It’s sweeps month again, and even casual viewers must have noticed that, in hopes of attracting larger audiences, all three local television stations are pushing the limits on gimmicks, giveaways and “investigations.” WSMV-Channel 4 has literally raised the roof on promotions, offering viewers the chance to win a newly built house. Don’t call it a freebie, though. “We don’t give away anything,” explained a station official. “We expect our promotions to make money, and they do.”
In terms of news content, Channels 4 and 5 are sticking to form, adding some widely advertised investigative stories that may or may not prove newsworthy. But WKRN-Channel 2, stuck in distant third place in the ratings, has made some dramaticand riskychanges in the way it presents the news.
Reporter Mike Turko, just arrived from San Antonio, made his Channel 2 debut last week following promotions that showed Turko gesturing and shouting at the camera, promising to stamp out the bad guys like some comic book superhero. Turko doesn’t mind comparisons to famous Houston TV reporter Marvin Zindler, immortalized in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. “He used to do what I do,” Turko said.
In one of his first stories, Turko talked to angry Cheatham County residents about an illegal dump site in their neighborhood. Though Turko knew the site owner’s name, he said he wouldn’t publicly announce it unless the owner failed to start cleaning up the site within a week. Instead of broadcasting the news, Turko is holding back crucial facts and using the threat of exposure to blackmail the owner into action. That’s not journalism, not in the modern sense. It’s old-fashioned advocacyyellow journalism to criticsthe unabashed manipulation of “news” in order to influence readers and events. And it’s all for a good causeand higher ratings.
“Sure, I could have interviewed the owner and maybe embarrassed him,” Turko said, but “you’re not going to get anything done that way.
“We had an 80 percent success rate in San Antonio getting people to clean things up. People told me they’d rather be sued than to see their face on my Wall of Shame.”
For legal and ethical reasons, a reporter should never make an accusation without making a good-faith effort to give the accused a chance to respond. Based on what aired Friday, Turko made no apparent effort to find out if there is another side to the dump story.
But Turko is not so reckless as he seems. Asked directly if he had already talked to the site owner about the charges of illegal dumping, Turko hedged, “Let’s just say I’ve covered my ass.”
As it turns out, Turko had interviewed state and county officials about the dump site, but he did not mention those interviews on the air. “[The owner] is clearly in the wrong,” Turko assured the . “But I hope to God I never get caught with my pants down.” So does the station.
Odds and ends
Some of the best local business reporting, stories you don’t find in the Nashville dailies, now appears each Wednesday in the “Southeast” edition of The Wall Street Journal. Two weeks ago, the Journal reported that Columbia/HCA had bullied Sumner County officials into refusing a charitable contribution from a rival, locally owned not-for-profit hospital. When William Sugg, president of Sumner County Regional Medical Center, called to make an annual gift to the county sports festival, he was politely told to keep his money. According to the Journal, Columbia/HCA had promised county officials that the giant hospital chain would fully subsidize the sports festivalas long as the not-for-profit was blackballed from participating in the event.
♦ Describing his upcoming tryout with the Chicago Bulls, college basketball star Ronnie McMahan told the Vanderbilt Hustler, “All I’ve wished for is an opportunity and I’m really excited about it. I doubt it will hit me until I get there.”
Two days after the McMahan story appeared in the HustlerNashville Banner reporter Greg Pogue also “interviewed” McMahan for what turned out to be a remarkably similar story. “All I’ve wished for is an opportunity and I’m really excited about it,” said McMahan, according to Pogue. “I doubt it will hit me until I get there.”
Pogue’s article never mentioned the Hustler.
♦ Kriste Goad, a first-rate political reporter, is leaving the Banner after four years and joining the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the state’s best newspaper. Unfortunately, the won’t be using her in Nashville, where she has spent the last year covering the state Legislature. She also traveled with the Bredesen campaign last summer and walked with Alexander in New Hampshire. Friends say Goad still carries a copy of a column she wrote about Lamar that Banner editors refused to print because it wasn’t sufficiently “positive.” Perhaps it will appear soon in the .
♦ Notwithstanding fund-raising problems and dimming presidential hopes, Alexander is featured, not unkindly, in the current issue of The New Republic. An article by Richard Stengel summarizes the candidate as the “Easy Listening Republican” and accurately notes that the GOP victories in November 1994 “essentially robbed” Alexander of his anti-Washington campaign theme.
Taking a harsher tone, Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Tom Humphrey wrote about 2,500 words Sunday summarizing Alexander’s terms as governor, 1979-1987. Humphrey wrote that Alexander had raised taxes substantially, recommended a state income tax, created a prison crisis, and passed a Better Schools Plan that has been largely eclipsed by subsequent court rulings and Gov. Ned McWherter’s educational programs.
, an 18-year-old Carter County woman was charged with criminal abortion after giving birth to a stillborn, 17-week-old male fetus. The crime itself is unusual. According to the paper, the tiny fetus weighed “just more than five pounds.” Now that’s news.