“You may have gotten rid of Gene Hughes, but you haven’t gotten rid of me,” WSMV-Channel 4’s Larry Brinton said last week in a jaw-dropping, fist-pounding taunt of Metro schools director Pedro Garcia. If it seemed like Brinton was gloating, well, that’s because he was. But after Garcia inanely defended Hughes, one of his top hires who contrived a life story packed with lies, Brinton’s persistent reporting on the matter finally forced the administrator to resign. Now even Garcia is calling the veteran reporter’s work “a great service,” while Brinton is relishing his biggest reportorial triumph since coming out of retirement six months ago.
“I loved this work, and I just could not stand not doing it anymore,” says Brinton, 72, on why he returned to the business. “I told my wife that I may die, but I’ll die happy.”
In what may be his most impressive feat, Brinton managed to humble Garcia, the brash, take-charge leader who promised to rescue Metro’s lagging public school system when he came aboard two years ago. The once-obstinate Garcia says that he initially thought all Hughes deserved was a demotion, but a frenzied period of sour press coverage helped him understand the public implications of his decision. “I made a mistake. I should have gone for termination instead,” he wrote in an e-mail to Desperately Seeking the News. “I am sorry for it, and I will apologize to the board and the school community because this truly has been a distraction.”
In the past, this column has blasted Brinton for his irresponsible reporting in the Perry March case. In the Hughes affair, however, Brinton’s work has been valuable, impressive and, most of all, entertaining, forcing the plodding Tennessean to play catch up while providing a nice lift to the beleaguered Channel 4.
Last March, Brinton told Channel 4 viewers that Hughes, the director of employee relations for the school system, had boasted that he was a Navy SEAL and a former NFL football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hughes also exaggerated his educational credentials and falsely claimed that he was a lawyer on official district papers. After the story broke, the school system demoted Hughes and slashed his pay from $90,000 to around $70,000.
But inexplicably, Hughes salary ultimately crept back up to more than $80,000 a year, higher than Metro administrators with more experience and, presumably, more accurate résumés. Garcia also moved him to a new and never-advertised position in the athletic department, which is when the story resurfaced. The Tennessean, late to the hunt much like it was with former UT president John Shumaker, belatedly discovered the Hughes controversy, reporting how the school board and others had questioned Garcia’s refusal to fire the dissembling administrator. Perhaps loathe to admit that it had been out-scooped by a 70-something former retiree, The Tennessean never credited Brinton in any stories that we could find. In contrast, The City Paper, which understands that sometimes you have to acknowledge the reporting of others, did give props to Brinton for drawing attention to the Hughes affair.
Credit or no credit, Brinton continued to hammer Garcia, the school board, even Mayor Bill Purcell. During the imbroglio, Craig Owensby, the system’s flat-footed spokesperson, told Brinton that he couldn’t provide a picture of Hughes from his I.D. badge until he talked to his lawyers first. Brinton was undeterred. “I said, 'Talk to anyone you want to, but if you don’t give me that picture, I’m going to talk to our lawyers.’ ” In addition, Brinton says that Owensby told school board members that Brinton was following Garcia in his car. “I told Owensby, 'That’s not my style, never was, never will be.’ ” As a result of Owensby’s rumor mongering, Brinton told him, “Anytime you call me, I may have a tape on and I may not.” If Owensby ever called us back, we’d have one running too.
Meanwhile, Garcia handled the mini-scandal abominably, insisting that Hughes had been properly upbraided and telling the school board in a memorably stupid quote, “I am willing to die on this issue.” And so Brinton kept swinging away. On Aug. 15, Brinton reported that “even though the school system pays its media people $200,000...I’m told my information will have to come from somewhere elsethe Metro Legal Department.” Told in his imitable first-person style, Brinton portrayed Garcia and Owensby as hapless, scheming bureaucrats.
Members of the school board were getting restless. One even suggested to the Scene last week that Garcia’s reluctance to can Hughes stemmed from not wanting to be bested by Brinton. If that was Garcia’s thinkinghe insists it wasn’the wound up retreating. Brinton continued to taunt Garcia even after Hughes resigned, scolding him for paying the disgraced administrator through the fall.
Garcia, however, claims that he has no animosity for his on-air predator. “As for Larry Brinton, he certainly has done a great service for us,” Garcia writes in an e-mail. “He, through his scrutiny, has shown us that we need to have good clear HR processes and procedures in place.”
A few years ago, Brinton retired from WTVF-Channel 5 thinking that his memory was fading and that he’d rather fish and travel. But he admits that leaving journalism left him deeply depressed and that he even needed electroshock treatment to recover. “When you’re in this business, your phone rings day and night,” he says. “Then you retire and the curtain falls and you don’t get those calls anymore.”
Reporting on the likes of Gene Hughes is hardly a clinical treatment for depression, but for Brinton, it was just what he needed. Now he has his sights set on another juicy target: A high-ranking Metro official he won’t name who allegedly broke up the marriage of a cop. That official better hope that, at the very least, he never falsely claimed to have played professional football.
Recently, The Tennessean posted a survey on the paper’s intranetthe paper’s internal Web siteasking editorial staffers to post anonymously what they like and don’t like about their paper. The survey also probed them about what changes they would make if they could wave their magic wand. The suggestions contained one overriding theme: Hire more people. Sources tell Desperately that a few posts suggested canning managing editor Dave Green and editor Frank Sutherland. Another employee says that Green and Sutherland should wander out of their Williamson County homes more often. Sutherland later held a newsroom meeting where he called the results “interesting” and mentioned that one of the suggestions was to improve the quality of writing in the paper. Desperately read Sutherland our recap of the survey, and he declined comment.
“MTA hiring good, happy bus drivers,” read the cheery headline from The Tennessean’s Davidson A.M a few weeks ago. A few days after that bare-knuckled hard news story, The Tennessean’s neighborhood news supplement had another inane headline accompanying a story about an ice cream parlor chain opening a store on West End: “You moo, I moo, we all moo for Maggie Moo’s.” Next week, Davidson A.M. will be cutting its publication schedule, coming out only three times a week. The world weeps.
You can reach Matt at 844-9445 or at email@example.com