State officials are asking whether The Tennessean has violated the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act by knowingly selling papers without the “Living” section, the Scene has learned.
State Consumer Affairs director Mark Williams said Monday that he could not discuss what his office is looking into. But he acknowledged that his office has asked The Tennessean to respond in writing to a consumer’s complaint about the missing sections.
If the newspaper fails to respond, or if Williams, acting in cooperation with the state Attorney General, determines that the paper’s response is inadequate, state investigators may then issue a “civil investigative demand.” That would require the paper to explain, under oath, whether newspaper employees have knowingly distributed incomplete papers, and how many customers were affected.
“It would be premature,” Williams said, to speculate what type of sanctions, if any, would be imposed if his office finds that The Tennessean violated the act. The maximum punishment, he said, is a fine of $1,000 for each violation. Individual consumers may also file suit under the act and recover treble damages and attorneys’ fees.
Both the consumer’s complaint, and the newspaper’s explanation, will be matters of public record, Williams said.
Two weeks ago, “Desperately Seeking the News” reported allegations that The Tennessean had stocked downtown racks with incomplete papers on numerous occasions. According to Second Avenue merchant Warren Feld, who says he repeatedly complained to the newspaper about the missing sections, a “third- or fourth-level supervisor” finally told him that the paper sometimes runs short of the pre-printed “Living” sections, but distributes the papers anyway. The “Living” section includes television and movie listings, comics, advice columns, and feature stories.
“They told me when I called that there were 4,000 papers distributed that day without a ‘Living’ section,” Feld said. “To me, that’s fraudulent.”
Feld said he was told that the area around Second Avenue North is one of the newspaper’s last drop-off points, and that if there aren’t enough “Living” sections to go around that day, some downtown racks are filled with incomplete papers.
Williams told the Scene that if “a company deceives the public by knowingly selling an incomplete product,” then that would be “a violation of the [Tennessee Consumer Protection] Act.”
Tennessean publisher Craig Moon, who usually responds quickly to written questions from the Scene’s media critic, did not respond to Feld’s original charges. Today, however, after being faxed a draft of this week’s story, Moon faxed the Scene a statement.
It read: “In response to the draft of this week’s Desperately Seeking the News column, if Mr. Feld did not get prompt attention to his complaint, it is unfortunate as we try to satisfy all our customers. To our knowledge, The Tennessean has not received a written inquiry from Mark Williams, director of Consumer Affairs, but if Mr. Williams has questions, we will gladly answer them.”
After reading about Feld’s allegations, several Tennessean readers told the Scene’s media critic that they, too, had often missed the “Living” sections. All were asked by this media critic to consider filing a complaint with Williams’ office. This media critic also asked Williams’ office to look into whether The Tennessean was intentionally distributing incomplete papers. In addition, Williams’ office received a written complaint from a dissatisfied customer.
The Tennessee Consumer Protection Act prohibits “engaging in any...act or practice which is deceptive to the consumer,” including “advertising goods or services with intent not to supply reasonably expectable public demand,” and “representing that goods or services are of a particular standard, quality, or grade...if they are of another.” The act authorizes both criminal and civil penalties.
Should Feld’s charges prove true, Williams’ investigation could be highly embarrassing to The Tennessean, which recently began a massive advertising campaign to boost circulation. One television commercial shows a spotted puppy carefully pulling out individual sections of the “bigger, better” Tennessean. Don’t expect to see that ad again if Williams finds that the paper has, on some days, knowingly left a section out.
Some people brush off Feld’s charges. “I’d consider it a bonus,” joked one Tennessean staffer, “if the ‘Living’ section were missing from my paper.”
Tennessean staffer Nicole Garton describes where to find the state Capitol“a great piece of eye candy you can’t miss in its location atop a grassy knoll.”
And fellow staffer Bonna M. de la Cruz, recently assigned to cover state politics, writes that the Fourth Congressional District stretches “from Upper East Tennessee to the Mississippi River.” We assume she meant Mississippi, the state.
To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (244-7989, ext. 445), call him at his office, 252-2363, or send an e-mail to email@example.com.