If one were to judge purely by what one reads in national media, almost everyone in the United States lives in the BosWash corridor or in California; there are isolated pockets of civilization near the Great Lakes, and atavistic throwbacks living down South and up in the Rockies, but by and large, we're a bi-coastal nation, and anything that isn't happening on one of those coasts, well, isn't happening. For those of us here in the flyover zone, it's sometimes hard to find enough of a hook to attract media attention; Oklahoma City, despite having nearly half a million people within its limits and as many more on its fringes, is as anonymous as any small town in Saskatchewan, causing blips on the national radar only when something startling happens.
The last time anyone was startled, I suppose, was the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, after which scads of press types descended upon the little city on the prairie and filed tons of stories, some of which even contained verifiable facts. If you followed the national news coverage of the bombing, you probably got an impression of Oklahomans as people who faced front and got the job done, come what may. A very positive image, and one that's generally true. Of course, it begs the question of just what it is we have to put up with around here that builds this sort of character. Certainly one thing is the perverse weather; for the second time in three weeks, the state has been hit with the nastiest of all Old Man Winter's tricks, a 36-hour spate of freezing drizzle, which even in trace amounts (the two incidents combined totaled less than 0.02 inch of actual rainfall) takes our daily commute and turns it into a Tron-like arcade game where anyone who is left standing is left hyperventilating. Still, that's only a winter phenomenon, and while we have horrible storms in the spring and fall, and the summers come in two flavors hot and really hot nothing generated by the gods of climate provides quite the same seven-days-a-week low-level irritation as The Daily Oklahoman, which the Columbia Journalism Review describes modestly this month as "The Worst Newspaper In America".
Actually, it's not that good. And it's not really because of its right-wing politics, either; The Dallas Morning News, as conservative a paper as they come, enjoys a national reputation for journalistic quality, and indeed, despite being two hundred miles away and therefore mostly devoid of Oklahoma-oriented articles and advertising, the News has been drawing a couple of percent of the Oklahoma City newspaper market, numbers which led the paper's management to install a news bureau in Oklahoma City a few years back.
Part of the reason the News has maintained its standing is due simply to competition. While the rival Dallas paper, the Times Herald, has folded, there is still competition across the county line, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which under its new Knight-Ridder ownership has become more of a newspaper and less of an institution. The Oklahoman, meanwhile, has seldom had to face competition on its own turf; The Oklahoma Journal, founded in 1964 specifically as an alternative to the Oklahoman, never offered much more than token opposition, and closed up shop in 1980.
But papers with virtual monopolies can still be decent papers. The problem with the Oklahoman is that its current management has abandoned even the slightest pretense of being a newspaper. Instead, publisher Edward L. Gaylord indulges his edifice complex the paper's new tower on the Broadway Extension, an upscale gated community on the edge of town, a resort hotel in Colorado and editorial-page boss Patrick B. McGuigan, a refugee from the Free Congress Foundation, spends his entire allotment of space (there is no Op-Ed page) shilling for the Christian Coalition and its fellow panderers. Actual news in any given issue of the Oklahoman stands out simply because of its rarity. And while the paper is happy to pursue scandals involving its declared enemies, it is conspicuously silent when its anointed ones run into trouble.
One factor working in the Oklahoman's favor is the general paucity of news alternatives. The self-described alternative weekly, the Oklahoma Gazette, still hasn't decided whether it wants to cover issues or lifestyles; the suburban papers range from aggressively bland (the Norman Transcript) to terminally demented (Friday, the Bethany Tribune); local radio and television are at best half a step ahead of The Jerry Springer Show. It is, I suspect, no accident that the local NPR affiliate is actually meeting its fund-raising goals these days. For most of us, The Daily Oklahoman is just there, like ice on our windshields. It doesn't even startle us anymore.
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Copyright © 1999 by Charles G. Hill