United States Project

The Oklahoman runs a puff piece on its billionaire owner’s new resort property

July 5, 2016

For the past 30 years, Randy Ellis has been a watchdog reporter for The Oklahoman.* According to his bio at the paper, which is the largest in Oklahoma, the reporter has written about “corruption in the state’s municipal bond industry, bid-rigging by county officials, self-dealing by state housing officials,” and more.

And so late last month, when he produced a story about a local school superintendent self-reporting a potential campaign violation, it seemed routine reporting on the accountability beat. Nothing unusual there.

What is unusual is what came in the next day’s print edition. The front of the Sunday Life section featured a full-page spread about Sea Island, Georgia, a luxury five-star resort more than a thousand miles from The Oklahoman’s offices. The page featured two articles by Ellis, one carrying a Sea Island dateline and the headline, “Resort offers one-of-a-kind experiences, chance to be pampered.”

It’s a full-fledged puff piece even by the standards of a travel feature, noting up high that the resort is “world-renowned for its pampered elegance” before running down the joint’s lodging accommodations, multiple golf courses, and horseback rides on the beach. Here’s a typical graf:

For some guests, walking barefoot along the five miles of pristine beach or strolling under the arched canopy of ancient live oaks draped in Spanish moss can provide soulful rejuvenation.

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But Sea Island isn’t only a playground for the rich and powerful:

“One of the things that’s great about Sea Island is it’s a place you can come and be just a person, regardless of whether you are a celebrity or a family coming from Oklahoma City,” [president Scott] Steilen said.

A second article in the package bore the headline, “Sea Island resort acquisition includes generational commitment to excellence.” It introduces readers to Sea Island’s new owner: a notoriously press-shy Colorado billionaire named Philip Anschutz, who told The Oklahoman of his intention to be a “committed steward” of the “truly legendary” place.

So what gives? Why was The Oklahoman offering this sort of gushing coverage to a high-end coastal resort?

Ellis didn’t want to talk about it when I reached him by phone last week. He directed me to his supervisors, none of whom I was able to reach. Kelly Dyer Fry, the paper’s editor, and managing editor Michael Shannon were away from the office and did not respond to emails and phone messages. An auto-reply from Fry’s email account directed me to assistant managing editor Robby Trammell, who didn’t return an email or voicemail.

But there might be a clue in the third paragraph of that second story:

The Anschutz family has owned one such iconic resort since 2011, when the family acquired The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., as part of a transaction that also included purchase of The Oklahoman.

In other words: Philip Anschutz, brand-new owner of a fancy resort property, is also the owner of the newspaper offering white-glove treatment to that resort. At least it’s disclosed.

In 2011, when Anschutz bought The Oklahoman, CJR’s Ryan Chittum found fault with the paper’s soft-touch coverage of the billionaire’s controversial political activism, writing that the publication had demonstrated “How not to cover your paper’s new owner.”

It’s five years later, and maybe not much has changed—except now there are more billionaires owning local newspapers.

* This sentence originally referred to the publication as The Daily Oklahoman, its former title. The paper’s official title now is simply The Oklahoman.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.