A candidate for The Tennessean editor job played a starring role in an embarrassing journalism controversy five years ago when her business editor quit after she gave preferential treatment to the corporate subject of a hard-hitting story.
Numerous sources tell the Scene that Carolyn Washburn, executive editor of the Idaho Statesman and a lifelong Gannett employee, interviewed with Tennessean publisher Leslie Giallombardo last week. Giallombardo doesn't deny that, but says only that she hasn't finished vetting applicants for the post. Other sources familiar with Gannett say that because Washburn made the trip from Boise to Nashville, she's definitely a serious candidate.
But Washburn has some explaining to do about an embarrassing mishap that occurred under her watch. In 1999, Jim Bartimo, then the Statesman's business editor, left the Gannett paper in disgust after top editors insisted that a story he edited on Micron Technologies be reviewed by the corporation's executives. Submitting a story for factual review is not necessarily bad journalism, unless you're surrendering control. Bartimo later said that after Micron saw the story, it became a less aggressive piece.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz learned of the Boise imbroglio and wrote about it in a column headlined "Hometown Journalism." Then Bartimo's predecessor, Paul Beebe, told Kurtz that he was fired for changing the lead sentence on a story aboutwait for itMicron Technologies. Washburn replied to the Post that she fired Beebe for "irresponsible" behavior. Still, two business editors lost their jobs over two separate instances of preferential treatment for the same major corporation. In an unwitting glimpse into her boosterish mind-set, Washburn's said of her paper's coverage of Micron, "What we write can affect a lot of people in this community. It can affect the stock price."
Isn't this how Enron happened?
Jim Bartimo is still incredulous over the way he lost his job, which he had for all of a month. Contacted in Milwaukee, where he now lives, Bartimo says that he tried to discuss the decision to submit the story, but she was not amenable to it. "The culture over there was really top down," he says. "You don't question orders and you just do as you're told. The idea that a subordinate would objectthat became the issue."
Bartimo admits that he's not the most credible source. He's currently out of journalism and unemployed. But his plight is part of the problem with daily newspapers. The stars are the people who play it safe.
"This altered the course of my life, and I never recovered," says Bartimo, who, before arriving in Boise, worked for Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal. "Meanwhile, she's doing fine. I think that journalism today is being run by the Carolyn Washburns of the world and not the Jim Bartimos."
For 20 years now, Washburn, who didn't return phone calls for comment, has been steadily climbing the Gannett management ladder, making a series of pit stops at small, nondescript cities. According to her Gannett bio, she began her journalism career as a business reporter and business editor at the Lansing, Mich., State Journal in 1984. She then worked for the Times-Union in Rochester, N.Y, before becoming the assistant managing editor at Gannett's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. In 1993, her middle management career gained momentum when she became the managing editor of The Idaho Statesman, another Gannett product. She then returned to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle only to find her way back to Boise when she took over as editor of The Idaho Statesman.
While it's difficult to get excited about an editor who is an entrenched product of Gannett's newspaper culture, she has garnered some acclaim from other journalists. In 2003, a research group called Allen's Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources meticulously studied newspapers in the West. They later issued a report naming Washburn's Idaho Statesman one of the top nine papers in the region. In an interview with Poynter.org, project director Frank Edward Allen called Washburn "a remarkable executive editor." He also says that, given the enormous wealth and profitability of Gannett, the real question is why none of the chain's other papers even qualified as a contender for any awards.
While it's encouraging that Washburn edited what may be the one Gannett paper to receive outside praise, the way she handled her paper's coverage of a major local employer raises all sorts of red flags. Unless, of course, you're the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
We're not going to say a whole lot about media heavy Sinclair Broadcast Group's decision to run an anti-Kerry snuff film on all 62 of its television stations, including Nashville's FOX 17, UPN 30 and WB 58. The company has justifiably earned nationwide derision, and its stock is tanking worse than the Tennessee Titans offense. But we will say this: you can and should hold Sinclair's decision against every reporter and anchor on FOX-17's local newscast. They're working for a company that's standing every value of journalism on its head by airing a propaganda piece designed to tilt a close election. Sinclair's aggressive, unfair activism can't help but taint all of its affiliates.