Tension between two local reporters, both with thin skins and large egos, erupted into a shouting match last week during a press conference when Metro Police Chief Emmett Turner announced that two officers had been cleared of all administrative charges regarding the alleged mistreatment of Nashville Hispanics.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says police spokesman Don Aaron, who intervened to stop the quarrelling.
WSMV-Channel 4 reporter Dennis Ferrier has broadcast more than two dozen stories about the Hispanic abuse investigation, more than any other television reporter, for the most part defending accused cops Mike Mann and Jason Beddoe. Scene reporter Willy Stern, on the other hand, has won national recognition for his stories revealing what appeared to be a pattern of racially motivated harassment of Hispanics by local security guards with the knowledge and acquiescence of some Metro police officers.
At the press conference, Turner announced that Mann and Beddoe had been cleared, but he defended the police investigation. “We can’t just turn our backs on complaints that we get,” he said. “We still have to investigate.”
At that point, Ferrier, who recently provoked Gov. Don Sundquist with some in-your-face questions about tax reform, tried the same tactic on Turner: Hadn’t the chief “turned his back” on the officers? Hadn’t the chief actually begun the investigation with “a prejudice against them that these [allegations] were probably true?”
Turner grew visibly angry. “I know you’ve been a proponent of these officers. I’ve seen the interviews that you’ve had with them....”
“I’ve been a journalist sir,” Ferrier interrupted.
When Turner paused again, Stern yelled from across the crowded conference room, “You’ve been an embarrassment to the journalist profession.”
The moment Turner finished, Ferrier yelled back at Stern, “You’re an embarrassment and a worm.”
Aaron tried to defuse the situation, but Ferrier was on a roll: “You’re talking to a man who’s stepped out and found out the truth,” he jeered. “You’re not man enough to do this. Why are you still hiding behind bad articles?”
Turner left the podium.
Later, a somewhat abashed Stern apologized to Turner, Aaron, and Ferrier for starting the altercation. “My actions were inappropriate, and I apologize to all involved,” he said Friday.
Ferrier says he accepts Stern’s apology but has no regrets. “It’s always easier to get along with the people you’re covering,” he says. “That’s what most reporters do, but that’s not my job.”
Stern was right, but he was also wrong. Ferrier occasionally goes too far; even fellow staffers at Channel 4 sometimes roll their eyes when he pops one of those “have you stopped beating your wife” questions on camera. Ferrier has learned that you get more scoops by picking one side of a story and sticking with it. Stern, one of the best investigative reporters in the country, knows it too.
If your side turns out to be right (remember Deep Throat?), you win the big prize. If not, you look like a biased dupe (remember The Tennessean’s series on Oak Ridge?).
Ferrier may not be the city’s best or brightest journalist but, as far as Mann and Beddoe are concerned, he seems to have made the right choice.
What’s wrong with local television news?
An anonymous WTVF-Channel 5 insider has answered that question for at least one Nashville station with a scathing critique posted on “News Blues” (www.newsblues.com), one of the television news industry’s most popular gossip sites.
The posting reaffirms what many Channel 5 staffers have complained about for years: secretive management (the station’s owner, Landmark Communications Inc., is a privately held company and notoriously tight-lipped); highly charged internal politics; and an assignment desk editor who once reported for WSMV-Channel 4 but now can’t seem to figure out where the news is.
Here are some highlights:
Managers: “They are secretive, as most, hiding plans we all know are going to come to fruition. They have a strong tradition of lying to someone and then expecting that person to trust them down the road.”
Desk: “Clueless if it weren’t for a few newer people who get shafted with their shifts. The main assignment desk editor spends [the day] on the phone to relatives or dealing with day care. Major news could be breaking all over the city, and it could easily go unnoticed....”
Producers: “If you are a producer, you’ll love this place, as producers run the camp. They spend more time ordering lunch than planning a show....”
Reporters: “They have gone so far as to search out every possible racial group and have done a good job getting about every ethnic group in the reporting staff.”
Contracts: “No outs...unless of course you drop dead.”
On the positive side, the critic writes, the anchors are “ego-free” (except for Steve Irvin) and the photographers are the “true talent in this shop.”
The anonymous critic is mostly on target, according to station sources, but that’s not surprising. Television “journalism” has been on a downward spiral for 20 years. Just ask Willy.