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Saturday, April 18, 2015

The journalism of April 19, 20 years ago--part 1

The entire state knows what tomorrow is. Here, on the campus of Oklahoma Christian University, American flags.
(The following will be some of the first part of my presentation on a panel discussion at UCO Monday, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.)

"A thunderous bomb blast rocked Oklahoma City on Wednesday, ripping a huge slice from a federal building and killing at least 150 to 200 people, many of them children."
--Steve Lackmeyer and David Zizzo, The Oklahoman, April 20, 1995
 

Twenty years ago tomorrow, I was sitting in my UCO office on the phone with a graduate working at the Tulsa World, and the window rattled violently. I hung up, wondering. There was one TV in the building in another chair's office and we gathered to watch an aerial shot of smoke rising from a  building. I frankly didn't know what the building was, even when identified. 
We didn't go downtown much in those days. It was mainly offices in nondescript buildings.
What followed in days, weeks and months emphasized the functions and role of the media in our state in a way rarely seen. The bombing of the Murrah federal building killed 168 people and injured hundreds more.
I was a part time copy editor at The Oklahoman at nights, so I saw first hand how those journalists worked,  as well as studying other newspapers in the state.

There are two parts to my comments--briefly dealing with national media, and then focusing on Oklahoma newspapers, which I consider more important.
The bad side of journalism showed up almost immediately on national TV, and then spread to respected national newspapers. Within hours of the explosion, one network and then another were quoting unnamed sources or so-called experts that the bombing "has all the earmarks of Mideast terrorism."  

Any journalist knows "Mideast" is a fearful American euphemism for Muslims or Arabic-looking individuals.  The next day, Connie Chung in town for CBS said the same thing.
Locally and nationally the profiling went on, locally and nationally. A Jordanian-

American and citizen of Oklahoma City had the misfortune of traveling that day from OKC to Jordan. He was stopped in Chicago and then in London grilled for six hours, saying he was going to be arrested for the bombing. Ibraham Ahmad was terrified, and obviously later cleared.
Almost nobody in the media seemed to think that the bombing was the work of right wing American  terrorists, or link it to  the Waco debacle two years earlier.

One more story about Chung, CBS' bright rising star and co-anchor. She drew local resentment with all her star power and special treatment. When she asked the OKC fire chief it he thought OKC could handle the crisis,  it was viewed here as an outsider's condescending put down. The eruption that followed bombarded CBS with protests, and while the network tried to clarify or apologize, it didn't work. Chung was demoted the next month and left the network.(Next--Oklahoma newspapers tell the story.) 


1 comment:

  1. It should be noted that the late Mike Carpenter, then working at KWTV, was the first journalist to suspect that the Murrah bombing was an act of terrorism by the right-wing, anti-government "patriot" movement, with which Timothy McVeigh was loosely associated. Carpenter had covered the Waco siege two years before, and recognized the significance of the April 19 date.

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