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George Ochenski and Corporate Crime in Montana

The Decline of Independent Weeklies

by RUSSELL MOKHIBER

Alternative weekly newspapers used to be crusading vehicles against corporate power and crime. The remaining ones now have morphed into consumer guides for the young corporate class answering such pressing questions as – Who Has the Best Strawberry Daiquiri in Town? How did this happen? Well, let’s take a case in point – the Missoula Independent.

For twelve years, George Ochenski was a crusading columnist for the Independent (and an occasional contributor to CounterPunch). Week in and week out, Ochenski afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. He didn’t miss a column in twelve years. He campaigned against corporate criminals throughout the state.

His tag line – rattling the cage of the state’s political establishment since 2000. Then, last year, the Independent imported a new editor – Robert Meyerowitz. Meyerowitz started messing with George’s column. Recently, for example, Ochenski wrote a column titled “The Politics of Illusion.” He opened his column with this:

“Jeffrey St. Clair, author and longtime editor of the progressive online political site Counterpunch, has a new book titled Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. It’s hot off the press and very timely as the election season heats up, but Obama’s broken promises and policy backwash aside, the message here is one Montana’s voters should heed: Beware the political prestidigitation about to flood you with meaningless campaign blather.”

Meyerowitz cut that paragraph out. And he put a new title on it – “They’re All the Same.”

That was the beginning of the end for Ochenski at the Independent. Last week, George was told that he couldn’t write a column honoring the 25th anniversary of the Independent. After twelve years, Ochenski was out at the Independent.

Luckily, one of the state’s largest newspapers – The Missoulian – saw an opportunity and will start running Ochenski’s weekly column on Monday.

How did Ochenski lose his column at the Independent?

“The guy (Meyerowitz) came into Montana and one of the first things he did was he started telling me how I was going to write my column,” Ochenski told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “He started wading into it with what I considered to be some pretty heavy handed edits for a guy who had no particular history in the state and didn’t understand political nuance, agency structures, budgets, legislation. This just was not his speciality. But that’s what made my column so popular with readers. I did understand that stuff. And I could write it in a way where it was possible for laymen to understand what was going on in the policy arena, even though they weren’t experts.”

“And this guy started telling me what to do, what to write, wading into my columns, changing the titles, putting his words in there.”

“I’m like – this is an opinion column, these are my opinions, and they come out under my name. And so, we butted heads pretty hard early on in his tenure there. We started butting heads in December.”

“For eleven years, I had to have my columns in on Tuesday afternoons. Then Meyerowitz said – you have to have them in on Monday,” Ochenski said.

“Then he told me I could no longer write about national and international issues. And I had no idea why. His view apparently is – if people want to get that, they can go on Alternet and get it. But here in Montana, you can’t write every week for twelve years and not develop a readership. We have maybe one million people right now. They are scattered across the fourth largest state in the union. And we don’t have what you would call a huge stable full of progressive writers and publications that will publish them. And so, for a Montanan to be writing this kind of stuff garnered a loyal audience of people who wanted to read about progressive policy.”
Finally, last month, it all came to a head.

“I went on a fishing trip. And when I came back, someone had posted on my column links to Meyerowitz’s past, questioning whether he was moving the Indy to the right, and whether he was brought on to get rid of progressive voices,” Ochenski said.

“It must have upset him. When I came back, there was an e-mail from him saying he wanted to know by Friday what I was going to write about a week out.”

“And that week’s issue happened to be the 25th anniversary of the Missoula Independent. So, I tell him I was going to celebrate and say – happy birthday to the Indy and celebrate the importance of a free and independent press to Montanans.”

“And he wrote me back and said – I don’t want your column on the free press. We’re spiking it for next week and you will not be paid.”

“That was the first time in twelve years that an Ochenski column didn’t appear in the Independent. I told him what I wanted to write about and he said no.”

“When my column didn’t show up in the paper, it hit the fan. People knew there had been this big blow up.”

Meyerowitz refused to comment about Ochenski’s leaving the Independent. He said that he would have the publisher call to respond. (Meyerowitz called Friday to say that the Independent had posted a Publisher’s Note on the Ochenski matter.)

But Meyerowitz did respond to conservative Montana talk show host Aaron Flint.

“Wading into his columns, changing headlines? What do you think an editor does?” Meyerowitz wrote in an e-mail to Flint.

“Wading in? Changing headlines? We edit all the copy we publish, through several layers, and write headlines. We also maintain journalistic standards, for such things as fairness and accuracy, that apply to everything we publish – George Ochenski was no exception. I guess he didn’t like that.”

“He hasn’t been silenced. He can publish anywhere he’s able, as far as I can see. And he hasn’t been censored. We choose what we publish.”

For the complete transcript of the Interview with George Ochenski, see 26 Corporate Crime Reporter 25(12), June 18, 2012, print edition only.

Russell Mokhiber edits the Corporate Crime Reporter.