An aggressive WTVF-Channel 5 reporter apparently was caught trying to sneak into Vanderbilt Hospital Friday afternoon to interview grieving relatives of two drowning victims.
According to university sources, reporter Barry Simmons was stopped in a secured area on his way to find the family and friends of Melissa Ashby, who had died at the hospital a few hours earlier. Her husband Jeffrey died at the scene, and the couple’s 7-year-old son, Treet, who was also treated at Vanderbilt, lingered until Sunday.
But Channel 5 had already been told the family didn’t want to talk to the media. That morning, another Channel 5 staffer had called Vanderbilt officials requesting an interview. The hospital media office related the request to the family. “We told Channel 5 the family was adamant,” a university source says. “They wanted absolutely no interviews.”
That didn’t stop Simmons, who managed to get past a security door into the emergency area where hospital guards stopped him. According to the guards, Simmons identified himself and said he was visiting the hospital to interview a family but couldn’t recall the family’s name. Asked if the hospital’s media office was aware of his visit, Simmons assured the guards that he had permission for the interview. When a guard told Simmons that the reporter would have to wait for an escort from the media office, Simmons answered that he “didn’t have time for that” and left the building.
“We have had a hospital policy in place for many years regarding media access to Vanderbilt University Medical Center to safeguard patient confidentiality and to protect patients and their families from unexpected and unwanted intrusions,” says John Howser, the medical center’s assistant director of news and public affairs. “We insist all news media respect this policy so patients can feel they are being cared for in a safe and secure environment.”
Channel 5 “acted by the rules,” station news director Mike Cutler says, adding that the station “has had a good relationship” with the university and the medical center. “I don’t believe this minor incident will change that.”
Simmons strongly disputes the hospital’s story. “That’s not how it happened,” he says of the guards’ account, declining further comment.
A spokesman in the hospital media office says this is “the third time this had happened in the last few months” and that each time the reporter was from Channel 5.
Deal With the Devil
The state’s major newspapers were feuding among themselves last week over whether to cooperate with legislative leaders in a semi-secret “pooling” arrangement.
Gov. Don Sundquist met for two days with a handful of legislators and budget experts to discuss the state’s finances. Although the politicians refused to open the meeting to the media, they agreed to allow two reporters, one from a newspaper and one from a television station, to sit in the meetings, take notes and share them with other reporters. There was one condition: Elected officials couldn’t be quoted by name unless they repeated the comment outside the meeting.
The Tennessean, the Scene and papers in Knoxville and Chattanooga agreed to the terms because, as one editor put it, “It’s better to get something than nothing.” The Associated Press, Nashville’s City Paper and the Memphis Commercial Appeal refused to participate and covered the meeting based solely on after-the-fact interviews.
In an editorial last Wednesday, The City Paper called the pooling arrangement “hooey” and accused the participating newspapers of aiding and abetting a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s open meetings law. A Commercial Appeal editor says the compromise “could easily be seen as an unholy alliance between reporters and politicians.”
In the end, it didn’t seem to matter. After the meeting, many of the participants talked openly about what had happened. There were no significant differences between the stories written by those in the pool and those who weren’t.
“Any reporter who’s worth a damn is going to find out what happens in those meetings whether or not they’re open to the press,” says one veteran, adding “having the pool notes just made it less work.”
Legally, the governor and legislators could have kept the media out altogether but would have been blasted in editorials and on talk radio for conducting the people’s business in secret. The pooling arrangement gives them political cover and the opportunity to bargain for favors with the press corps.
Journalists should always be leery of negotiating with the government. Perhaps it’s the only way to get a story in Kandaharbut not on Capitol Hill.
peaking of war correspondents, laurels to Channel 5 reporter Dana Kaye for last Friday’s story on conditions in Kandahar. She was apparently the first among the Nashville reporters in Afghanistan to get into the city for an eyewitness account of conditions there. The station liked her report so much they rebroadcast it again on Saturday. One piece of advice to Dana: Lose the hat.