Writer’s note: His daily handiwork a regular target of this column,Tennessean managing editor Dave Green took exception a few weeks ago when, in his estimation, I failed to adequately criticize Scene owners Bruce Dobie and Albie Del Favero for selling part of their newspaper in order to fold into a larger media conglomerate. Green became irritated again when Dobie made a critical remark about Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland in a story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about Al Gore’s pot use. In fact, Green seemed so peeved that we invited him to write about it; his piece follows:
Regular readers of this column know that it is frequently devoted to firing off potshots at my newspaper, The Tennessean, while only occasionally darting a quick, and usually loving, glance in the mirror at itself. So let me first offer the Scene my thanks for graciously allowing me to turn the tables on its editor, Bruce Dobie.
First, a bit of disclosure: I am the managing editor of The Tennessean and I run the day-to-day operations of all the news departments, except the editorial pages. My boss is Frank Sutherland, the chief editor. More disclosure: I have never owned an alternative newspaper and never smoked pot with Frank Sutherland, Al Gore, or Bruce Dobie.
My topic today is how well journalists do when they are the subjects of news coverage and are being asked pointed questions. Both Frank and Bruce were in that spot recently. Frank’s response is best summed up with that classic journalistic term: ”No comment.“ Bruce’s smoke-and-mirror answers, on the other hand, would do any public-relations professional proud.
Frank drew some attentionincluding criticism from the Scene’s regular media critic and from Brucewhen he refused to say what he knew, if anything, about Al Gore’s pot-smoking years ago. Sutherland and Gore worked together as reporters at The Tennessean in the 1970s and remain friends today. Frank’s argument for not commenting is that his private life is just thatprivate.
Bruce’s ideas, at first glance at least, seem to differ. Interviewed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he said: ”Frank Sutherland has to decide whether he’s a friend of the vice president or a professional journalist honest with his craft.“ In other words, Bruce’s philosophy seems to be that journalists have a special obligation to tell what they know about public issues.
And now, before I tell you why I think that is hypocritical, let me give you one other bit of disclosure. Over the years, I have been, oh perhaps, just a tiny bit irritated by the Scene’s marketing strategy. That strategy, both in news coverage and advertising sales, has been to position the Scene as the locally owned little guy fighting the big, evil, corporately owned, robotically controlled Tennessean. Now personally, I don’t think that corporate ownership necessarily makes for better or worse journalism than local ownership. There are good and bad examples of each across the country. But Bruce was certainly entitled to his opinion.
Imagine my surprise then when I heard that the Sceneco-owned by Bruce and the newspaper’s publisher, Albie Del Faverohad sold ”an equity stake“ of an undisclosed amount to a huge Dutch bank. Bruce and Albie in turn got a much smaller ”equity stake“ in the big corporation and agreed to stay on as managers of the Scene. They also apparently were to help run the company’s other newspaper properties. Was Bruce still the fearless little guy I had grown to love or had he been replaced in the dead of night by a Bruce clonea Mini-Me serving a Dutch Dr. Evil?
Well, dear readers, neither you nor I know the answer to that question because Bruce refused to tell reporters for either The Tennessean or his own paper whether the sale of the ”equity stake“ meant that controlling interest in the Scene had passed to a bunch of money managers in Holland.
I can only assume from Bruce’s evasion that the answer is yes. My speculationand it is just thatis that Bruce wants the Dutch money, but can’t quite bring himself to tell the truth to readers lest the Scene lose its ”little guy“ marketing position.
OK, you’re rightownership questions about the Scene hardly are on the same level as questions about a presidential candidate. But since Bruce has made out-of-town ownership of The Tennessean a nonstop theme of the Scene for years, doesn’t it seem just a little bit newsworthy if the Scene is no longer locally owned?
On second thought, nah. Why let the facts get in the way of a good marketing story?
1. Actually the nonstop theme of our coverage of The Tennessean has been its poor quality, not the fact that the newspaper is owned by a chain.
2. The Atlanta Journal Constitution also quoted me as saying that The Tennessean did a ”great job“ in its piece on Al Gore.
3. Dave Green could probably stand a bit of advice from John Jay Hooker, who once told me: ”Never pick a fight with someone smaller than you.“
4. I bet about five people care about this little pissing contest we are having.
You can reach Matt Pulle at firstname.lastname@example.org