April 19, 2023

I’m guessing you’ve seen the news out of McCurtain County, Oklahoma, where the publisher of the McCurtain Gazette-News recorded a conversation between four local officials that, well, I’m not sure any words I can use actually describe how awful it is. 

Erin Christy, a news anchor at KJRH-TV in Tulsa, put it like this:

Screenshot via Twitter

The story has since gone national, the FBI is investigating and Oklahoma’s governor has called for the officials’ resignation

Here’s a little more about what happened and who’s involved. 

The McCurtain Gazette-News has been owned by the Willingham family for more than 40 years, family lawyer Christin Jones said in a statement published by The Washington Post

For nearly a year, they have suffered intimidation, ridicule and harassment for trying to report the news to their fellow McCurtain County residents, the lawyer said. And while they are extremely grateful for the support they’ve received in the past few days, ‘they look forward to the day when they can continue to report the news and not be the news.’”

McCurtain County borders Texas and Arkansas.

The Oklahoman published a transcript of what was recorded, which includes talk of lynchings. 

According to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “Bruce Willingham, the longtime publisher of the McCurtain Gazette-News, said the recording was made March 6 when he left a voice-activated recorder inside the room after a county commissioner’s meeting because he suspected the group was continuing to conduct county business after the meeting had ended in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Act. “

In the recording, officials talk about killing Gazette-News reporter Chris Willingham, Bruce Willingham’s son. 

Residents have protested since the recordings were made public, the Texarkana Gazette reported. And on Facebook, the McCurtain County Sheriff’s office claims the recording was altered and illegally obtained. 

The Washington Post reports that the Oklahoma paper will publish two more stories and release the full audio recordings. 

This story has been so widely covered because violence against the press is a real threat in the United States and beyond. 

In September of last year, Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German was murdered outside his home. My Poynter colleague Amaris Castillo wrote about how German’s newsroom helped identify his killer — a county public administrator — and how a reporter from The Washington Post finished the last investigation German was working on. 

And in 2018, Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters were killed in a mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Maryland. The shooter got five life sentences without parole

In November 2022, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported in its annual Global Impunity Index that “no one has been held to account in nearly 80 percent of journalist murders during the last 10 years …” 

Between 1992 and 2022, CPJ counts 939 journalists who were murdered worldwide. Nine happened in the United States.  

The five deadliest countries for journalists on CPJ’s index are Somalia, Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. 

CPJ reports “at least 13 journalists were killed in Mexico in the first nine months of 2022, the highest number CPJ has ever documented in that country in a single year.”

2022’s report notes that “the vast majority of killers of journalists continue to get away with murder.”

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists.

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