WTVF-Channel 5 scooped everyone last week with a feel-good story about a loyal, school-bus-chasing mutt from the small Rutherford County town of Eagleville.
Nikki runs seven miles from home to school and then back at the end of the day, reporter Dana Kaye explained, as the camera showed the dog running alongside the bus that carried 5-year-old Corey Alexander, Nikki’s owner.
But Kaye never told viewers that some of the footage of Nikki was staged by local officials who didn’t want to disappoint the visiting newscaster. Last Wednesday, around mid-morning, the dog “left the school and went home,” according to Rutherford County sheriff’s deputy Jeff Griswold. Knowing the Channel 5 crew was on its way, “we decided we had to get Nikki back to school,” he said.
The best way to catch Nikki, Griswold decided, was to take Corey, along with his brother and sister, out of school, drive them home, put them on an otherwise empty bus, and induce the dog to follow them back to school. It worked.
To save time, Griswold finally put Nikki on the bus too, letting him out about a mile from the school so that the Channel 5 cameraman, now waiting at the school, could film the bus and the dog as they arrived.
“That was the only part we staged,” Griswold said. Channel 5 also showed the dog running home later that day. That part was real. Neither Kaye, nor cameraman Jerry Walker, returned telephone messages asking about the newscast. Channel 5 news director Mike Cutler could not be reached for comment.
Staging action for a news story, even a not-too-serious reenactment like this one, is a serious breach of television ethics. That’s the difference between news and acting. Kaye and Walker didn’t arrange it, but they apparently knew about it and aired the staged event without explanation.
A week too early for April Fool’s, a small announcement, paraphrased from a news release, appeared deep inside Sunday’s Tennessean. It stated that the defunct Nashville Banner will receive a “lifetime achievement award” next month from the National Conference (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews) for “outstanding work in furthering good human relations.” The story mentioned that the Banner in 1951 had hired Robert Churchwell, the first African American to work at a mainstream Southern daily.
The story didn’t mention, of course, that the Banner was a virulently racist and reactionary newspaper for most of its existence, or that Churchwell was hired to cover “Negro news” and to try to improve the paper’s negligible circulation in Nashville’s black community.
The National Conference “is dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry, and racism in America,” according to a brochure. Its media award is given for “presenting positive images of ethnic and religious groups,” emphasizing “the richness of our cultural diversity,” and “responsible analysis of issues” that might otherwise aggravate racial tension. A Conference spokeswoman said the Banner is being honored “for its 122 years” of journalism in Nashville.
“I guess [the award] expresses a great faith in the power of redemption,” Nashville historian John Egerton said, noting that, historically, the Banner was “vociferously resistant to ending segregation and bringing about equal rights for all citizens.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Banner endorsed the policies of the John Birch Society, occasionally used the word “nigger,” censored any news about Nashville’s downtown sit-in demonstrations, pressured Vanderbilt to expel divinity student and Civil Rights leader James Lawson, and bought rifles, helmets, and bulletproof vests to arm the staff in case rioters attacked the paper.
Churchwell himself recalls a weekly Banner column called “Happenings Among Colored People” and a “slip” page devoted to news about blacks that was only distributed to African American subscribers. “It was a racist newspaper,” Churchwell said. “No question about that.”
In his new book, The Children, former Tennessean reporter David Halberstam writes that Banner publisher James G. Stahlman “liked to boast that he had been a pioneer in hiring a black reporter,” although Churchwell was “ghettoized” in the back of the newsroom and was not allowed to attend the paper’s Christmas parties held at the segregated Colmere Club.
“Some moments” in the paper’s history “weren’t so proud,” acknowledged the news release issued by the National Conference, but “times were different then. We weren’t as enlightened as a people, nor as a region.”
Strange sentiments, coming from an organization that, since 1927, has fought alongside blacks for human rights and against what Jimmy Stahlman stood for.
As Egerton and Churchwell pointed out, the Banner changed for the better after Stahlman sold it, and it deserves recognition and credit for that. “We can’t ignore the history but can applaud the change,” said Linda Berry, executive director of the National Conference. “We certainly wouldn’t want to honor a racist paper.”
Berry, however, declined to name any members of the “panel of civic leaders” who selected the Banner for the “lifetime” award. Another Conference employee said the Banner had not been formally nominated for the award but was spontaneously proposed during the panel’s meeting, which occurred shortly after the paper closed.
Contacted by the Scene, five members of the organization’s board of directors said they knew nothing about the award until they saw it in The Tennessean.
Times and places
In Review, the paper that looks like the Scenebut isn’tplans to become a weekly in early June, according to publisher Boyner Barnes.
♦ Teddy Bart’s Roundtable, the political junkies’ favorite morning show, is now rebroadcast each day from 4 to 6 p.m. on WKDA-AM. The talk is the same, but the news, traffic reports, and advertisements are fresh.