The Oklahoman distributes a hit piece on Obama

Do a new owner's deep pockets require a "trade-off"?

On September 20, The Washington Examiner, one of DC’s conservative newspapers, published “The Obama You Don’t Know,” a 10-part “Special Report” drawn from a four-month investigation of President Obama’s pre-presidential narrative.

The Examiner report, which fits neatly into the GOP-friendly meme that mainstream journalists failed to “vet” Obama in 2008, got the expected pickup in conservative media circles: an advance preview on Fox News’s Special Report with Bret Baier, discussion on Michael Savage’s widely-subscribed conservative radio show, commentary on assorted right-wing blogs. Outside the conservative bubble, though, it landed with a thud. Other than a post by The Atlantic Wire’s Elspeth Reeve, who called it “an interesting look” while also gently mocking the sleepiness of some of its revelations—Time once called Obama a “rock-star professor,” but in reality his ratings among students declined over time and he didn’t hang out with law school colleagues!—it was mostly ignored.

We might have ignored it too—but, last Sunday, it ran as a 12-page supplement in The Oklahoman, the Oklahoma City daily that is also considered the paper of record in the state. (An Oklahoman reader tipped CJR off to the supplement.)

In some ways, it’s not all that shocking that the paper distributed to its readers what amounts to a partisan hit piece on Obama (more on the report’s shortcomings in a moment). The Oklahoman, which recently won three First Amendment Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, isn’t the same paper it was in 1999, when CJR declared it “The Worst Newspaper in America,” bringing charges of racism, sexism, homophobia, stinginess, and shameless partisanship. (That article isn’t available online, but here’s a taste: “The Daily Oklahoman has become a newspaper in reverse, sucking intelligence from its readers.”) But it’s still a staunchly—and unsurprisingly, considering the community it serves—conservative paper, with an editorial page that regularly rails against the Obama administration and echoes conservative talking points.

More importantly, the paper now shares the same owner—Colorado billionaire and conservative political activist Phillip Anschutz—as The Examiner. Content sharing among Anschutz’s media properties is not uncommon: the Anschutz-owned magazine The Weekly Standard also carried the Examiner report, and The Oklahoman’s politics page regularly links to Examiner items that have no home-state connection. As CJR’s Ryan Chittum wrote last year, in the course of faulting The Oklahoman for its puff-piece coverage of its new owner, “Let’s face it: Anschutz is probably not buying a newspaper in 2011 to make money.” The expansion of Anschutz’s media portfolio, though, does make it easier to promote and share material across his properties.

For all that, it is disappointing—and a little surprising—that the report was distributed by The Oklahoman. Some of the early sections may indeed offer interesting glimpses at the difference between Obama’s upbringing and early career and the versions of those stories he, and much of the media, have told. But The Examiner’s sudden sympathy for Chicago’s lefty activists and black nationalists, several of whom are given ample space to find fault with the president, arouses suspicions that it was happy to give a megaphone to any critic it could find.

The report’s closing sections, meanwhile, offer plenty of reason not to trust what came before. In a bit of fear-mongering that feels transported in from October 2001, Obama’s oft-reported association with Chicago businessman and convicted felon Tony Rezko becomes a key bit of evidence to reveal “The Arab-American Network Behind Obama.” (Rezko emigrated in the 1970s from Syria, which is, as The Examiner helpfully tells readers, “home of strongman Bashar al-Assad.”)

And in a case of journalistic malpractice, the final chapter takes a fairly banal comment about how electoral politics works—Obama, speaking to Univision before the 2010 midterms, said this:

If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We’re going to punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,’ if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s going to be harder and that’s why I think it’s so important that people focus on voting on November 2.

—then snips out all the context and threads the “punish… reward” bit into a narrative about Obama’s “gangster government.”

But beyond the pervasive one-sidedness or any particular transgressions, what’s striking about the report appearing in a major newspaper is that it is so clearly the work of the conservative media movement—which is not the same thing as journalism from a conservative point-of-view. A conservative critique of Obama’s presidency might well force some neglected issues and questions into play, and might provide useful information to voters (granted, Oklahoma’s not exactly a swing state). But the decision to focus almost entirely on Obama’s career before Washington, in keeping with the right-wing media’s “vetting” meme, means that the report is part of a well-developed conservative counter-narrative, not something that was written to speak to a general audience.

So how exactly did the “Special Report” end up in The Oklahoman? That’s unclear. When I reached out to the paper, several editors—including the news director and the local news and opinion editors—indicated that they had no part in the discussion or decision-making surrounding the report’s publication. Kelly Dyer Fry, the paper’s editor and vice president of news, did not respond to calls or emails.

While the report is still featured as an “investigation” on The Oklahoman’s online opinion page, the report is in no other way labeled as opinion, and J.E. McReynolds, the Opinion Page editor, told me that despite the online placement, the piece was “not opinion.”

Another individual at The Oklahoman, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, indicated the report’s publication came as a surprise. Reporters are accustomed to the paper’s stridently conservative editorial page, the employee said. But “this was different. Even our readers have reacted, commenting critically on the online story.

“Bottom line: It diminishes what we do when the lines between opinion and journalism are blurred. If we are nothing more than a William Hearst-era New York Journal and the editors and publisher are fine printing yellow, blatantly opinionated ‘journalism,’ then I think we have bigger problems than one special report…”

At the same time, the employee added, since Anschutz took over the paper, The Oklahoman “has seen many wonderful changes.” After two earlier rounds of layoffs, it has started adding reporters again; the staff now includes a team of energy reporters and more investigative journalists—investments that may have made possible some of that award-winning reporting.

“It doesn’t seem like we’re sinking anymore,” the employee said. “I guess this is the trade-off.”

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.