On Monday, Walter Hernandez, a member of the bloody La Mara Salvatrucha criminal cabal, was sentenced in federal court to 27 years in prison for his involvement in a series of gang-related activities, including murder and attempted murder. Prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hernandez is the fourth member of the machete-wielding Central American gang, also known as MS-13, to plead guilty on RICO Act charges.
But when Chief U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell sentenced Hernandez, no Tennessean reporter was there, and the paper missed the story. Shortly after the sentencing, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a press release about the case, and The Tennessean placed the news of the sentencing on its website under the “latest headlines” category, which should be reserved for stories that broke after—not hours before—the paper’s print deadline. Even worse, The Tennessean’s bylined web story was almost identical to the press release. Here’s one of many almost identical passages:
From your Tennessean: “At his plea hearing January 29, Hernandez admitted that he and others involved in the MS-13 gang conspired to participate in a pattern of racketeering activity in the Nashville area, which included murder and attempted murder.”
From your Department of Justice: “At his plea hearing January 29, 2008 Hernandez admitted that he and others involved in the MS-13 gang conspired to participate in a pattern of racketeering activity in the Nashville metropolitan area, which included murder and attempted murder.”
Well, in fairness, The Tennessean did take out the word “metropolitan.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office’s ongoing prosecution of MS-13 has been one of only two in the country to take down the Latin American gang through the use of the RICO Act. Like many cases involving Mara Salvatrucha, often tagged the most violent gang in the world, this one’s a sordid, bloody mess involving murder, stabbings, shootings and a defendant who went by the nickname “Spanky.” Not so long ago, The Tennessean, with reporters covering both the state and federal courts, would have avidly regaled readers with the story of a deadly international gang that opened for business in Nashville. But since the first MS-13 member to cop a plea, The Tennessean has run only one story on the case, according to a Nexis search. In contrast, the tiny City Paper has published at least six stories about the gang—though, now looking to fill an open court reporter position, the free daily did miss Monday’s sentencing. Still, when neither paper had news about the latest development in the prosecution of a violent gang member, lawyers who toil at the federal courthouse were only surprised about one paper’s lapse—and it wasn’t the one that publishes press releases on its website.
There’s nothing like a Kennedy
Here’s one more bit of news about your morning daily, but this one is good. The Tennessean has hired former Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Kennedy, who worked as both a national and Middle East correspondent for the paper. (Someone tell him that Lebanon, in Wilson County, is a pretty peaceful place and that we don’t call the downtown swath of the Cumberland the West Bank.) Kennedy also ran a local news bureau in Southern California. Already, the new city editor has won over more skeptical members of the local print crowd.
“If this works, it’s great news for the staff and the paper’s readers,” says one veteran journalist who recently met Kennedy. “If it doesn’t work, I suspect it will be because someone of Kennedy’s old-fashioned journalism style and talent can’t fit the Gannett corporate mold.”