Walters Adds to NAtional Debate on Journalistic Ethics

Article excerpt

When Oklahomans watched reports of Gov. David Walters' 1992 State of the State Message earlier this month, they were confronted with an extraordinary political and personal drama that began unfolding almost the instant he took office a year ago.

Instead of beginning with the usual budget review, Walters spent 17 minutes of the 32-minute address asserting that his reputation had been ruined by malicious reporters covering a federal investigation of his campaign finances, and he implied that when the bright lights were later turned on his teen-age son after minor drug charges, suicide was the result.

Reflecting on his first year in office, the governor concluded, "The two most important things to me _ my family and my integrity _ have been virtually destroyed."

Some Oklahoma news organizations argue that Walters exaggerated and made unsubstantiated accusations even as he complained about these very practices. Others insist he was deflecting blame for his own political troubles.

But, defenders and critics alike agree that this was no ordinary case of a public official striking back for what he considered to be negative news reports.

By all accounts the governor added a new, extraordinary chapter to the national debate on journalistic ethics by using the State of the State Message to make his accusations and by speaking both as a politician and as a grieving parent.

In an interview, he said, "I felt an almost special obligation to speak out because I had a unique perspective or at least an exaggerated perspective that would cause other people to pay attention to a very serious problem that threatens the way we govern ourselves in this country, that certainly threatens the way we select our leaders and what kind of support or lack of support we provide them."

Walters, a 40-year-old Democrat, held appointed state posts, like associate provost of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, through much of the 1970s and then became a real estate developer and investor in 1982. He was narrowly defeated in 1986 when he first ran for governor, and then came back in 1990 to win by a landslide against Republican Bill Price, a former federal prosecutor.

He took office portraying himself as an idealistic outsider who would bring a storm of badly needed changes to the state government, chiefly in fiscal management.

Whatever his accomplishments may have been, however, they were eclipsed by accusations of campaign finance improprieties, which generated an eight-month federal investigation beginning in May.

Through the summer and fall the accusations were highlighted in a stream of news reports, sometimes attributed to information leaked by the authorities. By the time federal prosecutors announced on Dec. 6 that the governor had been cleared, his ratings in public opinion surveys had plummeted.

Reflecting on this turn of events in his speech, the governor said, "So you can imagine the horror Rhonda and I felt after the inauguration a year ago to watch as skillful political terrorists who had publicly vowed to destroy me were given such comfort by opponents and so much attention by a media that seemingly wanted a story more than it wanted facts."

For some journalists, answers to the governor's complaints are not hard to find. Frosty Troy, editor of The Oklahoma Observer, a bimonthly magazine, said: "I'm not saying there were not exaggerations, but if a federal investigation of a sitting governor is not a big story, then nothing is. This is a very complex and clever individual who made all of his own misfortunes and who now wants the media to take the heat."

Troy noted that the accusations that Walters had offered state jobs in exchange for contributions came from two of his campaign workers who he gave jobs in his administration and later dismissed. …