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Friends in high places

Friends in high places

Tennessean environmental reporter Anne Paine won’t be reviewing stories about the Nashville Thermal Plant after an environmental activist complained about Paine’s dating relationship with mayoral aide Phil Ashford, who advises Bredesen on Thermal Plant issues.

Volunteer environmentalist Steve Walsh said he first learned two weeks ago about the long-standing friendship between Ashford and Paine and “started repeatedly calling editors at The Tennessean” to demand an explanation.

“For Anne Paine to be editing any story that involves Phil Ashford in his work for the mayor is obviously a conflict of interest,” Walsh said. Paine and Ashford have been quietly dating for several years. Paine’s bosses have known of the relationship since it began, managing editor Dave Green said Monday. But one person who didn’t know, Green said, was Mark Ippolito, who regularly covers the courthouse beat for the morning paper.

During last fall’s contentious debate over whether to close the Thermal Plant, Ippolito wrote most of the paper’s stories on that issue and, according to Walsh, was sympathetic to the anti-Thermal movement.

But on at least one occasion, Walsh recalled, Ippolito “was very upset” over Paine’s editing of his copy, which changed the slant of the story. “None of us knew then” about Ashford’s relationship with Paine, Walsh said. “If I had, I would have been all over it.”

Green said he showed Paine a list of Ippolito’s stories and that she remembers editing only one of them. That story, according to Green, “looked perfectly balanced.” Because of her relationship with Ashford, Paine normally recused herself from Thermal stories, Green said, but she was ordered by weekend supervisor Cindy Smith to edit one of Ippolito’s articles because no other staffers were available. “We’ll do everything we can so Anne won’t be in that position again,” Green said, adding that Paine “has been completely above-board in handling this. She doesn’t want to edit these stories, and I don’t want her to either.”

Green said that no reporter who is married or engaged to a news source should write or edit a story involving that source. When it comes to dating relationships, Green said he “listens to the specifics of each incident” and evaluates them on a case-by-case basis. He refused to say whether Paine is allowed to work on other stories involving the mayor’s office. “I won’t discuss the internal working of the newspaper,” he said.

Walsh said the paper should have printed an explanation about Paine’s conflict of interest. “If the same thing had happened at any other business, The Tennessean would have written about it,” he said.

According to Green, neither Ippolito nor Paine was available for comment.

Despite Walsh’s well-motivated accusations and Green’s measured, politically correct response, it’s not clear whether Paine’s social life outside the paper is anyone’s business but her own. It’s appropriate and enforceable to prevent one spouse from writing or editing news about the other. Beyond that lies quicksand.

Paine is an experienced journalist, one of the paper’s best. Ashford is Bredesen’s most talented staffer. They haven’t publicized their relationship, but they’ve never hidden it either. The paper’s environmental reporter ought to be writing about issues like the Thermal Plant. When she passes them off to less knowledgeable reporters, readers are shortchanged.

Asked about his relationship with Paine, Ashford said tersely, “That’s none of anyone’s business.” Perhaps Dave Green should have said the same.

Memo to the copy desk

There is not now, and never has been, a Nashville neighborhood called the “East Bank.” It’s a publicist’s fiction dreamed up to make East Nashville sound more like a residential development in Green Hills. But it’s too late now for historical accuracy. Henceforth, by order of Phil Bredesen and Bud Adams, the industrial strip between the river and Interstate 265 will be the East Bank. But beyond the interstate, it’s still East Nashville. And the other side of the river is still “Lower Broad” or “downtown,” not, as Tennessean reporter Will Pinkston wrote April 27, the “West Bank.”

Remember, it’s the Cumberland, not the Jordan.

Odds and ends

Accused wife-beater Robert Mason said he only used his hands. His daughter said Mason had a meat cleaver but never threatened her with it. Mason’s wife said she never saw the cleaver. That’s not much evidence to convict Mason of “reckless endangerment,” a felony charge that requires the state to prove Mason put his daughter in “imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.”

Nevertheless, a Davidson County jury convicted Mason both of hitting his wife and of reckless endangerment with the cleaver against his daughter. Judge Tom Shriver wisely reversed the second conviction, telling the district attorney, “You’ve got zero likelihood of conviction” at a second trial. He sentenced Mason to serve 150 days on the assault, about double the normal sentence, but less than the 270 days the prosecution wanted. “Judge gives wife-beater early release,” said the Banner headline. “A judge has decided jurors were wrong,” said the opening paragraph by reporter Toni Dew, who never explained the state’s insufficient evidence.

Dew has a bad habit of writing one-sided crime stories. Shriver did the right thing. Dew didn’t.

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 hwalker@bccb.com.

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