While an armed and distraught police sergeant was engaged in a tense standoff with members of the department’s SWAT Team last Friday, a rented WSMV-Channel 4 helicopter taking aerial footage became a dangerous part of the story.
Police spokesperson Don Aaron says that the sight of the chopper aggravated Sgt. Mark Nelson to the point that he threatened to fire at it. “He indicated to members of the SWAT Team who were trying to talk him into ending the situation that he didn’t want the helicopter there,” Aaron says. “Essentially, he wanted the helicopter out of there, and if it didn’t get out of there he was going to start shooting at it.”
At that point, Aaron says police had to think about the helicopter pilot and the Antioch neighborhood it was flying over. “Had he fired on the helicopter, he would have forced us to take action,” he says.
The helicopter later flew away, and Nelson peacefully surrendered. But the potential for disaster loomed large. Channel 4’s helicopter could have set into motion a chain of events in which any number of people could have been killedthe police officer, the pilot, or even neighborhood children.
Mark Shafer, Channel 4’s recently hired news director, was headed out of town the day the story broke. He says he doesn’t want to second-guess his subordinate’s decision to use the chopper, but neither does the thoughtful news director defend it. “I wish we hadn’t done it,” he says. “I’m sorry we flew it too closely. Certainly, there is a place for aerial coverage of breaking news stories, but you don’t want to interfere with what’s going on on the ground.”
Sources say that Channel 4 reporters also questioned the use of the helicopter. Against a backdrop of a long-running ratings slump, they also shared frustration at the station’s shallow reporting of the widely covered standoff. In fact, the helicopter-less WTVF-Channel 5 dominated the story with more and better news coverage. Making matters worse, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., when the incident was becoming increasingly volatile, Channel 4 was still broadcasting Oprah.
Shafer acknowledges that a few reporters have broached concerns about the station’s reporting that day, but to his credit, he sees that as a good thing. “I don’t think our newsroom is without problems,” he says. “The only way an organization can improve is if we criticize what we do in a positive way.”
Last week, The Tennessean ran two stories about the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America that were damaging, wrong, and possibly libelous.
Last Tuesday, The Tennessean’s Kirk Loggins reported that the “U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether Corrections Corporation of America has made a practice of coercing inmates in prisons it manages to sign away their rights to sue over injuries they suffered while in custody.” If that were true, CCA would be guilty of fundamental civil rights violations.
But the day Loggins’ front-page story appeared, a Justice Department official called The Tennessean to say that there was no probe of CCA. “We called the paper and said, ‘Your facts are wrong,’ says Dan Nelson, a spokesperson for the Justice Department. “There is absolutely no civil rights investigation into CCA.”
Loggins, a well-respected court reporter with a reputation for getting things right, admits that he never verified the story with anyone at the Justice Department. Instead, he took at face value the court pleadings of two lawyers who were suing the prison corporation on behalf of a prisoner allegedly injured at the hands of a guard. Loggins says that he called the department but that no one returned his calls.
Anyhow, the daily figured that the best way to handle its errant reporting would be to write another story reporting that there was no civil rights investigation as it had prominently thundered the day before. But the paper’s second story, headlined, “CCA not federal civil rights target,” had problems of its own.
First, the paper seemed to blame its first story on incorrect information from the attorneys suing CCA. The lawyers may have overstated the Justice Department’s involvement in the case, but that didn’t excuse the daily from reporting on an investigation without confirming it with investigators.
Second, the paper reported that the department had begun a criminal investigation based on a complaint by a prisoner allegedly injured at the hands of a guard. That’s factually true, but it leaves the reader with the wrong impression that the probe is focused on the company. Again, that’s not the case, at least according to the Justice Department. “It’s not CCA that’s being investigated,” Nelson says. “It’s the guard.”
Company officials say they feel that The Tennessean’s second story did not remedy the first. They are currently examining their options, which could mean everything from seeking another correction to taking the daily to court.
A side note: Last Monday, when The Tennessean started reporting its story about CCA, Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland was scheduled to play a few holes in the Vinny Celeb-Am golf tournament at the Legends Club in Williamson County. Let’s hope he shot a good round.