Despite snickers, eye-rolling and blank looks from her politically correct fellow staffers, Tennessean business editor Emme Nelson Baxter persevered to write a moving obituary of Sam Henderson, an ageless black man who greeted guests and served drinks for generations of Nashville socialites while quietly serving the African-American community as a member and benefactor of the Pleasant Green Baptist Church on Jefferson Street.
Within the boundaries of the Gannett media empire, racial sensitivity is deemed a prime virtue. Documents recently made public in a lawsuit against Gannett describe how an editor’s pay and job security are directly tied to the number of times the paper quotes blacks as news sources or publishes photographs and stories showing blacks in a positive light. That’s one reason Tennessean news articles so often quote professors from Tennessee State University and Fisk, and why photographs of racially mixed crowds usually focus on blacks.
In this racially charged atmosphere, the paper’s business editor, born and bred in Belle Meade, volunteered to write the obituary of a man she and her family had cherished for 40 years. Unlike the transient newcomers who dominate the paper’s newsroom, Baxter appreciated the news value of Henderson’s death. Despite protests from several staffers, the paper prominently featured the story on the front of its “Metro” section.
“Working in the press carries no license to forget where you came from,” former Tennessean reporter Jim Squires writes in his new book, The Secrets of the Hopewell Box.
Squires was talking about his own journey from working-class slums to The Tennessean city room, but he could just as well have been describing Baxter, who brings a Belle Meade upbringing to the paper’s daily news meetings. A good paper needs to represent both sides of the tracks.
Banner reporter Leon Alligood recently won a journalism award for his numbingly detailed, five-part series, published last September, on Tennessee forests. Alligood’s work “showed our readers just how importantand how fragilethose forests are,” the paper’s managing editor proudly explained.
But when it comes to reporting pollution damage to forests in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gov. Don Sundquist’s unilateral decision to renege on a pollution control agreement with the federal government, Alligood and the Banner are strangely quiet.
Other daily papers across the state have been hammering Sundquist over the way in which he apparently allows the Tennessee Association of Business to speak for the state when it comes to matters of air pollution control. This week, a federal lawyer with the Department of Interior described at a public hearing how state officials presented him with a revised agreement, edited by TAB lobbyists, and demanded that the department agree to the proposed changes. When Interior agreed to some, but not all, of the changes, the state abruptly canceled the binding agreement. The news made the front page of The Tennessean but has yet to appear in the Banner, whose publisher, Irby Simpkins, is married to Peaches Simpkins, the governor’s chief of staff.
There’s one administration official, however, whom the Banner loves to kick: Finance Commissioner Bob Corker, who is also the principal rival of the publisher’s wife. The paper’s editorial staff, which has yet to say anything about Sundquist’s feud with the Department of Interior, decided Monday to write a long editorial questioning recent actions of the State Insurance Committee. Corker, who is rumored to be leaving state government soon, is chairman of the insurance committee. Memo from Peaches to Bob: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Odds and ends
Two weeks ago, this column described how Mike Turko, Channel 2’s obstreperous, door-kicking reporter, angrily booted a slow-moving car, causing about $450 worth of damage. After first claiming that the teenage driver of the car had exaggerated the damage and then charging that the victim’s family and her minister were engaged in “extortion, pure and simple,” Turko quietly wrote a check for repairs a few days after the column appeared.
There’s one catch: Turko, who specializes in humiliating alleged wrongdoers on the evening news, demanded the victim sign a confidentiality agreement prohibiting her from talking to the press about the incident.
♦ Recently released Canadian elk “are doing well in their new home” at Land Between the Lakes, according to a story by Evelyn Atzlinger in last Monday’s Tennessean. “Wildlife biologists have monitored the elk since their release,” Atzlinger assured readers.
“Elk deaths baffle officials,” read The Tennessean’s headline four days later. “Wildlife biologists aren’t sure what killed six of the 29 elk.” One of the long-dead animals was too badly decomposed for testing. Attributed to wire services and “staff reports,” the second article did not mention the earlier, apparently fabricated story.
There was a time, not long ago, when recycled press releases didn’t merit a byline. After all, if the reporter didn’t personally check out the story and contribute substantially to the writing, he or she shouldn’t claim credit for the work. Now, though, bylines appear everywhere in The Tennessean, even on community event announcements. The problem, of course, is that when the press release turns out to be wrong, the reporter looks like an idiot.
♦ Roger Shirley, longtime editor of The Nashville Business Journal, has left the paper and is now working temporarily as media coordinator for the pro-Oilers campaign. Shirley’s job runs through May 7. “After that,” he said, “who knows?”
In a staff noted for high turnover, Shirley had been with NBJ virtually since its founding a decade ago. Amid rumored disagreements with publisher Kevin Lorance, Shirley left the editor’s job last year to become director of special publications, took a leave of absence in early February, and finally resigned on March 20.
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