By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Bruce Willingham

Oklahoma sheriff’s office responds by blaming the messenger

Old analog stereo tape recorder

Photo (cc) 2012 by Nenad Stojkovic

The sheriff’s office in McCurtain County, Oklahoma, has responded with the alacrity you’d hope for when wrongdoing is exposed. Oh, wait. They’re going to charge the journalist who recorded their nausea-inducing tirade of racism and violence with a felony for taping county officials without their knowledge. The Associated Press passes along a statement made by the sheriff:

There is and has been an ongoing investigation into multiple, significant violation(s) of the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act … which states that it is illegal to secretly record a conversation in which you are not involved and do not have the consent of at least one of the involved parties.

The AP also quotes a local journalism professor who says that the recording would be illegal only if the officials had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Now, I have to say that I’m confused. Laws regarding audio recordings generally define “one party” as “either party.” The journalist, Bruce Willingham of the McCurtain Gazette-News, obviously gave his consent, and that would normally be regarded as sufficient. Let me return to the guide published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which I referred to in my earlier item.

In Oklahoma, “An individual who is a party to an in-person, telephone or electronic conversation, or who has the consent of one of the parties to the conversation, can lawfully record it or disclose its contents, unless the person is doing so for the purpose of committing a criminal or tortious act.” And: “The consent of at least one party to a conversation is required to record any oral communication.”

Obviously there’s more to it than that, and it’s possible that Willingham ran afoul of the law by leaving the room rather than participating in a “conversation.” (Then again, he was kicked out.) But contrast that with what the guide says about our state: “Massachusetts prohibits the recording, interception, use or disclosure of any conversation, whether in person or over the telephone, without the permission of all the parties.” If you are old enough and obsessive enough, you may recall that Linda Tripp was in the clear when she secretly recorded Monica Lewinsky while they were in Virginia, which, like Oklahoma, is a one-party state — but she broke the law when she recorded Lewinsky in Maryland, a two-party state.

Anyway, it’s good to see that McCurtain county officials have their priorities straight by going after the press rather than dealing with their own hateful dysfunction.

One more thing: The Washington Post story I referenced earlier described Willingham as a reporter for the Gazette-News. And so he is. But it turns out that he’s also the publisher. Probably the delivery guy and custodian as well. Anyway, he’s performed a tremendous public service, and he ought to be considered a candidate for a 2024 Pulitzer Prize.

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

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

See follow-up.

Whenever I’m asked why local news matters, I 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.

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