For a few frantic hours on Friday afternoon, some national media and tens of thousands of NASCAR racing fans blamed Nashville’s WKRN-Channel 2 for falsely reporting that driver Bobby Labonte had died in a wreck.
Labonte’s fine, but the station got screwed. “We didn’t do anything,” news director Matthew Zelkind said Monday. “We never aired a word about Labonte.” But popular Web sites such as AOL Sports and NASCAR.com reported Friday afternoon that “an ABC affiliate of Nashville” was responsible for “incorrectly” broadcasting rumors of Labonte’s death.
“I still can’t believe this happened,” complained Zelkind, who received calls of apology from NASCAR.com and from Labonte’s publicist, Tim Sullivan. Sullivan is the one who told a NASCAR.com reporter that Channel 2 was to blame for the phony story.
According to Sullivan and sources at NASCAR.com, several callers telephoned the California Speedway in Fontana, the site of Sunday’s race, to check on rumors that Labonte had been killed, either during practice at the track or in a plane crash en route to California.
Trying to douse the spreading fire, Sullivan turned to Marty Smith, a reporter for NASCAR.com, and asked him to write a quick story that “all rumors” of Labonte’s crash were “completely untrue.” Sullivan also told Smith that an ABC affiliate in Nashville had allegedly started the rumors. Sullivan said later, however, that he warned Smith “not to mention the ABC affiliate,” because “we didn’t know if that part was true.”
But Smith never bothered to call the station. He wrote the story, fingered Channel 2, and posted it on NASCAR.com around 11 a.m. Other Web sites quickly picked it up.
“The first I heard about it was when Labonte’s father called to tell us our story wasn’t true,” Zelkind said. He immediately called NASCAR.com and demanded that the reference to Channel 2 be deleted. It was. Later that afternoon, both Sullivan and NASCAR.com issued retractions.
The libelous indictment of WKRN’s credibility could have led to a lawsuitimagine the Channel 2 logo on Labonte’s carbut Zelkind said he’s satisfied with the apologies. “The irony is that this guy [Smith] was supposed to be setting the record straight, but instead, he started another false rumor,” Zelkind said. “The reporter just assumed that Sullivan knew what he was talking about.”
Some viewers, though, took a while to get the message. “As a frequent viewer of Channel 2, I wrote them to express my disappointment in their reporting,” local racing fan Jill Costello told the Scene. Instead of a polite explanation, WKRN sportscaster John Boruk wrote back calling her “another classic case of an idiot viewer.” He also suggested that she write Sullivan and “have him explain how he f♦♦♦♦d up in telling a print reporter” that Channel 2 was at fault.
“Perhaps Boruk was right,” she wrote to the Scene. “I am an idiot viewer every time I choose Channel 2 for my sports news.” Costello later said she got a nice note from a Channel 2 producer, and all is forgiven. She still hasn’t heard from Boruk.
Mistakes happen. And few newsrooms know that better than hapless staffers at The Tennessean.
On Sunday, April 22, editorial writer Ellen Dahnke reviewed a new book on the civil rights movement. Though Dahnke presumably read the book, one would think a Tennessean editorial writer would know that it was J. Edgar, not “Herbert” Hoover who ran the FBI during that period.
On Thursday morning, Williamson County readers thought the morning daily had played a sick joke. Describing the plight of William Blackwell, of Linden, who caught fire while pumping gas near Brentwood, the paper’s Williamson County edition reported, “Cinder man burned at BP gas station.”
“We screwed up,” acknowledged Ted Power, editor of The Tennessean’s “Williamson A.M.” section. Power says that the text originally read, “Man burned at BP gas station.” To improve the headline, someone scrawled in the word “Linden” at the beginning. “It was apparently misread as ‘Cinder,’ ” Power explained, adding that he personally had been trying to contact Blackwell’s family to apologize.
Finally, there are the “mistakes” of judgment and editing that seem to be systemic at 1100 Broadway. Last week, neophyte Jennifer Barnett was assigned to cover the debate over charter schools in the General Assembly. Barnett may know a little about education issues, but she clearly knows nothing about politics.
Although the charter school bill had died in subcommittee, powerful House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry showed up unexpectedly at the House education committee meeting and cast the tie-breaking vote to move the bill forward. DeBerry’s appearance signaled that House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh now supports the charter schools legislation. Naifeh’s wife, Betty Anderson, is one of several lobbyists supporting the bill.
The story was the main topic on Capitol Hill last week, but Barnett, who presumably sat there throughout the drama, never mentioned DeBerry, Naifeh, or Anderson in her story. The next day, Barnett suffered the indignity of seeing her entire story rewritten, this time with all the important facts, and published on the front page: “DeBerry vote revives charter bill.”
The state’s other papers got it right the first time.