the Hall of Famers who fearlessly worked to expose wrongdoing
By Mary Hargrove, 2018 Inductee
I was 24 years old when the Tulsa Tribune hired me in the fall of 1974. I insisted I wanted to be an investigative reporter. President Richard Nixon had resigned six months earlier, following two years of dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post.
“We will never have enough money or manpower for a full-time investigator,” I was told as they assigned me to the education beat.
Ten years later, I was projects editor with a two-reporter team at the Tulsa Tribune and had been elected to the board of Investigative Reporters & Editors.
I was not the first investigative reporter in Oklahoma and definitely not the last.
Over the past 50 years, Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame members such as Griff Palmer, Jerry Bohnen, Robby Trammell, Terri Watkins, Nolan Clay, Randy Ellis, Ziva Branstetter fearlessly broke ground in the rapidly evolving world of investigations.
Their nationally recognized project exposed kickbacks involving more than 240 county commissioners and their material suppliers; mishandling of millions of dollars by televangelist Oral Roberts; the failure of Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City which led to the country’s largest bank bailout at the time; and the use of questionable drugs in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett.
Sometimes, the work was painfully personal.
Most of these reporters covered the April 19th, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, where the bodies of 168 people, including 19 children, were extracted from the rubble.
“It breaks your heart in brand your soul,” wrote columnist Berry Tramel, also a Hall of Fame member.
Some spent years tracking the activities of the two men responsible for the nation’s worst domestic terrorist attack before September 11, 2001.
These reporters collectively have won hundreds of contests, earning two Pulitzer Prizes, two Peabody Awards, and two Investigative Reporters & Editors awards. They can also claim the grand-prize Robert F. Kennedy Award, the Heywood Broun, and an Edward R. Murrow Award.
Reporters following the money trail helped end the careers of numerous politicians, including longtime Department of Human Services Director Lloyd Rader, Sr. and State Treasurer Claudette Henry. The Oklahoman stunned the state when it revealed the secret indictment of Governor David Walters for conspiring to hide campaign contributions.
Robby Trammell uncovered one of the most brazen misuse of funds when he wrote about the gross overstaffing of a state home for juveniles, where 172 employees were caring for 13 children.
Investigative reporting was primitive when most of us tackled our first projects.
In the 1970s and 1980s we worked without cell phones, laptops, fax machines, or the Internet. Collecting data involved dozens of phone calls to find studies and relevant records which might arrive weeks later in the mail.
Following tips, reporters crisscrossed the state tracking con men and their victims. We combed through dusty file drawers in turn-of-the-century courthouses or squinted at blurry microfilm with no idea what we might find. Broadcast equipment was bulky and cumbersome.
The few women working in “hard news” faced additional challenges.
During a break in an Oklahoma City civil damages trial in 1979, I found four male reporters interviewing the plaintiff’s attorney over lunch. I asked if I could join them. The attorney scooted his hotel room key across the table. “You and I can have a special interview later,” he said, winking.
His key was “accidentally” dropped and kicked across the restaurant floor as I left.
New technology upped the quality and impact of investigations in the 1990s. Griff Palmer became The Oklahoman’s first database editor in 1994.
As the Internet expanded in the new millennium, our in-depth stories spread across the country.
Technology also doomed a large segment of the media.
A staggering 2,100 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2019. Ironically, investigative reporting, once deemed a luxury, became an industry-saving necessity.
Online media offered a critical outlet.
Since 2010, Oklahoma has witnessed the advent of digital journalism startups including Oklahoma Watch, The Frontier, This Land and NonDoc.
These sites—while different in many ways—provided important alternative outlets for enterprise and investigative stories.
Ziva Branstetter left the Tulsa World and helped create The Frontier in April 2015. The online investigative newspaper proliferated, going from zero to 1.5 million individual hits per month during the first two years as editor.
Today, the once fiercely competitive newspapers and broadcasters collaborate, sharing each other’s investigations in print and online, locally and nationally.
What can’t be measured, what hasn’t changed, is the heart and soul of investigative reporting: finding justice for the vulnerable.
The images linger.
An elderly woman in a mental health facility raising her floor-length skirt to reveal deep purple bruises inflicted by the staff.
A 12-year-old boy walking in front of a semi-truck on the Interstate rather than return home where his mother’s boyfriend sexually abused him.
A firefighter cradling a dying baby girl in his arms after the Oklahoma City bombing.
My friends often asked why I worked so hard. Why I exposed myself to threats, the stress, the intimate nightmares of strangers that pierced your psyche in the middle of the night? Why didn’t I just walk away?
The truth is simple. People were being cheated, abused, or killed. Once you know, how can you walk away?
You can’t. And we didn’t.
Terry Watkins was inducted in 2005, Jerry Bohnen in 2006, Robby Trammell in 2015, Nolan Clay and Randy Ellis in 2016, and Ziva Branstetter and Griff Palmer in 2019. Berry Tramel joined the Hall of Fame in 2018.
Mary Hargrove running investigations at the Tulsa Tribune in 1988. In 1986 and 1987, she covered Oral Roberts and his finances, exposing his misuse of funds that nearly collapsed the university.