Within the past two weeks, The Tennessean and WSMV-Channel 4 have each produced a significant piece of journalism that other news organizations had reported, written or produced months earlierand infinitely better.
Last December, Brian Harville, a reporter for The Lebanon Democrat, produced a three-part series on the relatively new, complex and burgeoning practice of "decentralized sewer systems" in the Midstate area, accompanied by feature articles, explanatory graphics, photographs and charts. He covered all the bases with insights from residents, developers, planning officers, political figures and infrastructure experts, not to mention state officials, environmental officers and academics.
The Democrat's series grew out of solid beat reporting by Harville and others who had attended scores of planning commission meetings, city council, zoning appeals and county commission meetings. They put in hundreds of hours deciphering complicated regulations and reading codes and meeting minutes in the interest of exploring the byproducts of rampant real estate development and relentless growthmajor issues not only politically, environmentally and ecologically, but also in terms of economic development.
For their efforts, The Lebanon Democrat, with a daily circulation of about 9,000, was awarded a national prize from the American Planning Association Journalism Competition, a 45-year-old contest that also honored The Rocky Mountain News of Denver.
The Tennessean seems to have found an easier way to cover the story. It simply waited a few months and followed a well-worn path. The newspaper talked to precious few people with deep knowledge, steered way clear from the complex material, downloaded some graphics and produced about 10 percent of the information.
And The Tennessean article is replete with such reliable sources as "critics," "proponents" and "county planners." That's plural "planners," although the article mentions only one.
But the folks at 1100 Broadway were nonetheless mysteriously proud of their work. Even though beaten by half a year, the newspaper played the story on Page One of a Sunday paper, the biggest edition of the week.
Reporter Natalia Mielczarek acknowledged that she had read The Democrat's series, though she declined to say where she got the idea for the storyor even whether it was her own idea. As we are learning, at The Tennessean, story ideas, like sewage, seem to slide downhill.
It is widely known that Tennessean staffers have been warned against talking with reporters from the Nashville Scene. Mielczarek says her editor told her that all comments should come from editor E.J. Mitchell. Just so we all understand the rules in Nashville: it is fine for Tennessean reporters to interview anyone they want, but they are not permitted, or trusted, to be interviewed by others.
Mitchell did not return a telephone call. But Democrat managing editor Clint Brewer sees a pattern.
"We've gotten kind of used to The Tennessean coming to Wilson County and doing stories we've already done," he says.
Here they go again
Desperately recently admonished WSMV-Channel 4 for seemingly devoting more energy to following WTVF-Channel 5's Phil Williams around and trying to get documents he had already obtained through his own initiative than doing its own enterprise reporting.
Now there's another example of lazy reporting at Channel 4. Reporter Dennis Ferrier recently aired an interesting bit about Jim Wilbert, a local private pilot who says he was held hostage and brutally mistreated in Gambia by an African millionaire some nine years ago.
The main problem with Ferrier's work is that the Scene published the entire bizarreand extensivestory more than three months ago as a cover article, written by Steven Womack. Ferrier even borrowed some of the same language, describing Wilbert as a "throttle jockey," as the Scene article had labeled him in its fourth paragraph.
Ferrier included interviews with Womack and Wilbert and patched together photos of the African intimidator, Babani Sissoko, as well as of Paul McCartney and Bill Cosby, whom Wilbert had flown in the past, as also mentioned in the Scene article. But there was no mention of the original Scene story, and Ferrier failed to advance the narrative in any way.
Ferrier and Channel 4, E.J. Mitchell and The Tennessean must have decided that if they hadn't put something on air or in the paper, then it hadn't ever happened. What would be wrong with being more transparent about where stories originated and attributing the ideas to those who'd done all the hard work?
Even if Steven Womack, an author, approached Ferrier and Channel 4 about putting him and the story about Wilbert on air to help the writer find a book publisher, the station should have been intellectually honest enough to credit those who were there first.
So too The Tennessean.
No pigtails Pink, just pig.
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