Culture & the Family
J.E. McReynolds | May 27, 2021
Contempt of customer: The Oklahoman has lost its way
Oklahoma's largest newspaper has lost its way. This of course started long ago, but the pace has quickened. Core readership is ignored or disrespected. The paper has little value in relation to its price. The new executive editor, Ray Rivera, inherited a sinking ship whose listing probably can't be corrected. But he should try nevertheless, starting with an avowed and demonstrated show of respect for the traditional core readership: Conservative, God-fearing, decent folks. Good people.
For 30 years I worked where Rivera now works. But this wasn't my first exposure to the newspaper. That would be in the late 1950s. On semi-annual visits to my grandfather's farm in Grady County, I was proudly tasked with retrieving “The Daily Oklahoman” from a crooked mailbox at the bottom of a steep driveway. C.B. “Daddy Bill” McReynolds deeply loved the newspaper for which I would one day work. Odd, I thought later, because he was an uneducated dirt farmer with socialist leanings. He loved the paper because it covered the whole state and covered it well. It circulated throughout Oklahoma and beyond. Readers in border areas of Texas, Kansas, and Arkansas also loved the paper at the time. Like Daddy Bill, they paid to read it. Perhaps their grandchildren fetched copies from rural mailboxes.
The last time Oklahoma's electoral votes went to the Democratic presidential nominee was in 1964. I was 11 years old and already envisioning a career in journalism. I was an LBJ fan, as were my parents. We were a Yellow-Dog Democrat family who basically believed that a sorry Democrat was always better than a good Republican. My folks weren't liberal, though. They certainly weren't politically correct.
Fifty-six years after Oklahoma went Blue for the last time, The Oklahoman seems to have adopted my family's former attitude—with one great exception. The paper is decidedly liberal and politically correct, following the pattern I see elsewhere in journalism in which objectivity is scorned rather than valued. I followed the same pattern growing up. Upon leaving journalism school at OSU, I vowed I'd never work for a man such as Edward L. Gaylord. Times change. I began to be more like the average Oklahoman of that day and even now, holding similar core values: Conservative and not politically correct. Willing to support a Democrat but typically finding the Republican alternative a better choice.
I was recruited to be business editor in 1985. Five years later I transitioned to senior staff writer, followed in 1995 by Gaylord approving my appointment as an editorial writer. In 2011 I got what I thought would be my dream job: opinion editor. But it was a nightmare almost from the start. The two men and one woman I worked for and/or with were out of their depths; the industry was floundering. I wrote editorials with a point of view that would have horrified me not so many years earlier. Still, they were opinions generally shared by the core readership. Yes, I wrote some things I wish I could walk back. But it's indisputable that my views were in sync with the core readership who remained loyal to print journalism.
I fought a years-long battle to add liberal syndicated columns and cartoons to the opinion page, in the interest of balance and as a show of respect for some of our readers. I met resistance at every turn. Finally, I prevailed. Today, though, the imbalance is in the opposite direction. And I'm not just referring to the editorial page.
In my last years working at Britton and Broadway, paid circulation dropped dramatically. Letters to the editor fell from a torrent to a trickle. Management spent tens of thousands of dollars on spurious ideas, such as Wimgo. My superiors seemed to think that turning the paper into a broadcast outlet was the answer. But core readers knew that if they wanted to watch TV they would turn on the set. If they wanted to read a newspaper they would pay for a copy.
Meanwhile, the status of and respect for the post-Gaylord editorial page was in great decline. In my mind this meant a waning respect for our core readership. My institutional knowledge and experience were disregarded. Management seemed almost embarrassed at times by our continuing conservative worldview. Which, I will repeat, mirrored the world view of a majority of voters in a state which rejected the Democratic nominee for president for 56 years straight. Yes, I've heard that editorial pages should help guide people away from hardened beliefs into a more enlightened way of thinking. Yet I never heard anyone appeal to the New York Times to help guide liberal New Yorkers away from their hardened beliefs.
Feature after feature was removed from The Oklahoman. The Sunday magazine. A free Sunday TV guide. Up-to-date printed sports coverage. Hard-hitting investigatory journalism. Strong opinions expressed in creative, colorful ways. And now Rivera has effectively eviscerated the opinion page. This was the heart and soul of the paper at the time I fetched editions from that wind-blown mailbox on a red-dirt road south of Chickasha. As well as when I happily broke my vow never to work for a man such as Edward L. Gaylord.
I soldiered on as long as I could but retired at age 61 in 2015. I had not only had enough of inconsistent and hostile management but enough of modern journalism's wholesale disregard for objectivity and truth. Case in point: The racial tension 100 years ago this month in Tulsa was formerly known as the Tulsa Race Riot or, more accurately, the Tulsa Race War. Now it is known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Who decided this? In what insular boardroom did a clueless committee come to the conclusion that “Massacre” fit the narrative better than “Riot” or “War”? I see this all the time today. I saw it for years in Associated Press feeds, which long ago dropped any pretense of objectivity. I haven't seen so much of this in The Oklahoman until more recently. Now I see it every time I read any of its content. Last week Rivera practically begged subscribers to sign up or stay signed up. He cited coverage that fits the new narrative and he ignored the lack of coverage that matches the interest of the traditional core readership.
Want more proof that journalism has lost its way? Consider the fawning adoration for the New York Times’s 1619 Project. This is a widely discredited report yet held in high esteem by elitists in journalism, academia, entertainment, etc. The cancel culture has moved through the nation like a strong cold front, affecting every aspect of life and contradicting the values and morals of what was once The Oklahoman's core readership.
More and more of what's left of the core readers will do the Howard Beale thing and declare that they're not going to take it any more. What they will throw out of their windows is a paid subscription to the state's largest newspaper. I threw out a 40-year career because I couldn't take The Oklahoman any more. I took with me copies of more than 100 emails written by the extant management. Fodder for a book, perhaps.
Fifty-six years after LBJ's triumph in Oklahoma, will Rivera stand out among managers in modern journalism? Or will he take the easy way out and merely appease his robotic, groupthink, correctness-by-committee contemporaries instead of the people who paid the way for so many years? People who plow the red dirt and raise winter wheat to feed the world. People who expect news stories to be objective and opinions to be clearly labeled and separated from news. And, yes, people whose voting preferences mean that the Democratic presidential nominee typically doesn't carry a single county in this state.
A former managing editor of The Journal Record, J. E. McReynolds has served as a general assignment reporter, business editor, and opinion editor of The Oklahoman.