Desperately Seeking the News 

Such cheek!

Such cheek!

By Henry Walker

It’s always the headline that people remember.

A month ago, it was “Ray’s case gets a boost” on the front page of The Tennessean that misled readers into thinking that new ballistics tests seem to exonerate James Earl Ray. “We knew it all the time,” jubilantly shouted a black politician after hearing the phony news from a Tennessean reporter.

As other papers reported, the latest tests on Ray’s rifle, just like the earlier tests, were inconclusive. But it’s a safe bet that many Tennessean readers still don’t know any better than that first headline.

Ten days ago, another memorable Tennessean headline read, “Mooning case costs UT plenty.” The story, by Knoxville-based sportswriter Chris Low, said that UT trainer Jamie Whited, who was “mooned by quarterback Peyton Manning,” had reached a $300,000 settlement with the university. The story described the mooning incident, Manning’s apology, and Whited’s high-priced award, implying that the huge settlement was based solely on Manning’s prank.

Believing Low’s story, Tennessean columnist Jerry Thompson wondered in his Sunday column how the university could pay Whited so much money over an isolated locker room joke and why Whited thought she deserved it. Lots of readers were asking the same questions.

Three days later, the paper finally provided some answers. “UT settlement shrouded in secrecy” read the front-page headline on Wednesday. Manning’s stunt, it turns out, was only one of 33 incidents cited by Whited in her sexual harassment complaint against the university. Using a half-dozen reporters in a Gannett-style mass attack, Wednesday’s paper included eight stories, two side bars, and a column by David Climer, covering every aspect of the Whited case. Not one of The Tennessean’s stories acknowledged that the paper’s earlier account had been wrong.

Climer acknowledged that Manning and Whited had been treated unfairly by news reports that the mooning incident alone had cost the university $300,000. But instead of blaming reporters like Low for jumping to conclusions that made no sense, Climer whined that it was all the university’s fault.

Climer claimed that UT’s announcement of the settlement “was worded, and further information [was] deleted,” so that “everyone assumed” the university was paying $300,000 “solely because” of the mooning incident.

Here’s the full text of the announcement from UT’s legal department: “By mutual agreement, Jamie Whited and the University have settled all claims arising out of Dr. Whited’s employment with the University. Dr. Whited has resigned her employment with the University of Tennessee effective June 30, 1998, and she will be on educational leave without pay until that date. In return, the University has paid Dr. Whited $300,000. This payment is not an admission of liability by the University or any other party and is a compromise of a disputed claim.”

Based on those four sentences, Tennessean headlines declared the next day that a glimpse of Manning’s rear had earned Whited 10 times her annual salary. It was a ridiculous assumption, and other reporters knew better. Relying on unnamed sources from the university, The Knoxville News-Sentinel wrote that Whited’s settlement was based on “a systematic pattern of discrimination” and that the trainer had made no complaints against Manning over the mooning incident. Tuesday, a day ahead of The Tennessean, the Knoxville paper reported Whited’s 32 other claims, explaining in a headline, “Manning mooning small part of case.”

Chris Low wasn’t the only reporter who “assumed” the wrong conclusion based on UT’s settlement announcement. The Associated Press did the same. Unlike The Tennessean, however, AP implicitly acknowledged that its readers had been misled; it distributed a follow-up story emphasizing that Whited’s sexual harassment claims preceded the mooning incident.

Climer thinks UT ought to apologize to Manning and Whited for misleading the public about Whited’s settlement. He’s right that UT should have been more open, but it was The Tennessean, not UT, that got the story wrong. That’s where the apologizing should start.

Odds and ends

Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland didn’t really need to tell readers that Susan Thomas, one of his reporters, is now related to Ann Orick, an Oak Ridge activist about whom Thomas has frequently written.

On Aug. 9, Thomas’ son married Orick’s daughter. To avoid a “conflict of interest,” Sutherland wrote on Aug. 17, “Susan has done no reporting or writing” about Orick “since the wedding.”

If Sutherland hadn’t raised the issue, perhaps no one would have noticed that on Aug. 10, one day after the wedding, The Tennessean published a front-page story by Thomas sympathetically describing Orick’s case and quoting liberally from Thomas’ new relation.

Sutherland might as well let Thomas continue. Orick is among the most vocal of those former government employees who believe they have been injured by toxic waste at Oak Ridge. As long as Thomas covers the Oak Ridge issue, it hardly matters whether she’s quoting Orick or one of Orick’s supporters. The story will read the same.

♦ Brett Lea is back. The popular former anchor for WTVF-Channel 5 returns to Nashville next month to cohost the 10 o’clock news for Channel 2. Anne Holt will continue anchoring at 5 and 6. For the past two years, Lea worked at station KPRC, the NBC affiliate in Houston. She was fired two months ago, according to Mike McDaniel, TV critic at the Houston Chronicle. “The station started going to more tabloid-style journalism,” he said, “and Lea is too much of a professional for that.”

Wait until she meets Turko.

To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (615-244-7989, ext. 445), call him at his office, 615-252-2363, or send an e-mail to hwalker@bccb.com.

Wait until she meets Turko.

To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (615-244-7989, ext. 445), call him at his office, 615-252-2363, or send an e-mail to hwalker@bccb.com.

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