Laurels to all the media for their coverage of Nashville’s worst tornado since 1933. Particular kudos to WSM-AM, Nashville’s oldest radio station, whose loud, clear signal, continuous coverage, and on-air reports from listeners throughout the area provided more useful information during and immediately after the storm than any other radio or television station could manage.
The Tennessean did what it does best: saturation coverage on a scale the old Banner could never have matched. The high points were Rick Musacchio’s and Larry McCormack’s photos that eloquently captured fear and destruction. The lows were the paper’s helter-skelter reports from some neighborhoods but not others. Friday, the paper’s stories focused on West Nashville and downtown. Even a little map of the tornado’s path stopped at the Cumberland River. It took another day for the paper to discover severe damage in East Nashville and another day for it to find Hermitage.
WTVF-Channel 5 had the most dramatic television broadcasts, largely because the studio itself lay in the storm’s path. Anchor Chris Clark deserves a special prize for his handwritten sign telling viewers to stand byand that sound would return shortly. Most TV anchors would have just sat there.
Donkey serenade (second verse)
Tennessean publisher Craig Moon disagrees with some remarks in last week’s “Desperately Seeking the News” about a million-dollar libel award against the Gallatin News-Examiner and its owner, the Gannett newspaper chain. (See “Letters to the Editor” in this issue of the Scene.) The judgment, which includes both compensatory and punitive damages, arises from remarks printed in the Gallatin paper suggesting that a local high-school student had sex with a donkey. The story was written as an in-house joke by a News-Examiner reporter but accidentally made it into the published paper.
The Sumner County jury held both Gannett and the News-Examiner responsible for the libel damages. If upheld on appeal, the decision threatens not just one Gannett newspaper but Gannett’s newspaper division as a whole.
“This is a historic decision and, from Gannett’s standpoint, should be a very troubling precedent,” said Clint Kelly, one of the lawyers on the winning side in the News-Examiner case. “As much as Gannett tried to distance itself from the News-Examiner, they were stuck to it like B’rer Rabbit to the Tar Baby.”
According to Kelly, this is the first time Gannett itself has been held legally responsible for the libelous actions of one of its newspapers. Meanwhile, legal experts familiar with the case cautioned that the verdict against Gannett is highly unusual and may be overturned on appeal.
Gannett is known throughout the industry for micro-managing its newspapers with programs like “News 2000,” a one-size-fits-all plan for producing local versions of USA Today, and the “All-American” contest, in which papers are judged by how many minorities they hire and how often minorities appear in photographs and news stories. (Crime and sports stories don’t count.)
But too much control can be dangerous. If Gannett dominates the newsroom, the parent company may be legally responsible for libel and other editorial mistakes.
In the Gallatin case, there was substantial evidence of Gannett’s close watch over the business side of the News-Examiner, but a lawyer familiar with the case said the plaintiffs’ attorneys did not focus on whether Gannett also controls editorial decisions. That will likely be a key issue on appeal.
Kelly is confident that, if the Gallatin paper were locally owned, “the verdict would have been smaller.” Other courtroom observers agreed that the jury’s decision was probably influenced by the plaintiffs’ constant hammering at Gannett’s corporate wealth and its apparent indifference to the plaintiff’s reputation.
“What I really want people to know,” Kelly added, “is that the defendants never offered to pay my client one dime to settle this case. They forced us to go to trial.”
After the verdict, Kelly said, he asked Tennessean reporter Corwin Thomas to mention that the paper had never made a settlement offer. Thomas did, but his story, which also described the punitive damage award, never appeared in the paper’s Nashville edition.
As Moon correctly notes in his letter to the Scene, Thomas’ story ran only in papers distributed outside Davidson County.
Kelly also pointed out that Gannett’s lawyers tried everything to avoid revealing internal documents showing the close relationship between the News-Examiner and its corporate parent. After the court ordered Gannett to produce the evidence, the chain’s lawyers insisted that the documents be released only under a protective agreement that prohibits the public from reading them. The documents now rest in a sealed file in the Sumner County Courthouse. Perhaps Moon, whose newspaper often lectures bureaucrats about the virtue of open records, will tell us what we’re missing.
Imitated, but not flattered
Sports Nashville, the city’s newest, give-away tabloid, has plenty of original, if conventional, sports news, focusing heavily on area high schools. But Sports Nashville isn’t so original on its business side. Language in the paper’s advertising “rate card” appears to have been copied, sometimes verbatim, from the Scene’s rate card.
Worse, Sports Nashville’s list of distribution points was apparently photocopied straight from the pages of In Review, another free paper. “If you would like to add your business to this list,” the Sports Nashville promotion says, “Call 255-9792.” It’s the telephone number of In Review.
Although Sports Nashville has published three issues including the wrong number, In Review publisher Boyer Barner said his offices have only received one call.
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