Last year, WKRN-Channel 2 news director Matthew Zelkind took a solitary stroll around Percy Priest Lake and spotted an old whiskey bottle. On a hunch, he picked it up and rubbed it. A genie ascended out of the bottle and granted Zelkind three wishes.
The typically excitable news director took time to reflect. He paced nervously along the shore, gazed out across the water’s edge, and at long last arrived upon a trio of lusty desires. First, he asked the genie to have Channel 4-WSMV suffer a leadership crisis so severe that its every journalistic and managerial decision would backfire badly. Second, he wanted WTVF-Channel 5 to pursue the kinds of sensational stories that would attract embarrassing headlines, provoke protracted lawsuits, and inspire almost universal condemnation. Third, he asked the genie for steady ratings gains for his own station with a simple formula of straight-up news and lots and lots of weather updates.
Apparently, Zelkind’s genie made good on all three wishes. February sweeps have concluded, and of the city’s top three stations, only Channel 2 gained viewers. The station saw its ratings jump on all four of its main newscasts, including 28 percent for its morning program and 23 percent for its 6 p.m. newscast.
In utter contrast, the long rudderless Channel 4, which lately has made the Titanic look seaworthy, might as well have explicitly instructed its viewers to turn elsewhere. Ratings for its 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts dropped almost 20 percent each. And the station doesn’t exactly have a knack for making things better. Last fall, it introduced a newand allegedly improved morning news program, but the station actually lost viewers in the conversion.
Channel 4 and Channel 5 still won two time slots each, while Channel 2 won none. But in a time when cable television and the Internet are siphoning viewers, Channel 2, the longtime ratings chump, is somehow reeling them in. The station is doing that with a simple plan to excel at breaking news, eschew sleazy fodder like Channel 5’s lawsuit-inspiring “Spring Break Tapes,” and go nuts on weather coverage. In contrast, Channel 4’s news van is last on nearly every crime scene, while both 4 and 5 still air silly sweeps stories such as “Hosed at the Pump” and “Shoot or Don’t Shoot.”
For sure, Channel 2 doesn’t have the roster of investigative reporters that 4 and 5 have. And it still focuses a disproportionate amount of its news time on sportsthe seemingly endless and maudlin coverage of Dale Earnhardt’s death is a case in point. But on most days, Channel 2 produces the best newscast in town. And, in fact, that actually doesn’t take a geniejust a modest amount of common sense.
Last Monday, it appeared that The Tennessean finally had an aggressive city hall storyand on its front page, no less. In a story headlined, “Mayor OKs union work on city time,” reporter Anne Paine chronicled the mayor’s endorsement of Metro union officials working full-time for the union while on the Metro clock. The only problem was that her “scoop” was considerably aged.
It was actually during last summer’s budget hearings when Mayor Bill Purcell decided to resurrect funding of the controversial union perk. And other media outlets managed to report those details much earlier.
“That wasn’t news at all,” Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips says of The Tennessean story. The Scene wrote the story about eight months ago. Channel 5’s Larry Brinton aired it even before that. “I guess it’s not news until The Tennessean says it is,” Phillips says.
When a newspaper is scooped, it can pursue one of two strategies: quickly follow up on the story and do it better, or ignore it completely and then report it months later as though it were fresh. Too often, the morning daily chooses the latter. A few days before the union story, the paper dissected a long-running dispute between city officials and Opryland that had been reported elsewhere, including the Scene, months earlier.
Last Friday, The Nashville City Paper’s Craig Boerner reported that the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter is asking members to boycott Robert Redford’s new movie, set to begin filming at the old Tennessee state prison March 19. The chapter finds the actor’s support of Leonard Peltier, a Native American convicted of killing two FBI agents, unacceptable. As of Tuesday, The Tennessean had no mention of the possible boycott.
Here are some pointers to a few erring journalists we’ll allow to go unnamed: Johnnot JoeStern serves as president of the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance. And Tomnot TimWhite labors as the controversial real-estate attorney for Show Me Farms. West End Avenue, as its name would imply, runs from east to west. Therefore proposed buildings on opposite sides of the street must beyou guessed itto the north and south. Finally, we’ll agree that it’s technically accurate, if woefully cumbersome, to write: “Back in the 1980s, at least in the late 1980s, George Herbert Walker Bush was president.” However, it’s more specific to write: “From 1989 to 1993, George Herbert Walker Bush was president.” We’re guessing this particular columnist was too indolent too look up dates he should already know.