There was a time in Nashville journalism when the word "competition" generally invoked The Tennessean and The Banner, particularly involving the police beat and politics. The late Jerry Thompson, police reporter par excellence for the morning paper, routinely beat The Banner's Larry Brinton like he was a rented mule.
Nowadays, the competition has shifted to a battle between WTVF-Channel 5 and WSMV-Channel 4, but more specifically between their respective investigative units.
Channel 5's Phil Williams, who recently earned the prestigious Peabody Award, which is television news' version of the Pulitzer Prize, seems to have caused Channel 4's news team to break out in a virulent rash of envy.
After Channel 5 recently ran a 30-second promo on a new Phil Williams three-part investigative series following a $10 million tax money trail, Channel 4 decided to trail Williams. WSMV made a formal request for state finance documents under Tennessee's Open Records Act.
If ever there was evidence that the competition was whipping you, it would be this letter from Channel 4's assistant news director, Ellen Miller, to Lola Potter at the State Department of Finance and Administration, which has been much discussed among the city's intelligentsia:
"I am requesting any open records requests filed by Phil Williams at WTVF-TV, and access to any records provided to him. Please let me know if there is anything we can do to expedite this request."
Channel 4 had absolutely no idea what story Williams was ready to break. And the reason for the desperate, hasty, document-fishing expedition, of course, was that WSMV wanted to find out what he had been working on for weeks, hopefully match it within hours and perhaps get on the air with his idea first, claiming an "exclusive."
Andrew Finlayson, Channel 4's new director, says the action was legal, that many news operations do it to stay abreast of the competition, and that the station was merely "being thorough in assuring that we have all our bases covered."
This seems to raise a couple of questions:
First, if it is unethical (plagiarism) to copy and publish the quotes and information in another news story without attribution, is it ethical to hijack a competitor's months-long work product by simply making a documents request for any and all documents he or she has painstakingly gathered? Can you plagiarize ideas and work product?
Second, why doesn't a news organization come up with more of its own enterprise stories rather than spend time chasing a competitor's ideas?
And a couple of observations:
First, the two television stations have been competing over investigative reports, in-depth coverage of issues and activities for several years. Interestingly, they are also the top two rated local television channelsby far. That tells us a great deal about the value of such news reporting. And not just in Nashville. High quality, thorough, investigative and enterprise reporting is paying off in higher ratings in local markets all across the country.
Second, I wonder if that would work for local newspapers.
The formerly annual Gridiron was back this year after a several-year hiatus, sticking it to state and local pols who no doubt deserve it and meantime raising money for journalism scholarships.
The best skits roasted the lottery's Rebecca Paul for her exorbitant pay, Deputy Gov. Dave Cooley for his shameless attempt to get himself out of a speeding ticket by giving a state trooper his business card, and state Sen. John Ford, whose corruption, while sobering, is still a lot funnier than the state's TennCare woes. Which is why Gov. Phil Bredesen, who was sitting in the front row at the Belcourt, where the event was held this year, got off light. He noted to a couple of Gridiron attendees after the show something on the order of, "TennCare just isn't funny."
For those who haven't heard by now, Tennessean editor E.J. Mitchell made quite a splash in his first appearance on Teddy Bart's Roundtable a couple of weeks ago when the self-proclaimed "change agent" said he expected his honeymoon in Nashville would end soon enough. "When the Scene wrote that it was great to have me here...what a breath of fresh air...I knew that eventually they'd come around and say, 'This guy ain't worth shit,' " he said.
Then, in answer to suggestions that his newspaper was soft on Sen. Bill Frist, he insisted, "If the man so much as farts, we're gonna be there covering him."
Who wants to cover that beat? And what if the senator, who was known as "Precious" by his MBA classmates, actually someday does more than that?
Wendell Rawls Jr. is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for The Tennessean, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times and is now a professor of journalism at MTSU. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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