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Meredith Oakley, Little Rock Newspaper Warrior, Dies at 72

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Meredith Oakley, a pugnacious reporter, editor and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat and Democrat-Gazette for 35 years, died this week in her Little Rock home.

She was 72. No cause of death was immediately determined, according to the Pulaski County Coroner’s Office. Oakley was found dead late Wednesday morning.

Oakley, who joined the paper’s staff in 1976, was a fearsome newspaper warrior in the late 1970s and 80s when the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette were in head-to-head battle for readers and advertisers.

Oakley, who made a name for herself as a tough critic of the Arkansas Legislature and of Bill Clinton, was a key lieutenant to the Democrat’s firebrand editor John Robert Starr. Starr eventually made her his second in command, and she was ungracious when the Democrat prevailed in the newspaper war and the Gannett Co., which owned the Gazette, sold its assets to Democrat Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. in September 1991.

The next day, Oakley was on the masthead of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and hundreds of Gazette employees were out of work.

“She was a fierce competitor and Starr’s most loyal lieutenant,” Gazette veteran and retired Arkansas Times senior editor Max Brantley told Arkansas Business. “I made peace with Meredith long ago and participated in a lunch group with a number of old codgers that included her. It ceased during the pandemic and never resumed.”

Another member of that group, longtime Little Rock advertising executive Gary Heathcott, said he saw another side of Oakley at those lunches. “I had a great privilege to be a tiny part of that group, and Meredith Oakley had a great sense of humor. She was very funny when she let her hair down.”

Oakley’s column drew enough attention that the Gazette drafted political reporter John Brummett to rival it. After the Gazette closed, Brummett wrote for Arkansas Times and Stephens Media and eventually started writing for the Democrat-Gazette, where his column still appears.

“I can attest as an Arkansas Gazette rival at that time that Meredith Oakley was a newspaper warrior’s warrior,” Brummett told Democrat-Gazette reporter Tony Holt, who wrote an extensive obit of Oakley published Thursday morning. “She had strong views, a fierce style and brutal clarity. The Arkansas Gazette gave me a column in part to counter hers. I’m not saying mine did.”

Oakley’s disdain for Clinton drew her national attention, and her writings after the Democrat prevailed in the newspaper war became grist for grudges. “It’s difficult to be gracious in victory when the other side is calling you names, questioning your integrity, insulting your ability and challenging your right to survive,” she wrote.

Oakley gained Hussman’s praise for taking over the paper’s Voices page, giving it life and diversity. Editorial Page Editor David Barham told the Democrat-Gazette that Oakley was the “lioness of Arkansas journalism.”

Oakley studied journalism at the University of Central Arkansas, then known as State College of Arkansas, and was a favored pupil of longtime professor Dean Duncan, a former reporter at the Gazette, the Commercial Appeal and the Louisville Courier Journal. “She’s impossible to keep down, and she usually gets the last word,” Duncan once told students, noting Oakley’s willingness to take on powerful figures.

Several former colleagues said in confidence that the newspaper war gave Oakley vigor, and that she needed to be in competition to feel at her best. By the time Oakley retired in 2011, the only competition was news on the internet.

“There were directions the paper was taking that she wasn’t happy with,” Heathcott said, adding that Oakley never jibed with Griffin Smith Jr., the Little Rock lawyer and National Geographic writer who succeeded Starr as editor.

In her final column, she wrote of Starr, who died in 2000, saying he once told her loyalty was both her greatest attribute and greatest fault. “He was wrong,” Oakley wrote. “If I am anything in great abundance, it is stubborn.”

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