An exchange with Ken Neal of the Whirled


Stan Geiger sent along an interesting e-mail exchange between himself and Ken Neal, editorial page editor of the Tulsa Whirled. With Stan's permission, I reprint it below. It is illuminating. It has to do with Omer Gillham, the Whirled reporter who covered recent scandals surrounding administrators at Tulsa Community College over retention bonuses and false attendance figures. For a change it appeared the Whirled was actually engaged in afflicting the comfortable.

Gillham has been reassigned to cover Tar Creek. Stan Geiger asked Ken Neal about the reason for the reassignment, and wondered if there was pressure applied to get Gillham away from covering education.

Geiger makes an important point: The experience Omer Gillham gained while digging into TCC's mess could be used to uncover similar problems elsewhere in public education. It takes time to learn who to talk to, what records to ask for, and what to look for in the records. You don't just open the board's minute book and see a meeting transcript like this:

College President Loombucket: "Gentlemen, I have a cunning plan to make all of us millionaires at taxpayer's expense."

Other board members (singing): "We're in the money! We're in the money!"

Loombucket (gleefully rubbing hands together): "Buwahahahahaha!"

An investigative reporter has to learn how to spot patterns in the public records and spot where the records don't make sense. An ordinary-looking invoice might stand out like a smoking gun to an experienced reporter. Now, instead of leveraging that experience, the Whirled seems to be discarding it. Maybe the Beacon could take him on.

Ken Neal says that he doesn't share Stan's "generally sour outlook on education". This is interesting: Someone who cares enough about the quality of education to expose mismanagement and worse is labelled sour on education, while someone who is willing to overlook problems, take official pronouncements at face value, and tolerate an educational system that doesn't serve the students, considers himself pro-education.

Read the whole exchange by following the link:

Here's Stan Geiger's initial note to Neal

From: Stan Geiger
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2004 11:13 AM
To: ''
Cc: 'Omer Gillham'
Subject: An inquiry

Dear Ken:

I got a little note from Omer the other day. He told me he's been promoted and is no longer the education reporter. I found that interesting.

Now, don't be mad at ol' Omer. He didn't reveal any secrets. What you are getting here are my thoughts and my thoughts alone.

Over the past few months, Omer, you might say, has gone to school. He learned firsthand how TCC's administration was willing to withhold public information, lie, distort, manipulate, threaten, anything to keep the public from finding out things they wanted kept secret. Omer, in other words, is probably the most knowledgeable reporter in town relative to public education in the real world. I find it odd that you would bench a reporter like that.

I don't suppose this "promotion" had to do with, shall we say, encouragement from education lobby types, did it? I mean I'm sure school superintendents, other college and university presidents, regents, faculty associations and the teachers union were paying a lot of attention to the TCC series, and I have to believe they didn't like it. The last thing these people want is a reporter on the education beat that is willing to direct a magnifying glass at them, ask tough questions and put the results on the front page for public consumption.

You'll pardon my cynical outlook, but life has taught me to take nothing at face value anymore.

So what do you say, Ken? Would you care to confirm or deny?


Neal's first reply:

From: Ken Neal []
Sent: Monday, February 23, 2004 1:17 PM
To: Stan Geiger
Subject: Re: An inquiry

Stan, my good sense tells me not to reply to you, but your insinuation is
Shawn Shafer recently left the staff to teach at OSU. That left a vacancy that led to a chain-like change in the reporting assignments. I share your high opinion of Omer and believe me, his new assignment on Tar Creek is important. I don't share your generally sour outlook on education and your insinuation that the "establishment" got Omer reassigned is another indication that you seldom know what you are talking about. In any case, I had nothing to do with his reassignment in the newsroom. You should know that we editorially chastised the TCC board, most recently for trying to keep the search for a new president in a small committee. You should have noticed that the search committee was expanded after an editorial I wrote criticized their effort. C'mon, old Stanley, quit seeing a dastardly conspiracy under every rock. ken

Geiger rebuts:

From: Stan Geiger
Sent: Tuesday, February 24, 2004 7:12 AM
To: 'Ken Neal'
Cc: 'Omer Gillham'
Subject: RE: An inquiry

Dear Ken:

It's interesting that you would use the term "good sense." Because your writing tends to indicate that is a quality in which you are quite lacking.

Your writing on the Vision issue certainly provided examples. I don't remember the exact quote, but you wrote something along the lines of, 'If we can't trust our elected officials, who can we trust?' That was perhaps the most laughable statement I've ever read in a newspaper.

Of course, another commentary you wrote in which you argued high sales taxes equal low property taxes could certainly be a challenger in the contest.

I'll say this for you, Kenny, you're always good for a chuckle. And you also seem to have a particular affection for the taste of crow.

Do you remember your notes to me of July 24th of last year? You ripped into me then for not knowing what I was talking about. I warned you then not to believe anything the administration at TCC had to say. You defended them---including the board. They certainly lied about the retention bonuses, didn't they? I told you they were lying about their enrollment figures. You said they weren't. Not long after, they admitted it.

The TCC story was nothing new to me; I was writing about it 8 years ago. Your own paper's investigation proved me right. Yet you would now say I "seldom know what [I'm] talking about." You would condemn me as some kind of conspiracy theorist without a clue.

I know a man that's had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. He warned me to wear a thick skin. He said if people couldn't refute my argument they would attack me personally. You are showing him to be right.

Dave Wemhaner, Omer's primary inside source at TCC, screamed his head off
for years about bad management at the college. Finally, he got someone to listen, and I believe his contention was certainly proved correct.

Tami Marler told me she once had occasion to do a story about TCC. Administration told her Dave was crazy, that he didn't know what he was talking about and she should pay him no mind. I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't tell Omer the same thing last year. It seems you and the college use the same play book.

So the two "crazies" turned out to be in the know. And the elitist newspaper editor, who stood in defense of the bad guys, was dead wrong.

Yeah, I know, you're now spraining a shoulder patting yourself on the back for what you call editorially chastising. I read an editorial a few months back in which the board was minimally chastised for passing out the bonuses in the dark. The piece said the timing was bad, and the bonuses shouldn't have been issued behind closed doors, but the bonuses themselves weren't condemned. And I'm aware of the recent piece admonishing the board for trying to put the fix in regarding VanTrease's replacement.

I also recall your piece last summer that lauded VanTrease, and claimed the man was a bargain for taxpayers because he was the greatest juco president in the world. According to you, ol' Deano was the best thing to hit town this side of Al Gore inventing the Internet.

Of course, an awful lot of dirty laundry got hung on the line after that, huh? I don't recall seeing any editorials calling for VanTrease's resignation, or that of the board. I don't recall any editorials condemning the use of taxpayer money to hire lawyers for the personal gratification of executives or condemning VanTrease for deliberately skirting pension law so he could beef up an already fat pension, either.

I don't find it surprising you don't share my "sour outlook on education." After all, one expects spin from a government spokesman. But, as I've noted in recent writings, I believe there are more people thinking like me than there are thinking like you these days. I think a lot of people---working class and middle class alike---are really getting annoyed with being told they don't pay enough in taxes, by people like you, then reading about how some jerk set himself up as a millionaire by sucking the public tit.

Now, on the matter of conspiracies, I'll admit to being cynical and skeptical, but I don't chase ghosts. Having said that, it's hard not to at least acknowledge the possible existence of a particular a conspiracy when it seems one is uncovered with incredible regularity.

You've heard of Wall Street, I'm sure. Or have you been asleep for the past several years? CEOs, analysts, brokers, investment bankers and auditors joined forces in a widespread effort to bilk the public for the benefit of the few. Wouldn't you call that a conspiracy?

And what about TCC? VanTrease, Crooms, Kontogianes, McKeon, Garber, Looney, Guthery and lawyers working together, sticking it to taxpayers and students alike, so they might enjoy better lives at the expense of the many. I'd say that qualifies.

Meanwhile, I have made it quite clear in my recent writings that I do not see a smoke-filled-room conspiracy in the area of education funding. I have merely pointed out the existence of a political-educational complex, and the fact that every entity pushing the notion of more money for education has something to gain by doing so.

On the matter of Omer's promotion, hey, I was merely asking a question. And
I don't think it was an "outrageous" one. Surely you will allow that power brokers exist in public education, and that it would not be beyond the realm of possibility that they would use their influence to their own advantage, if they could.

But, if you say the departure of one employee shook the mighty World to its
foundation and led to wholesale reassignments of reporters, I suppose I'll have to accept that. I'm no expert on the inner workings of a newspaper.

I will say this, however: Tar Creek is hardly a breaking news story. Everybody knows it's a cesspool and it's making people sick. The only story left to be covered is the argument over what to do about it.

Meanwhile, there are 25 public colleges and universities in this state and God knows how many public school systems, all of which, in my view, need someone looking into their business. In my humble opinion, an experienced investigative education reporter should be left to that task.

In closing, what you should know is I busted my ass for your paper on the TCC matter. I fed Omer every bit of analysis, insight and information I could for several months running. It's bad enough to have that effort ignored by the editors of the World, but to have my intellect challenged by one of them is really a bit too much. Disagree with me if you will, Kenny, but try to do it without calling me stupid. I think I rate a little more respect than that.


And Neal's final reply:

From: Ken Neal []
Sent: Tuesday, February 24, 2004 9:32 AM
To: Stan Geiger
Subject: Re: FW: An inquiry

I knew it was a mistake to answer you in the first place. Please don't write
again. Surely you don't want to compare qualifications. neal

Poor Ken, can dish it out, can't take it.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 25, 2004 12:47 AM.

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