It’s hardly the way to discredit a damning story. In the wake of a recent WTVF-Channel 5 investigation that claimed Gov. Don Sundquist’s administration doles out lucrative contracts to his buddies, the governor’s office has pulled $160,000 in public service announcements from the station.
“They were trying to portray the governor as a buffoon, and I was personally insulted by that,” says Art Victorine, the director of the governor’s highway safety office who made the decision to pull the administration’s ads.
Channel 5 had been airing a “Rules of the Road” public service campaign that is being bankrolled by the federal governmentto the tune of $120,000and administered by the state. Victorine also pulled another $40,000 in highway safety PSAs, featuring the governor and his wife Martha. All the ads will run on television stations across the statewith the notable exception of Channel 5.
Ironically, Channel 5 is a prime spot to air public service announcements on highway safety or any other matter of public importance because the station boasts the area’s top-rated newscast, having won every time slot for two consecutive sweeps periods. But the station’s ratings coup apparently hasn’t impressed the Sundquist administration.
“I thought it was irresponsible to put the governor with a client who was trying to ruin his reputation,” Victorine says of Channel 5. “It made my highway safety message less credible.”
Last month, Channel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams examined how some of the governor’s closest friends obtained lucrative contracts to do business with the state. The report cast a damning spotlight on Monteagle insurance agent John Stamps, a friend of the governor’s who hosts an annual golf tournament in honor of Martha Sundquist.
According to the series, Stamps’ company, Workforce Strategists, received a $2 million contract to provide psychological counseling and job training to the unemployed. In June 1999, Sundquist’s labor commissioner, Michael Magill, issued a memo saying that as commissioner he should not be required to seek competitive bids given that Stamps’ company “was the only company in Tennessee that has experience” for the job.
As Williams reported, that was only six days after Workforce Strategists was incorporated. In addition, Williams reported that several current and former members of Sundquist’s administration enjoy close ties to Stamps’ company.
State Rep. Frank Buck, who has criticized the administration’s fiscal stewardship, was not pleased with the way Stamps’ company apparently benefited from its connections to the governor. “In the country, in common parlance, it stinks,” he told Channel 5.
Williams’ report also found Sundquist enjoying a game of golf at the recent BellSouth Senior Pro-Am. The governor, along with Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Bruce Saltsman, were guests of Barge Waggoner, an engineering firm that is also a multi-million dollar state contractor. According to Channel 5’s report, it costs about $5,000 to play in the Pro-Am. Barge Waggoner officials told the station that they paid for Saltsman’s tab, while tournament organizers waved Sundquist’s entry fee.
Victorine cites no factual inaccuracy in William’s series. But he does dismiss the exposé by saying that Sundquist did nothing illegal. “It was not factually wrong,” he says. “The governor did play in a golf tournament. Why can’t he and why shouldn’t he? Every other governor does.”
Deborah Turner, general manager of Channel 5, says, “I hate losing the money, but it was a legitimate news story. That’s what makes news organization greatwhen sales doesn’t influence news.”
Sundquist press secretary Kriste Goad says that the administration felt that Williams’ reporting was “one-sided” and did not give a full and accurate picture of the administration’s dealings. She dismisses speculation that it was actually the governor, and not Victorine, who ordered that the ads be pulled from Channel 5. “Was the governor aware that Art was considering that decision? Yes, he was, but the governor left it fully up to Art.”
Victorine confirms that he wasn’t carrying out the governor’s dirty work. “I didn’t have to consult with anybody,” he says, acknowledging that he ran his decision by Saltsman. “It’s one of the nice features of doing this job.”
The governor’s office refutes criticism that pulling the ads sets a dangerous precedent. Regardless of whether Williams’ reporting was evenhanded, it’s hard not to look like a bully when withholding federal tax dollars to punish an offending station.
“We don’t have a set policy on this,” Goad says about whether they might pull PSAs from other stations that air negative reporting about the governor. “But we definitely feel that the reports on Channel 5 have been unfair and plagued with inaccuracies and sensationalism.”
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