Whirled editor Neal: Responsible dissent is beyond our Ken

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Way back on Monday, I attended the Downtown Kiwanis club luncheon as the guest of my friend John Eagleton. Ken Neal, editorial page editor of the Tulsa Whirled was the speaker of the day. John knew I'd be interested in hearing Ken speak, since I've written about him and the emissions of his editorial board quite frequently.

Ken has a folksy voice and manner. He spoke very briefly about the paper and the editorial section he oversees, and then threw it open for questions, what he called a "horsewhip the editor" session.

I had a pile of questions I could have asked, but narrowed it down to just one. He had just been asked a question about the mix and selection of syndicated columnists on the op-ed pages, and in fact, they now have a decent assortment, including some of my favorite conservative columnists -- writers like Thomas Sowell, James Lileks, and Paul Greenberg.

I commended Mr. Neal on the diversity of his syndicated columnists but asked why there was a lack of diversity of opinion on local issues. He seemed puzzled by my question. I pointed out that you never read Julie DelCour writing that Ken Neal was wrong about something or Ken Neal writing that David Averill was wrong about something. The board is uniformly supportive of any tax increase -- something Neal openly acknowledged a few weeks ago. The board is also uniformly negative about the reform majority on the Tulsa City Council.

His reply was about what I expected: The Whirled is a private company, not a public institution. We have the right to push our opinions and our ideas.

I wasn't questioning the Whirled's right to publish what they wished, just suggesting that the lack of diverse opinion on local issues was a flaw in need of correction. Neal went on to cite the decades of experience of each of the editorial board members, many of them with years of experience covering City Hall. Because they're all so intimate with the way City Hall works, naturally they're all in agreement over how City Hall ought to be run.

The answer to the next question shed further light on the matter. Kiwanis Club president Rick Brinkley very delicately and politely asked a question about the ethics of the Whirled's coverage of Great Plains Airlines, in which World Publishing Company was invested. Brinkley pointed out that as a matter of practice broadcast media disclose potential conflicts of interest: If ABC reports on a new film from Disney, they make mention of the fact that Disney is ABC's parent company. Neal brushed aside the comparison to broadcast media and said that they have all sorts of ethical standards that cover any conflicts of interest they may have as journalists, although he avoided the issue of conflicts of interest involving the newspaper's owners and their other business interests.

Regarding Great Plains Airlines, Neal pooh-poohed the idea that the newspaper abused the readers' trust in order to help anyone get rich. Neal pointed out that the Lortons, owners of the paper, are already rich. (And we all know that all wealthy people are contented with the amount of wealth they have.) Neal said, "Everybody in town thought it [public subsidy of Great Plains] was a great idea. It was a Chamber deal."

That says it all. Neal and company have a huge blindspot when it comes to dissenting opinion. They sit in their bunker on Main Street, with their decades of listening only to the conventional wisdom, and they honestly can't see any other way of running the city. The city's problems are of course not the fault of the powers-that-be and their policies, but the fault of the people who are doing the complaining.

It's cliched to refer to Pauline Kael's quote about Nixon's landslide -- "No one I know voted for him" -- but it fits this bunch.

In fact, there were many voices objecting to the city's financial involvement with Great Plains, including two then-City Councilors, Randi Miller and Clay Bird, who voted against the deal. A story in the Whirled some time back used their no votes as a way to needle Sam Roop and Roscoe Turner, councilors who voted for the deal but are now critical of it and are involved in the investigation of the airport.

To the Whirled editorial writers, and their allies in the Cockroach Caucus, city politics is utter simplicity. If it's a "Chamber deal," it must be good, and of course, "everybody in town" thinks it's a good idea. Anyone who disagrees is by definition a naysayer, an anti-progress crank, and therefore is beneath notice, no matter how well he can argue his position. The result is an inbred intellectual environment with imbecility as a predictable result.

No wonder the Whirled is so mystified and threatened by the presence of a majority of dissenters on the Council. They don't understand that there are tens of thousands of Tulsans unhappy with the way the city is being run and looking for leaders with fresh ideas.

One more interesting quote from the Q&A session: In response to a question about changing Tulsa's form of government, Neal said, "When you don't have a strong mayor, and you have a strong-mayor system, you run into problems." Neal advocates adding three at-large councilors and making the Mayor a member of the Council as well. The purpose behind such a move would be to make it much more difficult for grass-roots leaders to secure a majority on the Council.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 5, 2005 2:43 PM.

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