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Battles with Blake

Councilor Ewing and the politics of communication

City councilman Blake Ewing was accused in October 2016 of using funds from The Max Retropub in Blue Dome District to benefit himself and other businesses. The lawsuit has not been settled, though he recently claimed otherwise on social media.

Greg Bollinger

But your comments are dumb as can be. And you know it. And so will everyone else. Please print this conversation. That way you can tattle tale on yourself for a change

That was not a text message from some pouty teenager to her frenemy, nor was it this morning’s pouty tweet from the president of the United States because SNL mocked his press secretary, but rather a text from Tulsa City Councilor Blake Ewing to The Frontier’s Editor in Chief Ziva Branstetter this past New Year’s Eve about a story he found infuriating.

That he thought New Year’s Eve and her home was the time and place to send it is just part of the story.

Maybe more than a part. 

Let’s begin. 

“We were at our family’s lake house,” Branstetter told me, “and everyone was upstairs watching football and celebrating New Year’s Eve. I was downstairs engaged in these exchanges with Councilor Ewing that sort of spilled over to social media.” 

As faithful readers around these parts know, Branstetter is a friend of this column, but with that disclosure out of the way—and she did screw up some (more on that in a moment)—Ewing was a relentless gasbag over this exchange.

The incident began when The Frontier's Kassie McClung reported on an amended petition filed in the lawsuit brought by investors in The Max RetroPub against Ewing, alleging fraud and misappropriation of company funds. When the story went live, Ewing texted McClung (who then passed the message on to Branstetter) requesting that it be taken down on the grounds that the lawsuit had been settled and the story was, therefore, obsolete. However, according to court records, the lawsuit had not been dismissed. When Branstetter contacted Mark Perkins, one of the plaintiffs, for comment about Ewing’s claim that the suit had in fact been settled, Perkins responded as follows: “We signed a settlement agreement that contained several conditions which, when fulfilled, the plaintiffs will dismiss the lawsuit without prejudice and the parties can issue a statement at that time.” Consequently, Branstetter declined to take the story down. 

Ewing was apoplectic.

Here’s some of their exchange.

Ziva: You can disagree about newsworthiness if you want but you are a public official and that certainly makes this lawsuit’s pleadings newsworthy. The docket does NOT reflect a settlement. Only that your lawyer is withdrawing, and saying she has heard there is a settlement. If your attorney wants to attest that a settlement has occurred, please provide documentation of that and we will update our story.

Blake: An answer wasn’t filed because it was settled.

Ziva: Yes but there was no filing indicating a settlement

Blake: I get it. Slow news day.

Ziva: I’ve looked at enough dockets to know. Nope.

Blake: Might as well trash the city councilor again

Oh, please. 

A city council member being sued for misappropriating investors’ money—and, by extension, and the larger issue, whether such a man can be trusted with millions of dollars in city outlays—calls for the press to act like a doberman tearing into a pound of ground chuck on a daily basis. In Ewing’s defense, The Frontier did run the story without getting an update from him—Branstetter admits to that and, apparently, apologized for it. But in her defense, she’s also right that lawsuits are discharged by the courts—not the participants—so Ewing’s contention that “An answer wasn’t filed because it was settled” is parenthetical and legally inaccurate.

Raising about nine more eyebrows, the investors who filed the initial lawsuit in October, alleging Ewing fraudulently transferred and/or borrowed money without their approval, amended the suit in December, claimed they hadn’t yet seen the financial books that he says he so assiduously tried to provide.

Blake: You literally just ran the same story you’ve already run two weeks after an amended petition...and without calling me. Nice 

Ziva: Nope. You said in your FB post that they wouldn’t look at the books. Their second petition said you hadn’t provided the books. 

Blake: I’ll make sure everyone knows you know nothing 

Ziva: Look we tried to contact your attorney. 

Blake: You’ve built your company by trashing people....gotta make some news... Hahaha 

Towards the end of the exchange Ewing claims Branstetter is “driving clicks at my expense,” calls her “shameful, sloppy, and careless,” mocks The Frontier’s viability, and then dares her to print the above exchange.

Well, you come between a reporter and her Ciroc on New Year’s Eve, it’s game on.

She published the texts.

The question, irrespective of the peculiarities of the lawsuit—and not even to get into Ewing’s tax warrants, closed restaurants, and all the rest—is what prompts government officials to personally go after reporters or news organizations other than a robust blow-hardiness or their sense that media personnel and outlets are easy prey? Further, in this case, it’s not like The Frontier—or any other news outlet in town—wouldn’t have taken Ewing’s call during normal business hours and/or not given him a chance to respond.

In an email, I asked Ewing about the dynamic of that and he admitted that part of his approach on social media, when it comes to the press, is strategic.

“Responding at least reminds them that you’re not just a name in the paper, but an actual person,” Ewing said. “If they think they’re just throwing that stuff out there unseen by the accused, it at least reminds them that the person they’re going after is real and is seeing what they write.”

A little whiney, but okay; meanwhile, I can promise you that Ziva Branstetter has never published anything controversial about anyone because she thought it wasn’t going to be read.

A few years back, Joshua Kline, now editor here at The Tulsa Voice (at the time he was a contributing writer), went to White Flag, one of Ewing’s restaurants, late one night for a hamburger.

He wasn’t pleased with the experience. When back home, on his personal Facebook page, he wrote, “Dear White Flag: Please, either fix your shit or go away.”

Not exactly Tina Nguyen of Vanity Fair reviewing Trump Grill but point made. Now, it seems a normal restaurant owner would have written Kline and said, “Hey, sorry, dude. Come by anytime, let me buy you another burger. Let me make this right.”

What did Ewing do? He answered Josh’s 11-word post with an 1100-word tome that was part defensive, part hurt feelings, part shocked his efforts to Make Tulsa Great Again weren’t met with Hosannahs. 

“We’ll continue to allow for the fact that about 15% of the people won’t like what we do no matter what,” Ewing wrote on his blog, referring to White Flag. “That number may be closer to 20% now that I’m in elected office. It seems like since that happened, I can’t do anything right with some folks.”

Oh, for the love of a bacon mushroom cheeseburger medium rare, really councilor, five percent more Tulsans are out to get you just because you’re the District 4 representative?

Even at that point, this could (should) have ended, but Ewing then contacted Kline’s bosses at both The Tulsa Voice and This Land to express his displeasure about Kline’s comments—comments made on his personal Facebook page

Was he trying to get him fired? (I sat at ONEOK Field one summer night a short time later with one of the editors involved. My take: Yeah.)

And, remember, this is over a hamburger.

We continue.

I ask Ewing about Trump.

“[Trump] doesn’t use social media to advance a conversation. He uses it to distract from the real issues, and to self-promote or attack his detractors, most often with lies and exaggerations,” adding the president’s use of social media hasn’t affected his use of social media. I’m not Donald Trump, thank God.” 

On both incidents—with Branstetter and Kline—Ewing explains the special/not-so-special role he’s in at the moment.

“I just can’t stand it that people treat people in elected office like we’re somehow not just regular people who happen to be elected to represent a larger body in the political arena. We’re not special. We’re not unique human beings. It’s a lose-lose situation. If I remain quiet, I must be hiding from the accusations. If I respond,
I’m petty.”

Only if you chase reporters around Facebook and send them texts on New Year’s Eve. Right now, Ewing is just annoying, a bit of a blowhard; so was you-know-who at one point. But it gets dangerous—when all criticism is fake, all reporters are the enemy, self-evident facts are up for debate, every media outlet is “failing” or covering up important events. As it stands now, Americans have a slightly higher opinion of the press than of politicians. As long as that pecking order remains, the 1st Amendment survives, along with our Democracy. 

“In Ziva’s case, I apologized for the way I handled things,” Ewing said. “Also, to be clear and fair to her, Ziva also apologized to me and communicated about the steps they’ve taken to ensure these same things don’t happen again. She handled the meeting with class and humility and I’m grateful that she was willing to sit down and work things out.” 

I asked Branstetter about the above. 

“Our NY Eve story was correct and none of our reporting on his business issues has been inaccurate,” she said.

As for Kline, Ewing responded:

“I felt like his comments were out of line, but didn’t disagree with him about how together our shit was. I regret nothing about the exchange.”

Two more things: as of this writing, the lawsuit has still not been dismissed (and this is now almost two months after Ewing lambasted Branstetter about how it had been) and White Flag is no longer owned by Ewing.

This story has been amended to more accurately reflect the sequence of events leading up to Ewing's and Branstetter's text exchange. 

For more from Barry, read his article on Trump’s immigration ban.

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