Local media watchers are scratching their heads trying to explain the bizarre behavior of Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland, who last week attempted to have Nashville Scene editor Bruce Dobie arrested for trying to secretly get copies of 19-year-old news stories from The Tennessean’s files.
Last Tuesday, Dobie called Tennessean clerk Albert Davis and offered him $50 to get copies of stories about an old murder case from the paper’s archives. Davis and Dobie had worked together at the Nashville Banner and remained friendly. Dobie said that if Davis couldn’t make copies at the paper, Dobie would take the clips to Kinko’s, copy, and return them.
Davis, however, reported Dobie’s call to Sutherland, whose thin-skinned, sometimes irrational attitude toward the Scene is well-known inside and outside the Tennessean newsroom.
Most newspaper editors would have just called Dobie back and yelled at him. After all, the clips Dobie wanted are also on file at the Metro Public Library. That’s where The Tennessean normally refers people in search of old stories.
This doesn’t necessarily excuse Dobie, who knew what he was doing was iffy or he wouldn’t have added the $50 spice to his clandestine request.
But that hardly explains the mass hysteria that apparently took hold of The Tennessean’s executives.
Borrowing a trick from Linda Tripp, Davis called Dobie back and asked him to repeat the offer while secretly tape-recording the conversation. Sutherland said he then spent the afternoon and evening consulting with corporate lawyers and newspaper executives about what to do next.
Wednesday morning, Sutherland telephoned the police. Metro Police Fraud Unit Detective Brian Celatka got the call.
“I thought it was a bunch of crap,” Celatka said later. “This wasn’t about stealing anything. It was about making copies of old newspaper stories.” He told the editor he wasn’t sure a crime had been committed and referred him to the district attorney’s office.
“I told him I would tell the police to let him make a report,” Assistant District Attorney Michaela Mathews recalls, “but I could not off-hand think of any law that had been broken.”
Mathews said she’s done no more work on the case. Neither did Celatka after he saw a story about the incident in Thursday’s Tennessean.
“I called Mr. Sutherland back on Wednesday and took his report,” the detective said. “I told him we would look into the matter and keep it confidential. Then I saw the whole story in the next day’s paper.”
Friday, Sutherland called District Attorney General Torry Johnson to emphasize that he didn’t want anyone arrested and was just filing a report against Dobie “for the record.” Johnson said Monday, “The whole matter is now closed.” Mathews said she’s got more important cases to work on, and Celatka complained that he feels a little “used.”
Responding to written questions from the Scene, Sutherland said that he filed a complaint “to underline the seriousness of this problem and to prepare a record in case we decide to pursue this later on.” He said this was the “second confirmed incident” of the Scene “taking material from our library without our permission.”
Dobie denies that he or anyone on his staff has ever taken anything from The Tennessean and is unrepentant about asking for copies of old clips.
Other journalists say they have often gotten copies of stories, at no charge from cooperative Tennessean librarians. Until recently, the paper itself offered to locate and copy old clips for a fee of $50-an-hour, with a one-hour minimum.
On a Sunday afternoon at the Metro Library, it took less than an hour to find the dates of all the articles Dobie had asked Davis to collect. The editor said he’d send over an intern to make copies of the stories from the library’s microfilm files.
Davis, who has had legal scrapes in the past, still has his job. He declined to be interviewed by the Scene, but told a friend he was “sticking to [his] story.”
During World War I, The Tennessean publicly demanded that the police arrest German-born Banner publisher Major Edward Bushrod Stahlman as an illegal alien. Nothing came of this “bizarre circulation-building scheme,” writes a modern historian, but the incident typified how Tennessean founder Col. Luke Lea used the paper for partisan crusades against competitors and political enemies.
A day after The Tennessean trumpeted the story of Dobie’s possible arrest, the morning daily reported the death of one of Lea’s sons. The obituary by staffer Susan Taylor said Lea started The Tennessean “because he believed the public needed unbiased news.” Taylor said she couldn’t recall where she got her information.
It was “Round Table” guest Frank Boehm, not co-host Teddy Bart, who joked that callers to the radio talk show too often “started quoting the Bible.” As reported here last week, Bart no longer allows on-air calls from listeners.
On Thursday, Bart and company briefly discussed a Scene report that Rev. Henry Lyons may soon start work at a local public relations firm. “I wanted to let them know that the Scene story [headline: “The Fabricator”] was a spoof,” said a Metro councilman and regular listener, “but they’ve stopped taking calls.