The folks at The Tennessean want your name, address and unlisted telephone number, but they won’t tell you why. xxxxxx xxxLast week, in a move unreported by the daily papers, The Tennessean filed suit against Nashville Electric Service to force the utility to divulge the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all 292,000 NES customers. The paper’s lawyer assured the Scene that the information is needed “for a news purpose” but declined to say what that purpose is.
NES collects customers’ telephone numbers, both listed and unlisted, in order to handle the huge volume of calls that occur during power outages, explained NES’s Teresa Corlew. “A customer reporting an outage just punches in his telephone number, and we match it with the address on the customer’s account,” she said.
Corlew concedes that state “public records” laws require NES to give the paper the information, even customers’ unlisted telephone numbers, but NES insists that The Tennessean first pay $86,000 to cover the cost of warning each customer that his address and telephone number have been handed to a reporter. NES adopted its “written notification” policy, in part because of complaints from domestic violence victims and a lawsuit alleging that NES records had led to the murder of a police informant.
Corlew says Tennessean reporter Sheila Wissner asked for the information in December but didn’t say why she wanted it.
“We never had anyone ask for all the names,” Corlew said, adding that NES officials assumed the paper wants to use the information to update its marketing data “so they can call you at dinner to see if you want to buy the paper.” In a press release issued the day after the suit was filed, NES charged that “releasing our entire customer base listing to a commercial and profit-making business...would amount to an invasion of privacy to these customers.”
The Tennessean’s lawyers say the paper isn’t required to give a reason for its request and that NES’s $86,000 “notification” fee is tantamount to denying access to the information. A court hearing is scheduled this week.
This is one battle The Tennessean doesn’t need to win. A paper that carefully edits stories to protect the identities of rape victims shouldn’t find itself the target of battered women who are trying to hide from their abusers. The paper may, in fact, be pursuing a legitimate news story, but if NES provides the data to The Tennessean, the utility will also have to make it available to anyone elsetelemarketer, research firm or scam artistwho asks for it. The high fee is one way to discourage scammers and to let NES customers know who’s checking on them. The Tennessean, which recently bought a skybox at the Oiler’s stadium for about the price of the notification fee, should either withdraw the request or shut up and pay the money.
Odds and ends
Larry Daughtrey, The Tennessean’s knowledgeable, but sometimes lazy, Capitol Hill reporter, typically introduces his Sunday column with the words, “Pages from a political notebook.”
This week, Daughtrey described how Gov. Don Sundquist has larded the state budget with projects for Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga in order to make state aid to Nashville’s Oilers more palatable to legislators. It was a good story, but it was better when Andy Sher wrote it five days earlier in the Banner.
Daughtrey reiterated the same facts and argued the same conclusion, stuck his picture at the top, and called the week-old news a column. Maybe his notebook is a scrapbook.
♦ Tennessee ranks “13th in the country” in per capita job loss due to NAFTA, Tennessean business writer Heather Newman reported recently. Newman said more than 1,500 Tennesseans are receiving federal aid intended to compensate workers laid off as a result of NAFTA-enhanced competition from Mexico and Canada. Newman’s “computer analysis” determined that, on a per capita basis, Tennessee gets more NAFTA aid than most states, including all those which actually border Mexico.
There’s one problem: Out of those 1,500 Tennesseans, 636 formerly worked at a Kimberly-Clark plant in Memphis which, company officials told Newman, closed for reasons that had nothing to do with NAFTA. A spokeswoman said that Kimberly-Clark has no idea why the workers are receiving federal aid.
Learning that 1,500 Tennesseans collect NAFTA dole isn’t much news (and calculating the state’s per capita ranking isn’t much “computer analysis”). But if, in fact, more than 40 percent of those workers are receiving aid illegally, as Newman’s article indicates, that’s one helluva story. It’s too bad Newman and her editors didn’t see it.
♦ Remember the explosion on the USS Iowa? Navy investigators long insisted it was the deliberate act of a mentally unstable sailor who had died in the blast. Eventually, under pressure from the victim’s family and persistent members of Congress, the Navy finally attributed the accident to faulty ordinance.
Don’t be surprised if the investigation of last week’s deadly crash of an F-14 Navy Tomcat near the Metro Airport follows the same pattern.
The embers had hardly cooled before newspaper and television reporters, fed by government sources, began talking about the pilot’s “tricky and dangerous” takeoff, his prior crash last April, and charges that the Annapolis graduate may have been “showing off” for his parents.
As one Navy critic told the Banner, “the first thing they do is circle the wagons.” It was the next-to-last sentence in a 26-inch story; it should have been the lead.
Meanwhile, other less publicized articles and letters to the editor described a pilot who went down with his plane to avoid hitting an office building, a navigator who stuck by his friend instead of bailing out, and a notoriously unreliable engine that the Navy should have replaced years ago. Stay tuned.
To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (244-7989, ext. 445), or call him at 252-2363.