Unreported amid all the news about 17-month-old leukemia patient Laura Green, who is scheduled to receive an experimental blood-cell transplant later this month, are the off-the-record efforts of Green’s family to control press coverage, rewarding reporters who cooperate and sometimes lashing out at those who don’t.
“My first goal was to get the most coverage I could,” said Laura’s father, Dennis Green, who desperately wanted publicity in order to attract potential bone-marrow donors. “I didn’t care who got the story first.”
Green said Tennessean sportswriter Jimmy Davy, who like the Greens is a member of Crieve Hall Church of Christ, introduced Green to Tommy Goldsmith, the paper’s city editor. Armed with clippings about a similar case reported in The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Green convinced Goldsmith and reporter Tim Chavez to turn Laura’s story into front-page news. In return, Chavez asked for an exclusive.
“[Chavez] suggested that the story might not get on the front page if someone else had it first,” Green said.
So, when WKRN-Channel 2 tried to contact the family about the story, Dennis Green declined to cooperate. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Channel 2 news director Mathew Zelkind. “This was a story where publicity could really mean the difference between life and death, but the family wouldn’t talk to us because they’d agreed to let The Tennessean break the story.”
Chavez said he was only working for the Greens’ best interests. “I wanted to get them the best play possible,” he said, “and the way to do that was on the front page of The Tennessean.” Chavez argued that the “printed word has more impact than anything on television.”
Zelkind decided to publicize the story heavily even after it ran in The Tennessean. WTVF-Channel 5 also aired the story all week. Because of the publicity, an estimated 3,000 Nashvillians volunteered as potential donors. “It worked out well for us,” Green admitted afterwards.
Green, however, then tried to elude the spotlight. “He sent a letter to everyone asking us not to contact the family and saying that he would tell all the media at the same time whether or not doctors had found a donor,” a television reporter said.
Sunday, Jan. 6, the congregation at Green’s church learned that a match had been found. Although Green announced a press conference on Monday afternoon, The Tennessean decided not to wait. Based on interviews with church members, the paper broke the story Monday morning.
The next day, Green was furious. At the end of the press conference, he told reporters to turn off their cameras and blasted The Tennessean for its “irresponsible” actions, citing several errors in the article by reporter Aissatou Sidime. Another Tennessean staffer, Tammie Smith, squirmed in silence. On Tuesday, Smith wrote a long story correcting the paper’s errors, but she mentioned neither the earlier article nor Green’s tirade at The Tennessean. According to a source at Vanderbilt, Green is also angry at Channel 5 for interviewing Laura’s Cincinnati doctor, who didn’t know the family wanted no more publicity.
When the Scene attempted to contact Green for this story, he said, through his secretary, that he was through talking to the press for the time being. That’s understandable. Presumably he now realizes that reporters don’t always play by his rules. Having jumped into a media fishbowl when he needed publicity to help his daughter, Green has learned that it’s not so easy to climb back out.
Odds and ends
CitySearch, a “fledgling company with a big idea,” plans to offer event guides and tips about local restaurants through the World Wide Web, according to a highly flattering article in the current issue of Business Nashville. The “young, hungry” company may be an outsider to Music City, said a company spokesman, but it plans to be a “big booster” of local community organizations.
The story, however, never mentioned that CitySearch has already named a local journalist to head its Nashville operations. He’s Patrick Rains, editor of Business Nashville.
Sources say the magazine will likely name Rains’ replacement soon. Perhaps the new editor will be a little more careful about spotting a conflict of interest.
♦ When park rangers reported that “female bones” had been found near the shore of Percy Priest Lake, a WSMV-Channel 4 satellite truck rushed to the site for a live telecast. After noting that the bones appeared to be “several years” old, reporter Cassandra Finch reminded viewers of missing artist Janet Levine March, giving some the impression that the bones might be related to the March case. (Channel 4 news director Al Tompkins reviewed the station’s tape but would not repeat what Finch had said about March.)
Finch later asked state archeologist Nick Fielder if the bones could be March’s. Fielder, who hadn’t yet seen the bones, declined to speculate but determined the next day that the remains had come from a 19th-century, homemade coffin found nearby.
Finch’s remark about March may have been intended to explain why so many Metro police officers and other authorities had been called to the Percy Priest site, but, once she learned that the bones were “years” old, she should have toned down the hype, not added to it.
♦ Laurels to WTVF-Channel 5, the first local news outlet to publicize the results of the Army’s investigation into last summer’s fatal helicopter crash at Fort Campbell. The report blamed four crew members for the incident, which killed six soldiers.
Reporter Jennifer Krause said a source tipped the station early Monday that the report would be released later in the day. Krause hurriedly typed up a Freedom-of-Information-Act request and picked up the report, even as some of the Army’s own officials were reading it for the first time. Monday night, Krause’s story led the 6 p.m. news while the other stations were talking endlessly about the weather.
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