How Not to Cover Your Paper’s New Owner

The Oklahoman glosses over Philip Anschutz's political activism

The Oklahoman recently profiled Philip Anschutz, who bought the paper from the Gaylord family, which had owned it for 108 years. Actually, “profile” is being kind—it’s more like a list of stuff Anschutz owns and a blog post about a four-minute YouTube video—and it left out essential background about the interests of its new billionaire owner.

Here’s one example of how the paper gives its new owner the soft touch:

While McClendon knows Anschutz personally, the 71-year-old marathon runner is much more of a mystery to most Oklahomans because of his reputation for not seeking publicity.

Anschutz’s preference for personal privacy, however, stands in stark contrast with the nature of his worldwide business interests, many of which thrive by catering to huge crowds.

Those are euphemisms for: Doesn’t talk to journalists. He hasn’t given an interview since 1974, according to Fortune, though Forbes found a 1988 press conference he gave. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in a guy who just bought a press and a newsroom of journalists. Even Rupert Murdoch submits himself to grillings from his employees here and there:

The puff treatment given Anschutz is perhaps surpassed by that given the departing Gaylord family in an accompanying piece. Here’s the least-gushing quote in the story:

“I think what struck me the most was the completeness with which they covered the state,” he said.

But that story is about the paper’s past. Anschutz is its future, and the paper leaves out critical context about his financing of conservative organizations.

This is as close as The Oklahoman gets to touching that:

People who know Anschutz say family values are important to him, and those values are reflected in motion picture projects he produces through the Anschutz Film Group.

Is “familly values” code for “finances anti-gay issues” and misinformation about evolution? That certainly doesn’t put him out of line with political thought in my home state, of course, or with the paper’s editorial history, but it’s a disservice to readers not to report it. Let’s face it: Anschutz is probably not buying a newspaper in 2011 to make money.

The Tulsa World, by contrast, touches on the billionaire’s political activities:

Anschutz is involved in many conservative and charitable causes and foundations, including the Institute for American Values, which opposes same-sex marriage, and the Discovery Institute, which promotes “intelligent design” as an alternative theory to evolution.

And here was The Independent back in 2006:

For instance there was his funding in the early Nineties of a group called Colorado for Family Values, which pushed a ballot initiative known as Amendment 2, which wished to overturn state laws protecting gay rights. The measure passed but was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1996.

Anschutz is also involved with the Discovery Institute, a “think-tank” he funds in Seattle which criticises the theory of evolution and argues for the involvement of a “supernatural” actor in the development of living things. Critics accuse it of offering little more than a new spin on creationism, and the institute was recently caught up in a notorious lawsuit about the teaching of creationism in schools.

Then there is the Media Research Council, a Washington-based group that attacks the liberal media and which in 2003 was responsible for half of the complaints received by the Federal Communications Commission about alleged indecency on television. According to the non-profit group Media Transparency, Anschutz also funds a number of other ultra-conservative organisations, including the Institute for American Values, which campaigns for marriage and against single parenting, and Enough is Enough, which campaigns against internet pornography.

Most ridiculous of all: The Oklahoman disabled comments on every story it has published so far about Anschutz. Weak.

Fortunately for readers, a lot has changed since this magazine called The Oklahoman “The Worst Newspaper in America” in the late 1990s. The Oklahoman has improved since then, importantly, but equally important: Readers can get online and cover its shortcomings themselves.

See, for instance, the sharp folks at The Lost Ogle, who noticed the paper’s Anschutz puff piece and what got left out (emphasis mine):

To mark this historical change in ownership, The Oklahoman published a series of articles that will surely get the paper some PRSA Silver Anvil award nominations. They profiled Philip Anschutz with a very nice article that went out of its way to not mention any of the wacko conservative foundations and anti-gay groups he’s funded. They also didn’t write a thing about him being Lee Corso’s long-lost brother.

It’s an inauspicious start to a new era for the paper.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,