and free press is high up on the list of constitutional protections in our country and for a very good reason. The reason is that a constitutionally protected source, the press, independent of government, is ready, willing and able to inquire of and about government and render appropriate reports to be read by all citizens. In this context, the press is sort of a super-citizen — it is called the Fourth Estate. As such, it is fundamentally important that an alliance between government and the press NOT exist since that would radically diminish the reason that such constitutional protections came to exist in the first place.

Mr. Thompson is president of the OPUBCO Communications Group and is publisher of the Oklahoman, the principal print media in Oklahoma City. He is also president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, the group which is leading the campaign for passage of MAPS 3. In the latter capacity, he is leading the pro-MAPS 3 campaign together with the mayor. Some would opine, me included, that Mr. Thompson has a classic conflict of interest in these paired roles, particularly if the Oklahoman's owners and editors have been and are being heavy-handed with its journalist employees in the performance of the Oklahoman's main reason for being — the collection, analysis, and dissemination of news.

My view is that the decision which resulted in Mr. Thompson leading the Chamber's efforts in the MAPS 3 campaign was ill-advised. The Chamber's CEO, Roy Williams, a gentleman of the first order, proved himself to be quite capable in handling such a leadership role in the March 4 Ford Center sales tax vote, and he is not a part of OPUBCO. The leadership role at the Chamber should have been assigned to him.

It is not too late to eliminate this concern and cause what I've said here become a non-issue. It is not too late that the Oklahoman's seasoned and established front-line journalists be let loose to do the jobs that they have been trained to do. It is not too late that senior editors not re-write articles by journalists so that articles be more consistent with the Oklahoman's editorial position. It is not too late that Roy Williams take the lead in the Chamber's pro-MAPS 3 campaign and that Mr. Thompson not be directly involved with that campaign. It is not too late for the Oklahoman to be more like the Oklahoman was in the original 1993 MAPS tax campaign.

Thanks for reading through this long message, and for any replies which any of you may care to make.

December 5, 2009, Update - Oklahoman Gets National Ethics Attention. Needless to say, I've received zero (0) replies to the e-mails mentioned in the 1st part of this article. At best, a local blogger like me is no of no greater importance to the Oklahoman than is a possibly pesky gnat on the butt of a very large buffalo, hardly worth even the swish of a tail, so it's not surprising that my e-mails would receive no attention by the unbothered beast.

However, a recent memo by David Thompson and/or his office to OPUBCO personnel did get a fly-swat. After that memo was reported locally by the Oklahoma Gazette, David Thompson, himself, wound up making a response even if it wasn't particularly illuminating. Here's how it all came about.

First, an organization called the Poynter Institute picked up on that memo and some associated e-mails and did an article in its PoynterOnline. The 1st part of that article appears below, bearing the tag, "Ethics."

Stuff on the comments page reveals actual e-mails. Hmmmm ... that causes one to wonder if someone in the Oklahoman is a deep-throat-type, else how would Poynter have ever gotten those e-mails at all ...

People at the Oklahoma Gazette picked up on the Poynter piece and the Gazette did its own ... on FRIDAY, December 4. I note this because the Gazette typically publishes its articles on Wednesday, when its weekly is distributed around town for free. Its article is shown in the following 2 graphics, but you can also read the article at the Gazette website:

The 2nd part of the article appears below. The yellow-highlighted part of the article was not in the Gazette's initial report but was added later ... that being David Thompson's response to the initial article.

Even if my e-mails to David Thompson, Christy Gaylord Everest, and David Kelley, weren't seen by them as worthy of a response, bigger fish than I am are at least seeing the problem that we have locally. And that is good.

4 comments:

Parker said...

Great posting, Doug. The Oklahoman needs a watchdog, now more than ever. As a former reporter there (and the writer of the 1993 MAPS article you linked), I was an editor on several major stories that were killed there after 2000, when new managers was installed on the news side.
I also know many excellent and aggressive reporters and editors currently there, too, and excellent work still gets out.
- John Parker

Doug Dawg said...

Thanks, John, for both the comment and excellent background. In case others might not be aware, John wrote the substantial majority of articles on the original MAPS ... see this part of the Bee Watcher Watcher article.

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

I'm honestly surprised, Doug, that the Chamber would even have an official account saying that Thompson is taking the lead role on the campaign. Surely Thompson could have been just as involved without directly taking credit, unless he's planning on running for Congress or something.

Doug Dawg said...

You know, Nick, I don't think that they (Thompson, the Chamber) even see that there is a problem here ... either an impropriety or the appearance of one. Perhaps they are just too close to it to see that some would see it that way.

Anyway, I sent the e-mails on 11/10 ... no answers ... guess that speaks volumes to how unimportant either I or my e-mails are and were. Oh, well ...