Whenever he wishes, the Scene’s Phil Ashford is able to turn the common task of defending Mayor Bredesen into a performance art. With a nimble use of language, a knack for rousing, memorable phrases, and a formidable knowledge of public policy, Ashford makes even the mayor’s more mundane initiatives seem part of a brilliant, benevolent vision.
But everytime Ashford writes about the mayor, he opens up both himself and the Scene to thorny questions of bias. From 1991-1998, Ashford served as Bredesen’s senior policy advisor and was the key point man on agendas from the Columbia/HCA tax break to the decision to upgrade rather than shelve the Thermal Plant. Last summer, Ashford left the mayor’s office to take a job with a consulting company in New Jersey. On the side, he freelances for the Scene, a job he did with some aplomb when he was the paper’s City Hall critic from 1989-1991.
While Ashford typically focuses on broad public policy/municipal issues such as tax reform or suburban sprawl, he doesn’t shy away from writing about his former boss. In the May 27 issue of the Scene, Ashford defended the social utility of the mayor’s big-spending projects like the stadium, downtown arena, and new library system.
He writes, “The big municipal projects for Nashville are meant to underline its claim to be more than just a place where a lot of people live, but rather a special place that is the heart and soul of the region.”
Ashford’s larger point was that by investing in its downtown, Nashville was encouraging middle-class families to stay in the county and keep their tax dollars for Metro. That’s a difficult argument, to start with, when you consider that in Bredesen’s last year, long after the consummation of the stadium and arena deals, Metro is experiencing a budget crunch. Shouldn’t the city be reaping the benefits of those big-money deals right about now?
Of course, Ashford’s point, regardless of its logical core, suffers when you remember that it comes from a former lackey for the mayor’s office. In between the compelling narrative and original insight, you can’t help but wonder if all Ashford is trying to do is spin Bredesen’s complicated legacy.
Scene editor Bruce Dobie flat out admitted that he doesn’t have confidence in Ashford’s ability to comment on the mayor’s office objectively. “We all have prejudices and biases,” he says. But that doesn’t bother Mr. Bruce, whose high-rent liberalismhe did, under the progressive guise of job creation, endorse the Dell dealseems to be right in line with Ashford’s leanings. Asked why he doesn’t just tell Ashford to write on issues unrelated to or at least a degree or two removed from Bredesen’s tenure as mayor, Dobie responds, “He’s a very brilliant commentator. He has smart, tough things to say. I don’t think I should restrict what he writes about.”
For his part, Ashford says that his near decade-long employment with the mayor is not a problem. “The basic comment I would have is that no one has ever said that my work is objective. I write articles with points of view. And to the extent that my point of view represents that of an insider, I think that also has value for readers.”
Of course, the Scene doesn’t exactly go out of its way to remind those readers of Ashford’s mayoral ties. On his first piece for the paper, Dobie disclosed his scribe’s past. For the nine or so months since, there’s been no mention at all. Consider yourself warned.
All papers make mistakes, but if there’s one place you’d like to avoid blatant misstatements of fact it’s on your editorial page. In its Saturday, June 12 edition, The Tennessean’s lead editorial lamented the state’s failure to address its troubled foster care program. Referring to Rep. Page Walley’s bill that addressed the issue, the paper reported “even the modest billat an estimated cost of $16 millionwas too much for the state budget this year.”
Actually, it wasn’t. Walley’s bill was passed by the House and the Senate and now awaits the governor’s signature. The Tennessean did run a correction the next day, but that didn’t appease everyone. “I feel like Mark Twain,” quips Walley. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
The ad-orexic Nashville Sports may be struggling, but publisher Tom Squires insists that the sports weekly is here to stay. “We are getting more business than we did a year ago. We’re doing much better now.”
Close to one year old, Nashville Sports is still losing roughly $3,000 to $5,000 each issue, according to Squires. He hopes that Sports along with its sister publication, Titans Exclusive, combine to make a profit by the end of next year. One can’t fault Squires for his optimism, but let’s face it: His publication still has a long way to go. Despite some excellent reporting on both the Titans and prep competition, Nashville Sports too often plays it safe.
It’s an up-and-down kind of time for WDCN-Channel 8, Nashville’s public television station. Faced with lower-than-expected sales tax revenues, Metro’s school board slashed $148,000 in payments to the station. But, on the other side of the egg, PBS brass has announced that next year’s annual convention will be in Nashville. The convention, which will include nearly 1,200 public television general managers, production gurus, and other officials, will be held from June 10-14 at the Opryland Hotel. Party time, indeed.
Matt Pulle, who has never worked for the mayor’s office, can be reached at 244-7989 ext. 445. Or you can e-mail him at MPulle@nashvillescene.com.