When it comes to TV-news gotchas, public officials usually scramble the jets after the broadcast of an embarrassing report about their work ethic or how they run their office. Think back to two direct-hit WSMV-Channel 4 exposés by investigative reporter Jeremy Finley — one on Criminal Court Clerk David Torrence's three-day work weeks, the other on former Juvenile Court Clerk Vic Lineweaver, who was memorably caught on camera in 2008 at home in a bathrobe at the time he said he was tied up in a "meeting about this grant."
So give Davidson County Clerk John Arriola credit at least for a unique strategy. Faced with a pending investigative piece last Tuesday by WTVF-Channel 5's Phil Williams, Arriola didn't sit back and wait for Williams to throw him on the griddle, as Finley did with Torrence and Lineweaver. Instead, he took the uncommon step of launching his own pre-emptive media strike to ward off Williams' damage.
"The television station's promotion of the pending stories has veered off track in an attempt to attract viewers and increase ratings by elevating the policies and procedures to the level of illegality," Arriola wrote on the first page of a 14-page statement issued Tuesday morning by the county clerk's office. "It is ridiculous and insulting to make assertions that I have violated the law."
Nevertheless, Arriola found it an opportune time to announce "some changes and reforms in my office in advance of that reporter's story."
WTVF fired back Tuesday evening with its own volley. "In anticipation of a NewsChannel5 investigative series to begin tonight, Metro County Clerk John Arriola has made significant reforms within the Davidson County Clerk's office and, curiously, at the same time, questioned the validity of the forthcoming stories," wrote station manager Lyn Plantinga.
The county clerk stepped out in front of the anticipated WTVF story in an attempt to fend off its expected allegations. The most damaging of these Tuesday night was that Arriola's office charged couples $40 to perform wedding ceremonies — a sum that was treated on camera by staffers as if it were a fee, not the optional gratuity specified by law.
Worse, Williams alleged the cash-only "gratuity" went straight into Arriola's pocket, generating what the story estimated at more than $30,000 a year on top of his six-digit salary. On camera, Arriola met the reporter's questions with a deer-in-the-high-beams expression and stammered responses that showed he was right to dread the newscast.
In his statement, Arriola warned WTVF and Williams that he had retained a lawyer and was "prepared to take action," should the story include "unsubstantiated allegations against me or my office." The statement went on to point out — repeatedly — that "another local office holder" (one Judge Daniel Eisenstein) filed a libel lawsuit against WTVF-Channel 5 last week over claims made in past stories reported by Williams that the judge said were false and made in a retaliatory fashion. One of those stories ran last year under the title, "Is Another Nashville Judge Under Ethics Investigation?"
Reached for comment the morning after the broadcast, Arriola said the piece followed Williams' typical "bully, schoolyard approach." Earlier, in an interview conducted for The City Paper, the county clerk said Williams had a pattern "of setting these stories up, and it's just ridiculous and insulting that he's going down this same road again in calling it an illegal practice."
By "illegal practice," the county clerk may have been referring to an early online teaser for the story on WTVF's website. As seen in a cached screenshot taken on July 2, it asks the question, "But is the county clerk illegal [sic] profiting off of happy couples in love?" And yet by broadcast time Tuesday, after Arriola's public finger-wagging, the word "illegal" was missing from the sentence.
Plantinga told the Scene that the story teaser had been updated throughout the day to reflect events unfolding after Arriola's statement, but she couldn't confirm exactly how it was changed. She added, "If we ask questions about the propriety or legality of what public officials do, that's our job." For his part, Arriola called the change a "good first step," but with another story set to air Thursday night, the clerk said he and his attorney would continue to monitor the stories.
It's easy to see why Arriola would imagine he had better chances in the court of public opinion than actual libel court. Public officials like Eisenstein claiming libel against media outlets carry the very difficult burden of proving with clear and convincing evidence that a report was published with actual malice. That forces the subject to prove the defendant knowingly and negligently tarnished them with false statements.
The risk, though, in jumping the gun on a feared hit piece is that it may unintentionally promote the broadcast — and thus the preemptive strike lands on the subject's own foot. WTVF called Arriola's bluff and touted the pre-broadcast controversy, which only raised viewers' curiosity. That guaranteed a big audience for Arriola's fish-on-the-line appearances on camera, which did little to bolster his case.
But every cloud has a silver lining. WTVF reported that Arriola would not only make it clear to couples in the future that the gratuities are optional, but he would also donate any future gratuities to charity.
Tune in Thursday.
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The main damage to his credibility is that the Tennessean printed it.
Cite. Be specific now.