News 9
News 9 has become the first commercial TV station to embed a reporter at the Oklahoma Capitol in the 21st Century. (Screenshot)

For the first time in the 21st century, a commercial-TV news network has a reporter dedicated to full-time coverage of the Oklahoma Legislature and state government.

“To have somebody up there actually as a beat, I think it’s been about 20 years, from all the old-timers that I spoke with out there,” said Aaron Brilbeck, News 9’s new capitol reporter. “The people I’ve been talking with up at the Capitol are almost oddly excited about it.

“That might change once we start digging into some of the dirt.”

Brilbeck said he applied for a general assignment reporter position at News 9 in late 2015 and was not expecting to land a Capitol beat.

“We got to talking, and they know my political experience, and they know I’m kind of a political freak, so they asked me if I’d be willing to do it,” the veteran journalist said. “Honestly, I was a bit nervous going into it. I’m reasonably new to the area, and any time I’ve covered politics in the past, I’ve lived in that area for some time.”

His initial assessment of Oklahoma is an old standard.

“Everybody’s been really nice and really friendly,” he said. “Being from New York, I’m not used to that.”

What Brilbeck is used to is the process of governance, having covered politics in Iowa, Ohio and New York.

“Most stations just don’t have a capitol-beat reporter anymore. That’s why it’s kind of cool that Griffin (Communications) is willing to do this,” he said.

Aaron Brilbeck
News 9’s Aaron Brilbeck reports from the Oklahoma State Capitol rotunda. (Screenshot)

‘A great gesture’

Brilbeck is not the only person excited about the endeavor.

“We had an interesting dilemma when Aaron showed up to work. For the first time in as long as any of us can remember, a reporter was asking to turn an Internet connection back on rather than turn one off,” said John Estus, OMES public information officer. “We were actually somewhat at a loss as to how we were going to turn a reporter’s Internet connection on because all we’d been doing for years is shutting them off.”

Estus himself covered the Capitol off and on between 2006 and 2011 for The Oklahoman and NewsOK.

“It’s always a great thing when more reporters are covering the Capitol,” he said. “It makes every agency better, it makes every legislator better. It gives the public a better idea what is happening in their building on their dime.

“It’s very hard to cover government in 15- to 30-second soundbites. It’s very hard to cover the Capitol if you only show up for an hour or two at a time and try to get the full picture of an issue that is being debated. So it’s a great gesture by News 9 to recognize that and send somebody to the Capitol full-time.”

Estus said he hopes the OKC market’s other stations are motivated to embed their own Capitol reporters in response to Brilbeck, who agrees.

“The way that TV works is if one station is doing something and it’s successful, other stations are eventually going to jump on board with it,” Brilbeck said. “And that’s kind of my goal. I want to see the other stations jump on board and do the same thing we’re doing. I want to have that competition. Competition makes everybody better.”

A return to the Capitol press corps

For years, however, OETA’s Oklahoma News Report had been the only TV station with a crew regularly stationed at the Capitol during session, but state budget cuts have made even that more difficult for the publicly funded outlet.


TV news host calls out Capitol press corps” by Josh McBee

In October, NonDoc managing editor Josh McBee wrote about the dwindling Capitol press corps after Mitchell in the Morning radio host and News 9 political contributor Scott Mitchell had critiqued the statehouse press for “missing” on controversies surrounding Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation system.

Broadcasting on News 9’s Your Vote Counts series, Mitchell said of the comp controversy: “It’s no longer a secret — only to the Capitol press corps.”

Capitol reporters expressed frustration to NonDoc about Mitchell’s critique, agreeing with McBee’s summation of the situation:

At the same time, the last NonDoc staff checked, News 9 doesn’t even have a Capitol reporter dedicated to the state’s 85-odd titles of statute. While, KWTV does have its “9 Investigates” brand (formerly “Oklahoma Impact Team”), that’s hardly the same thing.

So, if Mitchell is going to criticize the media for failing to cover something, it looks a little ironic when he does so from a platform that does not. I guess it’s pretty hard to report on anything in 60 seconds, especially something so complex as Oklahoma’s workers’ compensation laws.

Now, however, News 9’s parent company — Griffin Communications — will be at the forefront of covering Oklahoma state government on television, with Brilbeck also filing reports for News on 6, their Tulsa affiliate.

“I was more surprised when they said they wanted me to be there full-time,” Brilbeck said. “TV stations just don’t do that anymore. It’s kind of exciting and definitely daunting. I gotta do this right. This is something, again, that hasn’t been done in 20 years. I don’t want to screw this up because there’s such huge potential here.”