Local reporter catches Oklahoma county officials in a racist, hate-filled tirade

McCurtain County Courthouse. Photo (cc) 2013 by Billy Hathorn.

By Dan Kennedy

Whenever Ellen and I am asked why local news matters, we generally give a rather bloodless answer about democracy, journalism’s watchdog role and the like. But now the McCurtain Gazette-News, in southeastern Oklahoma, has provided considerably more graphic evidence.

According The Washington Post (free link), Gazette-News reporter Bruce Willingham surreptitiously left his recorder behind when he and members of the public were ordered to exit a meeting of McCurtain county officials. Willingham told a local television station that he was hoping to find evidence that the officials were violating the state’s open meeting law.

What Willingham found was considerably more horrifying than that, as the commissioners proceeded to mock a woman who had died in a recent house fire, reminisced about the good old days when young Black men could be lynched with impunity, and suggested that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Willingham himself turned up dead.

The Gazette-News does not appear to have a website, but the paper has been posting snippets on Google Docs and Dropbox. Here’s the exchange about lynching:

Jennings: It’s like somebody wanting this job, they don’t realize, like your job. I heard it the other day, said I heard 2 or 12 people were going for sheriff. I said fuck, lets get 20. They don’t have a goddamn clue what they’re getting into. Not this day and age. I’m gonna tell you something. If it was back in the day, when that when Alan Marshton would take a damn black guy and whoop their ass and throw him in the cell? I’d run for fucking sheriff.

Sheriff: Yeah. Well, It’s not like that no more.

Jennings: I know. Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a damn rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They got more rights than we got.

Jennings is county commissioner Mark Jennings. The sheriff’s name is Kevin Clardy.

In case you’re wondering, Willingham was on the right side of the law in making a secret recording. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Oklahoma is a one-party state when it comes to audio recordings, which means that only one party needs to give their consent — in this case, Willingham himself. Massachusetts, by contrast, requires the consent of all parties.

The Gazette-News, meanwhile, says it has more audio and that follow-up stories are in the works. And CNN reports that Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has called on Clardy, Jennings and two other officials who were involved in the exchanges to resign.

It bears repeating: If the McCurtain Gazette-News didn’t exist, and if its reporter hadn’t been assigned to cover the county, then these racist hate-mongers would not have been exposed.

Author: Dan Kennedy

I am a professor of journalism at Northeastern University specializing in the future of local journalism at whatworks.news. My blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.

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