The Tennessean shut down a press run Sunday night in order to delete a reporter’s racially offensive comments from a front-page story.
Describing Sunday’s James Brown concert at the Ryman, Tennessean music writer Tom Roland wrote, “[T]he bulk of the crowd...was white. Perhaps it’s because the tickets cost $35 and $50.”
Roland’s story appeared in about 15,000 papers, roughly 10 percent of Monday’s circulation, according to Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland. Thirty minutes after the presses started, an assistant managing editor, who had earlier reviewed the story, saw the page proofs, stopped the run, and yanked the entire article.
The reporter’s language was “not appropriate,” Sutherland said, “and there wasn’t time to fix it. We regret it occurred.”
Roland’s story provoked an angry reaction among some African-Americans. “I was more or less appalled,” Tony Wright, program director for soul-music station FM-92-Q, told Channel 5 news. “The article itself was very offensive.... Most of my listeners called in to say they thought it was kind of stereotypical, almost alluding to the fact that we can’t afford $35 to $50 tickets.” Channel 5 led the 6 p.m. news Monday by accusing The Tennessean of printing “what some call an offensive racial stereotype.” Channel 5 also reported, incorrectly, that it was the first time in 20 years the paper had stopped the presses.
Sutherland said Tennessean editors had reviewed Roland’s story and debated whether to print some racial jokes made by comedian Jimmie Walker prior to Brown’s performance, but the editors overlooked Roland’s comment that blacks in Nashville can’t afford a $35 concert ticket. Tuesday morning, the paper apologized: “The Tennessean had no factual basis for that statement. The newspaper regrets the error.” Roland said he composed the story during the concert itself and didn’t realize the implications of what he’d written until later. “I had a pretty bad day Monday,” he said, after getting 10 to 15 phone calls from irate readers.
Roland is no racist. He just wrote something stupid. But few newspaper companies are as race-conscious as Gannett, owner of The Tennessean and the nation’s largest newspaper chain.
Twice a year, Sutherland said, all Gannett-owned papers are evaluated in the chain’s “All-American” contest. Papers are judged by how many minorities are on the staff, the number who hold managerial positions, and whether “minorities are reflected in the mainstream of the paper’s coverage.” Mainstreaming, Sutherland said, means “including people of color in non-racial stories in a meaningful way.”
“It’s a Gannett-wide effort,” Sutherland said. “And it’s the right thing to do.” The editor said The Tennessean has consistently scored high in the contest.
Most media writers applaud Gannett’s highly publicized efforts to hire and promote minorities. But “mainstreaming” is more problematic. It involves the deliberate and racially conscious editing of news stories, and it explains why The Tennessean’s pages so often feature photos and stories of minorities and quotations from non-white sources.
Roland’s thoughtless comments appeared racist, butunlike mainstreamingit wasn’t intentional.
The Tennessean’s apology may mollify its African-American subscribers, but the Gallatin News-Examiner, another Gannett-owned paper, had less luck apologizing to Garrett “Bubba” Dixon Jr., who sued the paper last Thursday for at least $50,000.
As the Scene reported three weeks ago, a sports writer for the News-Examiner fabricated an obscene description of Dixon, expecting that other staffers at the paper would catch and delete the insult. They didn’t, and a graphic description of Dixon and certain portions of a donkey’s anatomy appeared on breakfast tables all over Sumner County. Now Dixon’s lawyers are in federal court.
Legal experts guess that a jury might award Dixon, a high school senior, anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000, but because of the high stakes and the uncertain outcome, most predict the case will be settled before it goes to trial.
Similar pranks, believe it or not, occur regularly in newsrooms. In 1992, a sports editor at the New Jersey Home News jokingly changed “sucking wind” to “sucking cock” in describing a high-school wrestling match. Two years later, the paper agreed to a $57,500 settlement, split between the two wrestlers. The paper’s editor wanted to go to trial, thinking no reasonable person would take the joke seriously. Now he’s glad they didn’t. “You never know what the jury will do,” he said.
The Gallatin paper has done everything it could to minimize the damage, even confiscating copies of the paper from area libraries. But “Donkey Dixon,” as some of his high school friends have called him, has learned that this is a joke that won’t go away. Maybe it’s impossible to put a dollar figure on the pain and embarrassment suffered by Dixon and his family, but it looks like the going price will fall somewhere between $50,000 and half-a-million.
Odds and ends
Last Friday, March 14, WTVF-Channel 5 broadcast a wreath-laying ceremony at Andrew Jackson’s tomb in honor of the seventh president’s birthday. But Jackson, of course, was born on the 15th.
It’s not entirely the station’s fault. The Channel 5 reporter was probably reading from a news release issued by the Tennessee National Guard, which conducted the birthday ceremony. The release described the wreath-laying on the 14th as “commemorating the 230th birthday of President Andrew Jackson.” Old Hickory, who once commanded the Tennessee militia, would have known what to do with the Guard’s public affairs officer.
To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (244-7989, ext. 445), call him at his office, 252-2363, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.