It was never a story to begin with. Worse, it led the front page. No one could understand why. “Race issue erupts in Heisman controversy,” read the five-column Tennessean headline. The story by reporter Bonna M. de la Cruz was based on a statement by Gwen Harris, executive director of the Nashville NAACP, who alleged that Gov. Don Sundquist had offended African Americans by referring to Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, who is black, as “this guy from Michigan.”
The reporter interviewed four others among the usual suspects in the civil rights community. Not one said that Sundquist’s remark was racist. Even the paper’s own editorial board wrote the next day that “nothing in [Sundquist’s] comments was racial.”
Then why was it a story in the first place?
Here’s another story that will help explain the answer.
During a warm spell in October, Tennessean reporter Joe Rogers wrote a feature on Indian summerthose hazy fall days when it still feels like August.
As reporters often do, Rogers called a local university to interview an expert on weather patterns. According to a source at the school, the conversation went something like this:
“Do you have a minority weather expert?” Rogers asked. A staffer in the public-relations office suggested the names of several faculty members. “But is one of them a minority?” Rogers asked again. No, he was told.
“Never mind,” said the reporter. “Thanks anyway.”
Rogers apparently never did find a “minority weather expert.” His story, which ran Oct. 10, quoted only Bobby Boyd, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Boyd says that he is white.
Rogers, like every other Tennessean reporter, is required to “mainstream” news stories. That means he has to make an affirmative effort to find minority sources. Like all other Gannett-owned newspapers, The Tennessean is periodically evaluated on whether there are sufficient numbers of stories about minorities and stories quoting minority experts.
Though well-intentioned, the “mainstreaming” requirement, along with Gannett’s quota system for hiring and promoting minorities, demoralizes staffers and creates in the newsroom a hypersensitive, race-conscious climate that too often clouds editorial judgment.
That’s the kind of baggage that Tennessean reporters and editors carry. It’s what turns an offhand comment about “this guy from Michigan” into a racial incident and creates two days of headlines out of one person’s silly complaint.
It also means that when a genuine racial controversy erupts, readers may decide it’s just another attention-seeking gimmick by a paper that has cried “wolf” once too often.
The Banner, to its credit, printed nothing about the Sundquist “controversy.” Well, almost nothing. A few days after The Tennessean story appeared, Banner reporter Alisa LaPolt wrote an unusual column confessing that she’d used poor judgment in asking Gov. Don Sundquist and other state officials to sign a petition protesting Woodson’s award.
“Suddenly my actions became newsworthy,” she wrote. But journalists aren’t supposed to “interject themselves into the news.” Now, LaPolt says, she’s learned that “petitions don’t sit well when it comes to objectivity and public trust.”
LaPolt wrote the petition and carried it to about 30 journalists and state officials. But when she and Rebecca Ferrar of The Knoxville News-Sentinel presented it to Sundquist at a press conference, the petition itself became news.
At least The Tennessean’s Bill Carey thought so. He apparently intended to blow the whistle on both LaPolt and Ferrar, until Ferrar, no shrinking violet, loudly confronted Carey in a Legislative Plaza hallway. Ferrar warned that LaPolt might lose her job if Banner editors found out about the petition.
Carey backed down and wrote only that the petition was presented to Sundquist “by a Knoxville newspaper reporter.” Carey didn’t mention LaPolt or the Banner. LaPolt, though, confessed anyway in her mildly self-critical column. She properly apologizedbut for the wrong reason.
No one really cares what LaPolt, or any other reporter, thinks about the Heisman award. Her mistake was asking the politicians she covers to do her a personal favor by signing the petition. Politicians enjoy giving favors, especially to reporters. Because the politician knows, even if the reporter doesn’t, that favors are never free.
LaPolt still has her job, but other staffers are continuing to jump from the slowly sinking afternoon paper. John Commins, a veteran reporter who’s won a half-dozen state and regional awards covering Metro police, starts next week as Capitol Hill correspondent for The Chattanooga Times. After a decade with United Press International, Commins joined the Banner four years ago, a few months before The Tennessean’s Brad Schmitt switched from covering cops to celebrity gossip. Since then, the Banner has owned the police beat. Without Commins, that will likely change.
Sportswriter Greg Pogue has also resigned. He’s been covering the Oilers as well as anyone and is a fiercely competitive, talented journalist.
Friends recall when Pogue, after learning that The Tennessean was going to beat him to press with an Oilers story, leaked the news to the Associated Presson condition that the AP attribute the story to the Banner. The scheme worked. That night, all three local television stations carried the AP story, which credited the Banner for a news item that hadn’t been printed yet.
Pogue, who also hosts a sports talk show on Channel 58, is starting a free, weekly magazine focusing on sports news.
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