Image-Conscious 

Why did Channel 5 demote a new reporter?

Why did Channel 5 demote a new reporter?

WTVF-Channel 5, the station that gave the world the dubious vocal talents of Phil Williams and Larry Brinton, has taken a reporter off the air because his “presentation and delivery” were not up to the station’s standards.

Morning reporter Tom Castaneda was demoted recently, after station officials told him that he “looked slight on air,” and that “he needed to look bulkier.” They also told him that “his voice tends to be too high.” Local media observers suggest those criticisms are just roundabout ways of saying he appeared gay.

Station officials pointed to viewer e-mails characterizing Castaneda’s presentation as “too robotic, too serious, and not warm and fuzzy in the morning.”

While station officials otherwise praised his work and apparently pledged to work with the young reporter on appearing more personable, Castaneda ultimately was unable to placate his bosses with his on-air delivery.

On Jan. 11, they yanked Castaneda—a native Texan who received other job offers before setting his sights on Nashville—off the air and gave him a less prestigious job as a news writer. Castaneda, who continues to work at Channel 5, declined comment. General manager Debbie Turner and news director Mike Cutler did not return repeated calls.

Having taken a year off from TV reporting before joining Channel 5, Castaneda admittedly may have been a little rusty in a medium where polish is essential. However, it seems that the station could have given him more of a chance.

Castaneda, who is Hispanic, is fluent in Spanish and would have been an invaluable resource toward breaking some of the more important stories in the city’s emerging Hispanic community. The fact that Channel 5 gave him less than a month to develop his on-air delivery seems to encapsulate everything that’s wrong with TV news: It’s always about image, and only sometimes about journalism.

More on Channel 5

They don’t know what he’s investigating and, for the moment, they don’t even seem to care. But Williamson County school officials say that WTVF-Channel 5’s Phil Williams is “harassing” and “distracting” their bus drivers for an upcoming sweeps story, and they want it to stop.

“This is a safety issue,” says Tom Taylor, transportation director for Williamson County schools. “In my mind, if you’re questioning a driver’s qualifications, you ought to be going to the Tennessee Department of Safety. Don’t be out there trying to distract a bus driver.”

It all began about two weeks ago when Williams and a photographer arrived in a Channel 5 vehicle at the parking lot of Woodland Middle School to interview a bus driver who reportedly has a criminal background. Taylor, however, says that Williams approached the wrong driver. According to Taylor, who talked to the driver repeatedly about the incident, Williams shoved his microphone inside the open passenger door of the otherwise empty bus and asked the driver, “How does it feel to have been locked up?” The driver then closed the door on Williams’ arm.

Realizing his mistake, Williams then began searching among the 10 or so bus drivers convening in the parking lot to find his man, but the driver he was searching for wasn’t scheduled to arrive that day. When the rest of the drivers left the school property, Taylor says Williams followed them. Taylor also says one bus driver radioed him to say that the Channel 5 vehicle ran a stop sign trying to catch up to the buses.

Taylor later reproached Williams about the encounter. “I told him I didn’t appreciate him harassing and bothering my bus drivers. He denied it, but I believe my drivers.”

Williams was hesitant to detail his version of the events, saying that doing so would disclose the nature of his upcoming story. But in an e-mail to the Scene, he cast doubt on Taylor’s accusations.

“Most of what you’ve been told is an outright fabrication—and we have the videotape to prove it,” Williams wrote. “We took the tape to Mr. Taylor’s office, but he wasn’t interested in the truth. As for the outlandish story about the News Channel 5 vehicle running a stop sign, there is one major problem: There is no stop sign in that area.”

It’s worth pointing out that any subject of an investigative report, be it a school official or an industry tycoon, may not be the most objective source on whether that investigation is flawed or inappropriate. And given Williams’ penchant for news, he probably will expose a few area bus drivers who have no business shepherding children.

Still, school officials have every right to be suspect of the media when they habitually choose embarrassing exposés over more meaningful coverage.

Getting heavier

The Nashville City Paper plans to expand from 32 to 40 pages within a week or so. That can’t be good news for the other daily. Even at its smaller size, the scrappy City Paper has out-hustled its slothful 1100 Broadway competitors on a number of stories, particularly on the East Nashville beat.

E-mail Matt at mpulle@nashvillescene.com. Or call him at 244-7989, ext. 445.

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