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The Little Rock Free Press was an alternative newspaper based in Little Rock (Pulaski County). It began publication on April 20, 1993, and twelve years later, the Freep, as it was commonly called, became the Arkansas Free Press. The Little Rock Free Press covered everything from daily news to controversial topics such as prostitution, homosexuality, night life, drug culture, and Little Rock’s independent music scene. Often incurring the wrath of religious groups and politicians, the Freep was said by its editor to be “provocative Arkansas history with a twist.”
In 1993, Little Rock’s previous alternative newspaper, Spectrum Weekly, ceased publication. It had been printed in Russellville (Pope County) but faced opposition from the printer and others after it began running advertisements for escort services. Spectrum’s sales manager, Dotty Oliver, created what became the Little Rock Free Press from Spectrum’s ashes by making deals with its former sponsors. Despite having little to no education in either editing or journalism, Oliver helped make the paper more popular than its previous incarnation, with its circulation reportedly reaching as many as 100,000 copies per week. Oliver was the publisher and business manager of the Little Rock Free Press for its first eight years, while her former husband, Michael Keckhaver, designed the first year’s issues, wrote many of the music reviews, and had a regular column, “HellaMetal,” about extreme music. The paper’s columns were written by freelance writers. However, the paper attracted a much larger readership after Oliver began writing her own columns in the Freep under various pseudonyms. Her first column was published on August 26, 1998.
In 1999, a Freep column mentioned in passing what was then already two-year-old news about one of Governor Mike Huckabee’s sons. Reportedly, Huckabee’s son had been caught with more than three pounds of marijuana and a beeper in his possession but had not received any time in jail. In a July 7, 1999, column connecting the issue to the “War on Drugs,” Oliver stated that Huckabee’s son had received special treatment, whereas a black student who was caught with far less would end up in jail. John and David Huckabee accused the paper of printing “false statements about one of them being caught with marijuana at school.” On June 24, Governor Huckabee’s lawyer Kevin Crass said that he wanted Oliver to retract her allegations, print an apology, and pay $75,000 for damages. However, the lawsuit only succeeded in increasing the newspaper’s circulation and advertising revenue from its sponsors.
On August 18, 1999, Oliver wrote a column titled, “I’m a Very Bad Girl,” as a public apology from the paper to Governor Huckabee. However, Oliver’s apology was not a conventional one. The column’s text was almost entirely the title phrase repeated over and over. Oliver hid her true feelings in between the repetitions. The phrase “He Thinks He Won” was embedded in bold midway through the column. When threatened with another lawsuit by Huckabee’s lawyers, Oliver told them to go ahead and sue her, knowing that all would become public if they did. Huckabee’s lawyers backed down, and the Free Press stayed in business. Oliver was reportedly sworn to secrecy about the exact terms of the settlement.
After the lawsuit was settled, the Little Rock Free Press began statewide circulation, prompting a name change to the Arkansas Free Press in 2005.
Oliver compiled her Freep articles into an anthology called Mistress of the Misunderstood in 2009, published by Oliver through her own press. In 2010, Oliver announced that she was beginning chemotherapy treatments for cancer. She continued to work until 2011, when Tracy Crain took her place as managing editor. Oliver and Crain collaborated on an online version of the paper. On May 29, 2017, Oliver died at the age of sixty-nine. The Arkansas Free Press continues in an online format.
For additional information:
Arkansas Free Press. http://arkansasfreepress.net/ (accessed October 13, 2017).
“Dotty Oliver: Little Rock Free Press Memories.” Fayetteville Public Television. YouTube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=peRNSF69u1E (accessed October 13, 2017).
“Huckabee’s Sons Sue Paper for Story about Marijuana.” Log Cabin Democrat, June 23, 1999. Online at http://thecabin.net/stories/062399/sta_0623990011.html#.WVKI3evyvIU (accessed October 13, 2017).
Jefferson, James. “Governor Blasts ‘Malicious’ Allegation against His Son.” Log Cabin Democrat, June 24, 1999. Online at http://thecabin.net/stories/062499/sta_0624990015.html#.WVKec-vyvIU (accessed October 13, 2017).
Oliver, Dotty. Mistress of the Misunderstood. Little Rock: Dottyllama Publishing, 2009.
Cody Lynn Berry
Last Updated 10/13/2017
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