Scene investigative reporter Willy Stern has spent nearly a year doggedly examining The Tennessean’s history, editorial content, corporate culture, and finances. In a few weeks, the Scene will publish his findings.
Meanwhile, national journalist Alexander Cockburn presumably spent no more than about 20 minutes casually flipping through The Tennessean while passing through Nashville on a recent road trip to Oklahoma. In an account of that trip published in the New York Press, Cockburn makes a passing reference to The Tennessean, describing it as a “pretty awful paper.”
During a journalism career spanning four decades, Cockburn has written for The Nation, The Village Voice, and The Wall Street Journal. He understands media. He is also, perhaps, a quicker study than Stern.
In fairness, The Tennessean has allowed for some impressive reporting recently. Kirk Loggins and John Shiffman’s daily accounts of the ever-changing developments in the Philip Workman case told the story clearly. They also included the kinds of interesting details most daily reporters ignore. Diane Long’s series on Metro public schools tore a hole through some long-held stereotypes. Her account of the way local schools in impoverished areas are producing strong reading and math scores was particularly worthwhile. The paper’s recent reporting on what the Census 2000 reveals about Nashville communities, the hubbub of events around the official opening of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, and the myriad problems afflicting the state’s foster-care program has also given readers something to chew on.
So, yes, Cockburn was a bit glib. But then again, on any given day, The Tennessean can put out a paper that is “pretty awful.” Unfortunately for the editors, they probably did publish a stinker right around the time Cockburn was cruising down I-40.
Long, strange review
Tennessean entertainment editor Tim Ghianni employed a rather innovative stylistic device in a recent story about the band RatDog fronted by former Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir. Ghianni used actual lyrics from Grateful Dead songs in his bizarre story, which for some reason also included a slew of stream-of-conscious ramblings and details about a trip he took to Bucharest. As a service to you, dear reader, we provide you some excerpts of Ghianni’s review, with a few of his clever lyrical references in italics:
♦ “Living on reds and vitamin C and cocainethe long strange trip plays in my head as Bob Weir talks....”
♦ “I leaned over to tell Suzanne, who has grown to accept my touch of gray, aging boomer passions....”
♦ “The blend of Romanian music in the helter-skelter summer swelter [actually, that’s from Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’] of the bus was broken by a string of Grateful Dead Songs. ‘Every silver lining has its cloud,’ chirped a cynically playful voice....”
♦ “Regardless of who shows up besides Bob and his RatDog, it will be a long, strange trip....”
♦ “Seems like 100 years ago that my pal Wizard and I slept in the old ’65 Falcon at the edge of the Haight. Wonder whatever happened to Wiz?”
Follow, don’t lead
Rather than make decisions based on their own experience and insight, Tennessean editors often allow the vague notion of “reader interest” to drive news coverage.
You can catch a quick glimpse of that fuzzy approach to journalism in an e-mail exchange between Tennessean reader John Rowley and the paper’s reader editor, John Gibson. You can also catch a quick glimpse of why the reader editor gig is the cushiest job in local journalism (other than entertainment editor at The Tennessean, of course).
Rowley:I have written the sports editor a number of times asking them to do a better job of covering W. Kentucky’s men’s basketball (21-6, Sun Belt Champions). I have had no success. The coverage is scant and as of this morning the USA Today has done more detailed reporting on the program than The Tennessean, which is just one hour away and located in a city with 4,000 to 5,000 WKU alumni.
Gibson:Thanks for writing. Unfortunately, WKU is extremely low on our reader interest list. I will forward your e-mail to the sports editors.
Rowley:Then, why did The Tennessean do such a good job covering WKU football last fall? And if readers don’t care that 1,000 people died in Rwanda or that 100 die in L.A., would [those] be disqualified as being news?
Gibson:I never said all readers don’t care. We’re not going to eliminate WKU from the sports pages. It’s a matter of priorities and how much space and staff time we devote to anything we cover. Thanks again for the feedback.
Last Friday, The Tennessean reported that “state representatives passed 66-44” legislation that would restrict predatory gasoline pricing. Actually, the state of Tennessee has 99 representatives. We’re guessing the extra 11 members are products of Tim Ghianni’s imagination.
You reach Matt at Mpulle@nashville scene.com. Or call him at 244-7989 ext. 445.