CapitolBeatOK.com bills itself as an “independent, nonpartisan” site covering the state Capitol, but it’s operated by a former editorial page editor of the ultra-conservative The Oklahoman and “is contracted by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA),” one of the nation’s most right-wing think tanks.
Despite this, a once promising state organization, the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OK Policy), a think tank based in Tulsa, has started to steadily drive web traffic to CapitolBeatOK.com by consistently citing it in its daily “In The Know” corporate media news aggregator. What’s behind OK Policy’s promotion of an OCPA “contracted” site, and what does it mean for open-minded Oklahomans who want a different take on state political events beyond the reductionist, right-wing model they’ve endured for decades? Unfortunately, the signs are not encouraging for people who want open debate and free political discourse here.
CapitolBeatOK.com’s Patrick B. McGuigan, who served as editorial page editor for the Daily Oklahoman from 1990 to 2002, published deeply conservative commentary during his tenure at the newspaper that reflected the ultra-right and even eccentric views of the owner, the late Edward Gaylord. Under McGuigan and Gaylord, the newspaper prohibited consistent dissenting views on its editorial page. Through this glaring, unethical omission and other flaws, the newspaper came to be known as the worst metropolitan newspaper in the nation. In 1999, the Columbia Journalism Review published a series of articles noting the newspaper’s major problems and overall mediocrity.
None of the criticism seemed to matter publicly to McGuigan, who apparently embraced the role of the state’s chief right-wing ideologue. McGuigan, while working at the Daily Oklahoman, once stated the newspaper’s clear mission: “We’re trying to change the political culture; we’re trying to make Oklahoma a conservative bastion.”
The question is obvious: How can someone who at least at one point in his journalism career viewed his newspaper as essentially a propaganda platform for major culture manipulation now be trusted to present “nonpartisan” coverage of state government? Is he also using his other current position as senior editor of The City Sentinel to “make Oklahoma a conservative bastion”? Did McGuigan have a redeeming epiphany of journalism ethics or is he just subtler now?
McGuigan left the Daily Oklahoman suddenly in 2002, which was briefly noted in a July 28 article in the newspaper in that year. According to a LexisNexis search, on Aug. 5, 2002, the Associated Press reported that McGuigan left the newspaper after “writing a letter on newspaper letterhead seeking lawmakers’ support for the incumbent state labor commissioner.” The article goes on to note that another candidate for labor commissioner, then state Rep. Tim Pope said “he had planned to file a complaint with the state Ethics Commission contending the letter amounted to an illegal corporate donation to the Wynn campaign, but has dropped those plans since McGuigan was no longer at the paper.”
As noted on his CapitolBeatOK.com profile, McGuigan later worked for the Department of Labor from 2003-2007 under Republican Brenda Reneau Wynn.
This is how McGuigan is described by Media Matters in an article about the conservative The Leadership Institute Broadcast School of Journalism:
Patrick B. McGuigan, former editorial page editor for the Daily Oklahoman, was “perhaps the most influential graduate of the institute working in newspapers,” according to the June 2001 New York Times article. According to a 1999 Columbia Journalism Review article, McGuigan “had no newspaper background when he was hired [by the Daily Oklahoman] in 1990. He was a well-known conservative activist in Washington who fought against the Supreme Court nomination of David Souter (too moderate) and for his friends Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork.” According to an August 3, 2002, Associated Press article, McGuigan resigned after sending a letter on Daily Oklahoman letterhead praising a Republican candidate for Oklahoma labor commissioner.
But McGuigan’s journalism career is really defined by his ultra-conservative commentary at the Daily Oklahoman-the newspaper, now called The Oklahoman, was called the Daily Oklahoman when McGuigan worked there-more than the circumstances over how he left the newspaper or how he got his job at the Department of Labor or his connection with a supposed “school of journalism.” Here are some samples of his work gleaned from LexisNexis searches using the main keywords McGuigan and Clinton:
Clinton, it has become apparent, has few core principles and no framework – other than, perhaps, a predilection to trust internationalists more than American military leaders. Not surprisingly, as a result, he lurches from one crisis to the next.
His on-the-job training is exacting a high price in American prestige and influence. Exacerbating Clinton’s political problems are his widely discussed personal failings. He is dogged by a sexual harassment lawsuit over an incident during his days in Arkansas. The independent counsel mechanism created by congressional Democrats to torment Republican administrations is unveiling the venality and corruption which Clinton and his cronies brought from Arkansas to the nation’s capital. The First Couple who condemned Republican excess, it turns out, throughout the 1980s provided their own model for a “decade of greed. ”
“Hope & Hot Springs: Year Two,” Daily Oklahoman, Jan. 22, 1995.
Considering Clinton’s sexual misbehavior, habitual abuse of power and personal excess, “indecent’ was and is apt. It’s a good English word.
I speak and write the truth as I perceive it in the context of Bill Clinton’s America – a place difficult to recognize as my own country. My opinions coincide (on presidential job performance) with the views of one-third or so of the national electorate. In terms of the president’s personal misbehavior, a majority of citizens reach the same critical conclusions as your humble servant.
Whenever my sincerely held views do clash with those of a majority in the nation or hereabouts, I’ll pray for wisdom and strength to persevere. Victory is not guaranteed, but neither is defeat.
“Lost Cause? The Struggle for the Truth over Rhetoric in Bill Clinton’s America,” Daily Oklahoman, Dec. 13, 1998.
The Clintons have changed America, turning their politics of personal destruction into a macabre art form, making national life, and their own lives, miserable. This was largely – perhaps entirely- predictable from the record they established in Arkansas. Most of the national press corps ignored this easily discoverable story until long after the 1992 election. Olson completes the unfinished picture.
The purchase price of the Clintons’ co-presidency has included a pervasive cynicism and a bitter anxiety extending across party and philosophical lines deep into the American soul. For a great country with noble presidential traditions, that price has been hell to pay.
“The Clintons: a legacy from ‘Hell,’ Daily Oklahoman, Dec. 3, 1999.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the act of expressing an opinion, of course, but when it’s given in a context of a monopoly newspaper that doesn’t allow real dissenting views, then it be
comes at the very least non-mainstream and at the very most unethical non-journalism. Also, note this sentence in the excerpt from the second editorial listed above: “Whenever my sincerely held views do clash with those of a majority in the nation or hereabouts, I’ll pray for wisdom and strength to persevere.” It doesn’t get more sanctimonious than that. Poor Pat. Why, those mean Clintons-still going strong-reduced him to prayer! The fact is McGuigan brought his own “hell to pay” to Oklahoma politics, and the state is now reaping the rewards of becoming a “conservative bastion.”
This, then, is the tradition McGuigan is bringing to his site. Why would anyone trust him to be nonpartisan? Why would anyone think an OCPA-contracted site could be nonpartisan? OCPA is a highly conservative organization. Its annual dinner has featured speakers such as former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin. It’s perfectly fine that McGuigan is bringing yet another conservative voice to the local internet media in the mode of, say, The McCarville Report, whose site is listed on the CapitolBeatOK.com blog roll. (There are no local liberal sites listed.) But to label the site as independent and nonpartisan is the same rhetorical deceit employed by The Oklahoman over the decades. It’s unethical.
Here’s an email I sent McGuigan to try to get him to respond to this post before it was published:
Hi Patrick. I hope all is well. I’m getting ready to post a longer piece on my blogs, Okie Funk, www.okiefunk.com, and Blue Oklahoma, blueoklahoma.org, that challenges your claim that CapitolBeatOK.com is a “nonpartisan” site. I go through your journalistic history here in the state using LexisNexis searches, mention that your site is “contracted” by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and point out what I see is your unbalanced coverage of Capitol news. For example, your recent piece on the anti-abortion bills failed to cite anyone in favor of reproductive rights. My argument is that it’s perfectly acceptable, of course, to write from a conservative view, but it’s not fair to pretend your site is nonpartisan when it obviously isn’t. I also criticize OK Policy for consistently linking to your site in its “In The Know” column and speculate on why it does so.
I will add your comments in my post if you care to make any. What makes your site nonpartisan as you claim? What is your exact financial relationship with OCPA? How much money do you receive from that organization? Do you have a financial and/or organizational relationship with OK Policy that goes beyond just linking to one another? Why are there no liberal blogs listed on your blog roll if your site is nonpartisan? Feel free to go beyond the scope of these questions as well.
The supposed new “nonpartisan” OCPA-backed McGuigan didn’t respond. McGuigan, of course, is always free to respond to my questions anytime he wishes, and I’ll publish his answers if that’s what he wants. I think there are a lot of local political people who would want to know how the money works between OCPA and McGuigan.
Even all this might have little current practical meaning here in one of the reddest states in the nation if it weren’t for OK Policy’s support for McGuigan’s site. OK Policy recently started citing McGuigan’s site on a regular basis in its “In The Know” column, which has essentially become yet another boring mouthpiece for the corporate media-The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, etc.-and the OCPA-backed McGuigan. (There’s a dearth of links to liberal views in “In The Know.” Liberals are the unseen, the unheard and “the other” here in Oklahoma. What else is new, right?) For many progressives here, OK Policy had been a place that offered reasonable policy suggestions that more often than not reflected their values. OK Policy also had an unstated open-tent policy when it came to diverse views. But by driving traffic to an OCPA-backed site and ignoring liberal views, doesn’t OK Policy just become part of the conservative hegemony here? How can we have a real exchange of ideas when only the conservative media and the main conservative think tank here are allowed to become part of the political discourse in any significant manner? It’s the stifling of dissent and anti-free speech. It’s absurd that anyone would think political change could happen here by supporting the local journalists and media outlets that have obviously made Oklahoma one of the most conservative states in the nation.
When I emailed OK Policy Director David Blatt about this post, he got back immediately and didn’t hesitate to defend the OCPA-backed McGuigan:
Despite McGuigan’s history and leanings, he has covered OK Policy extensively and fairly. I think that overall CapitolBeatOK is doing a good job of reporting issues and events at the State Capitol, and is frequently covering stories that other reporters are missing, which is why we frequently end up linking to his stories.
Blatt also later pointed out in another email, “OK Policy has no financial relationship, organizational relationship or relationship of any sort with CapitolBeatOK.” I’m unsure I believe “relationship of any sort.” OK Policy consistently cites CapitolBeatOK.com. That, in itself, implies at least an intellectual connection, a philosophical bonding. Have Blatt and McGuigan ever communicated through email, phone or in person? I bet they have. Of course, they can always deny this by contacting me, and I will gladly correct the record.
It’s my argument, after reviewing CapitolBeatOK.com posts, that McGuigan consistently practices unbalanced journalistic coverage that is heavily slanted to the right. Also, take a look through McGuigan’s site and try to determine what he’s covering that other reporters are missing. McGuigan is an operative for the established right-wing machine here, and OK Policy helps enable it. Why?
For example, here’s one of McGuigan’s recent posts that failed to give any counterpoint to Gov. Mary Fallin’s recent signing of bills that further restrict abortion in Oklahoma.
Is this the type of “good job of reporting” to which Blatt refers? What are reporters “missing” in this right-wing harangue? What about reproductive rights for women? Why didn’t McGuigan include a counter view from someone who supports reproductive rights? Isn’t that Journalism 101? From dismissing women’s reproductive issues to promoting reductions in state retirement programs to supporting ending collective bargaining for some city employees in the state, CapitolBeatOK.com is all Republican, pretty much all the time. There’s hardly any balance or counter views. It’s basically a GOP press-release factory. Even if McGuigan publishes a post now and then that might be deemed fair by basic journalistic standards it doesn’t justify his other posts.
McGuigan’s work on CapitolBeatOK.com speaks for itself and no one should have to belabor the point that his material is driven by conservative dogma. Blatt’s argument that McGuigan is picking up stories others are missing just doesn’t seem true either. For example, McGuigan’s GOP-based story on ending automatic cost of living adjustments for state pensioners was also widely covered much differently in the mainstream media, but OK Policy linked to CapitolBeatOK.com on the issue. McGuigan simply added more Republican victory rhetoric for reducing retirement benefits here in his story. It’s difficult to believe that OK Policy would want to promote this type of GOP celebration for reducing pension benef
its for retired teachers, but it did link to McGuigan’s post. Why not just link to the Associated Press story? Here’s a “crazy” liberal view: I believe everyone, whether they work in the private or public sector, even Blatt and McGuigan, should have a decent retirement with regular cost of living increases, but that’s the type of argument that’s apparently too controversial for OK Policy these days.
Blatt and his two new associates, Gene Perry and Kate Richey, once offered progressive Oklahomans at least some hope for rational discussions about the ultra-conservative fiscal and social policies that are bringing much hardship and suffering to many state residents while the wealthy flourish here and benefit from tax cuts. I hope that’s still the case with OK Policy, but why has it apparently thrown in with an archconservative? Is it appeasement? Is it surrender? Is it a matter of financial survival?
Here’s my speculation:
(1) OK Policy, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to alienate the corporate power structure here. Take a look at its board of directors, which includes a prominent bank president and an oil company executive, who is also chair of the Oklahoma Christian University Board of Trustees. By sanctioning McGuigan’s latest OCPA endeavor, OK Policy sends a signal that it won’t rock the boat. Perhaps, OK Policy is moving to a center-right or even strong-right position. This might be good for OK Policy internally and financially, but it’s bad for the impoverished and middle-class families here who need more supportive voices. It’s not good for women’s health and reproductive issues. Is McGuigan going to speak up for women’s reproductive rights? No, but OK Policy is going to link to his posts.
(2) Maybe OK Policy is “jumping the shark.” By that, I mean OK Policy has grown in popularity but has perhaps already reached its full potential in this extremely conservative state. (This is not a criticism of OK Policy, but just a reflection on the ultra-conservative politics here.) In the quest to continue to grow an audience, maybe OK Policy is willing to try what seem like counter-intuitive and implausible actions to get attention.
(3) OK Policy has not been as effective as McGuigan and OCPA in determining the political reality here, that’s for sure, so perhaps this is an attempt to blend in with what we might call “the ambience of success,” at least in Oklahoma political terms. Give him credit. McGuigan did help create the “conservative bastion” he set out to create. The well-funded OCPA has provided a long-term, intellectual framework for the conservative movement here. Maybe OK Policy’s staff and board believe some of the magic will visit them if they adopt the modus operandi of the right-wing here and promote conservative sites.
As I wrote earlier, the signs are not good for Oklahomans interested in a free exchange of social-policy ideas given these recent developments. Liberal voices are getting marginalized as usual by the corporate media and now even by Blatt’s OK Policy. Will McGuigan and OCPA now dictate the terms of OK Policy’s intellectual engagement with social and fiscal policies on some level even if it’s just to create even more liberal timidity here? The issue raises the larger problem of founding, funding and sustaining independent media and think-tank outlets. Do OCPA and OK Policy share corporate donors? Does McGuigan get paid from the corporate trough for his “nonpartisan” work? What’s the funding spider web really look like up close? Are they all joining together? How do they intersect? Is all the money coming from the same places?
On a personal note and in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve had lunch with Blatt and other people, including a couple of Democratic politicians and some activists, three or four times over the last two years or so, and I’ve exchanged emails with Blatt about various articles I’ve written. I’ve supported OK Policy since its inception, and I’ve supported Blatt’s work even before that. I don’t enjoy writing this, but I’m really skeptical about OK Policy right now. In general, no think tanks can probably operate independently because of funding issues, but there’s no need to pretend otherwise or alienate longtime, initial supporters.
Maybe Oklahoma just needs a real, well-funded progressive think tank that is proud to call itself progressive and aggressively supports progressive voices in the community. What are the chances of that ever happening?