Only one reporter directly raised the question: “Are you openly gay?” asked Jeff Woods, editor of Tennessee Politics.
“I’m not running as an openly gay candidate,” answered Kathy Austin, a candidate for the state Legislature. “It’s not an issue in the campaign. I’ve not made it an issue and I don’t know why it should be an issue.”
Woods persisted. “So, should I write that you won’t say whether you’re openly gay?”
Austin repeated, “You should write that it’s not an issue.”
Woods’ story, which included Austin’s answers, but not the questions, also reported that “lesbian activist Abby Rubenfeld” had sent letters to “Nashville’s gay community” urging lesbians and gays to back Austin in the race for the 52nd District. A respected Nashville lawyer, Austin lost by about 300 votes.
Austin said later she “wasn’t surprised” that the issue was raised but complained that “only journalists” assumed that Rubenfeld’s endorsement, which described Austin as “our friend” and a “long time supporter of our community’s interests,” implied that Austin herself might also be homosexual.
Other reporters were more circumspect. The Scene’s Liz Murray Garrigan wrote that Austin’s campaign “specifically targeted East Nashville’s vocal and politically active lesbian and gay community” but added that Austin’s opponent, Rob Briley, also had lesbian and gay supporters. Garrigan said she didn’t think it was relevant to ask whether Austin herself is a lesbian.
The Tennessean simply ignored the question and, for the most part, the entire race, never writing more than a few sentences on the city’s closest and most interesting campaign.
Victoria Sturgeon, Austin’s campaign manager, said her candidate didn’t campaign on the sexual-orientation issue, but she doesn’t blame journalists for raising it.
“Whether it’s fair or not, [that question] is going to be asked,” said Sturgeon, a former reporter who teaches media classes at Tennessee State University. “It’s an issue that’s been raised and needed to be addressed by the campaign.”
That’s what good reporters sometimes have to do ask difficult, embarrassing questions, publish the answers, and let the reader sort it out.
“Tell the truth and run,” media critic George Seldes advised fellow reporters. It sounds easy, even fun. It’s not.
Dancin' the two-step
When Dancin’ in the District initially decided to close and then reopen its gates to kids under 21, The Tennessean stuck to the story like white on rice: nine articles, a column, and an editorial all in three days.
But the overblown coverage never mentioned the antics of the paper’s own gossip columnist, Brad Schmitt, who took the stage at Dancin’ that night, called Metro Council member Ron Nollner a “no good bastard,” and led the crowd in a chant, “Vote him out, vote him out.”
Nollner, whom some blamed for starting the controversy at Dancin’, was still angry last week as he described the handwritten apology he’d just received from Schmitt. “I was sorry you were offended by my onstage remarks,” Schmitt wrote. “It was a joke but it was out of line and my language was inappropriate.”
Nollner said he still can’t understand why Schmitt would curse and humiliate him in front of several thousand local voters or why he’s heard nothing from any of Schmitt’s editors.
Schmitt told the Scene Monday that he was “out of line” that night and doesn’t blame Nollner for being upset. The columnist said he considered offering Nollner an apology in his column, “Brad About You,” but “after talking with editors” decided that a published statement “could compound my original mistake and confuse readers who weren’t there.”
Schmitt and his editors just don’t get it. When the columnist took the microphone at Dancin,’ he was there, not as a working journalist, but as a representative of The Tennessean, a corporate sponsor of the event.
Nollner deserved an explanation, not in “Brad About You,” but in a box on the front page, right above the signature of Tennessean publisher Craig Moon. There aren’t many times when a staffer’s stupidity warrants a publisher’s apology. This was one of them.
Bob Atkins, publisher of the Gallatin News-Examiner, has resigned, effective this Friday, just three weeks after the paper and its owner, the Gannett newspaper chain, paid nearly $1 million to settle a libel suit.
Although several sources confirmed Monday that Atkins had resigned, a News-Examiner spokesperson said Atkins himself “is the only person who can confirm this.” There was no mention of Atkins’ leaving in Monday’s issue, and Atkins himself declined comment.
Atkins is retiring as president of Middle Tennessee Publishing Company, which publishes the News-Examiner, the Clarksville Leaf -Chronicle, and six smaller community papers. All are part of the Gannett chain, which also owns The Tennessean.
Things haven’t been going well at the News-Examiner. Last year, a press release by the editor’s wife appeared in the paper under the byline of a staffer who had never seen the story. The editor also stuck his name on a story copied from the Memphis Commercial Appeal without the knowledge or permission of any editor in Memphis. But none of these mistakes was as costly as the recent libel judgment resulting from the unintentional publication of an obscene joke about a local high school student.
The student’s family and attorneys criticized Atkins for not personally apologizing to the student when the incident occurred and implied that the paper could have settled the matter for a much smaller amount if Atkins had handled the matter differently.
Sumner County Judge Tom Goodall, who presided over the News-Examiner’s trial in April, was handily re-elected last week to another eight-year term. The Gallatin newspaper pointedly declined to endorse anyone in the race.
To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (244-7989, ext. 445), or send an e-mail to email@example.com.