Public officials talking about hiring hitmen to take out the publisher and reporter of a newspaper seems like something from a tense, blockbuster thriller rather than reality.
Yet, in rural Oklahoma, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is currently investigating such a discussion. The McCurtain County Gazette is like most small-town newspapers. It’s family owned and operated, doesn’t have a website or digital version of its newspaper and stands as watchdog for the community. This responsibility, it seems, is what put the publisher, Bruce Willingham, and his son, Chris Willingham, in the sights of the county commissioners and the county sheriff.
All of this came to light due to a recording obtained by Bruce Willingham during a March 6 meeting of the county commissioners. The publisher of the McCurtain County Gazette believed the commissioners were discussing official business following the meeting and left a voice-activated recorder in the room. That recording, nearly four hours long, included discussions of hiring hitmen for Chris Willingham, alleged threats to the county attorney and the lynching of black people.
Since news of the recording came out one commissioner has resigned while Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has urged all the commissioners and the sheriff to step down. The sheriff’s office has only released one statement related to the recording, saying it was “illegally obtained” and questioning its veracity.
Over the past two years, Chris Willingham—according to an article in The Oklahoman—has written more than 30 articles looking into local government corruption. The same day the recording was made, Chris Willingham had filed a defamation lawsuit against the sheriff and county commissioners.
The lawsuit alleges that one of the commissioners and the sheriff began investigating county employees to determine who was speaking to the newspaper, were attempting to get a search warrant for Chris Willingham’s phone and had told a third-party the reporter exchanged marijuana for explicit images of children.
While this is an extreme case, it is not unusual for a newspaper and its staff to raise the hackles of local government officials. As an eternal optimist, I would hope those serving on town council, school board and county commissioner boards have the best intentions of their constituents in mind. Occasionally, those local officials and the local newspaper will spar because they both have their community in mind but are going about it from opposite sides.
Talk to any newspaper reporter, editor or publisher with experience in the industry. Threats of lawsuits, colorfully worded letters and social media rants are par for the course. It is well within their right not to like what was reported, but words should never turn to violence or threats of violence.
I don’t know either Bruce or Chris Willingham personally and, chances are, I never will. From what I’ve read about this ordeal in Oklahoma, however, I imagine they are like most people in this industry; dedicated to their community and their role in it. At the end of the day, that’s what any publisher, editor or reporter is: a member of the community.
I have yet to meet someone in the industry who starts their day with the intention of destroying someone’s reputation or to make someone look bad. Their goal, each and every day, is to keep their readers informed. They eat at the same restaurants, go to the same gas stations and shop at the same grocery stores as others in their community. In many cases, they have family in the community and kids in the local schools.
In this politically divisive time, it’s all too easy to view someone with an opposing opinion as “the enemy.” Taking that easy route, however, is what leads to situations like the one in McCurtain County.
Joshua Wood is operations director for Stevenson Newspapers. He was the publisher of the Saratoga Sun in Saratoga, Wyoming for nearly four years and won more than 20 awards for his writing from the Wyoming Press Association.