Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, Scene editor Bruce Dobie phoned the paper’s former media critic, Henry Walker, to ask whether Walker might be interested in writing for the paper again. Such a move not only would bring Walkera kind of Nashville franchiseback to the paper, but it also would allow Scene writer Matt Pulle to devote more time to news reporting and cover stories.
Walker, most recently the media critic for In Review, which has ceased publication at least temporarily, said he would like to return if In Review folds. The possible return of Walker is just thatpossible. Meanwhile, the terms of a potential renewed relationship between Walker and the paper haven’t been outlined or even discussed, and no other formal conversations have been held. Nevertheless, Tennessean managing editor Dave Greena longtime Walker nemesisheard about the possibility last week, then fired off his unequivocal objection, by e-mail, to Dobie.
We’ve given Green space here to elaborate. Dobie, meanwhile, asked Green to give him comparable space in The Tennessean so that Dobie could write a column in the morning paper. That request remains unanswered.
Scene editor and publisher Bruce Dobie is in serious negotiations to make a move that I think most readers and journalists would find odd, to say the least. He wants to rehire a media critic whom he fired twice beforeonce for lying to reporters from other news outlets and the second time for all-around inaccuracy and sloppiness.
A big part of the oddity, of course, is that media critics are the ones in charge of letting journalists have it for dishonesty and inaccuracy.
So why would Dobie want Henry Walker back? I have my own ideas, but first I need to tell you that I have a fairly significant conflict of interest here. My day job is managing editor of The Tennessean, which has been Henry’s main target. So rather than tell you about Henry myself, I thought I would let the Scene’s news reporters do that for me.
“I’m aware that he hasn’t been accurate,” reporter Liz Murray Garrigan told me last week. “He’s maybe 85 percent right on a given thing.” Liz, one of three full-time news reporters for the Scene, could well be an important person in Henry’s renewed lease on journalistic life. She doubles as the paper’s news editor and might be in charge of editing his copy, which she said she plans to do with great scrutiny if, in fact, Henry returns to write for the paper.
Liz said Henry’s errors were not always just little mistakes such as misspelling names, but also included major errors that invalidated the premise of entire items. (I have provided examples in the accompanying article.)
I asked her whether she believed Henry would change. “I’m not optimistic,” she said. “If it were my decision, I wouldn’t hire him.”
Then there is Matt Pulle, the current media critic who is more temperate and factually accurate than Walker:
“He is often lazy, reckless, and dishonest in his reporting,” Matt said. “When Henry writes something, I assume it may be true.”
“If I made the kind of mistakes he made, I’d be looking for another profession.”
The Scene’s other news reporter, Willy Stern, declined comment. So, why take Henry back?
Here’s Matt’s thought:
“Bruce likes Henry because he does create a buzz and [his] hiring will also do that.”
Liz said something along the same lines: “Bruce, as editor of the Scene, has always been open to allowing all sorts of voices in and that can only contribute to the chatter around town.”
Matt had a further explanation that Liz agreed with: “I think there is a place in a free weekly for a smart, entertaining writer who is not always careful with the facts.”
Both said they thought Henry was very intelligent, was insightful about media, knew Nashville well, and had good connections.
As for Henry, he told me he respected Matt and Liz but disagreed with their assessment of his accuracy. He said he does not have an accuracy problem: “I stand by what I write.”
What does Bruce Dobie have to say about it all? (And I first should thank Bruce for being gracious enough to allow me to write this column.)
“Yes, Henry has made mistakes,” Bruce said. “I fired him twice. So to all outward visible signs this may strike some people as unusual if not insane. And I can’t say that I blame them.”
“The reason I am hiring Henry is not for the buzz. It’s because he [consistently] puts his finger on the media issue of the week,” Bruce said. “I think he has a real intellectual depth in writing about the media.”
I have a different take.
Everyone, including The Tennessean, makes mistakes. But hiring a writer who has a long history of being “lazy, reckless, and dishonest” in his writing just because he has “buzz” is not my idea of good journalism.
If a publication hires on that basis, its readers would be well advised to question the accuracy of everything in it.
Besides the buzz factor, I think there is something else at work. Bruce and his former partner, Albie Del Favero, built both the readership and advertising revenues of the Scene in large measure by marketing themselves as two local guys who whacked on The Tennessean because it was owned by an out-of-town corporation that didn’t play the game right.
It paid off. Earlier this year, they were able to sell the business to an out-of-town newspaper chain. Bruce, who once was in the habit of labeling the city’s business leaders as “bizpigs,” is now trying to join the exclusive Belle Meade Country Club, according to an article in his newspaper. Albie, meanwhile, is a big shot with the parent corporation.
But old habits die hard. Even though Bruce, as publisher, is now in charge of selling advertising and other business matters, he also retains the title of editor. Hiring Henry, who likes to slam the business practices of The Tennessean, gets Bruce two things for the price of one. Not only will it provide Bruce a vehicle for harsher criticism of his competitors’ content (and not just The Tennessean), it might also help him sell some ads.
While the Scene already has a slogan, “For people who get it,” it might want to consider adding another: “Buzz is our business.”
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