During “sweeps,” which start again in February, almost anything passes for local television news. But here’s one story, complete with video, you’ll never see at 5, 6, or 10:
It’s just after midnight on Saturday, two days before Labor Day. West End is still crowded with headlights. Near the intersection of 31st Ave., blue lights are flashing. A police officer is standing on the roadside talking to a man he’s just pulled over. The driver, a tall, heavyset man, looks like a former football player now gone to seed. He seems a little unsteady and says he’s had a couple of drinks, vodka or something. His license is at home. The officer notices that the man’s right pant leg is soaked nearly to the knee. The driver explains he had an accident in a portable toilet. Holding his arms out for balance, he tries to walk a straight line. He flunks but shows the officer that he’s wearing a leg brace. The officer tells the suspect, who has refused a breath test, that he’s under arrest for drunk driving. The man seems upset. Lit by the officer’s spotlight, trousers wet, the driver at one point turns to the officer and says: “You know I work for Channel 4 News.”
The officer says he didn’t know. He takes the suspect, WSMV news director J. T. Thompson, and puts him in the back of the police car for the ride downtown.
That’s right. Thompson’s arrest last September, described above to the Scene by arresting officer Mike Burgess, is recorded on a 10-minute videotape. Burgess is a three-year veteran of Metro’s D.U.I. Enforcement Unit, whose officers routinely videotape such arrests. The tape’s existence and the details surrounding the news director’s arrest came to light last Thursday during Thompson’s preliminary hearing in Davidson County General Sessions Court.
Based on the officer’s testimony, Judge Bill Faimon made a finding of probable cause and sent the case to the Grand Jury. It’s Thompson’s second D.U.I. arrest, although legally he’s still a first offender. He settled a 1996 charge with a plea to reckless driving. This time, prosecutor Mike Rohling said he’d accept a guilty plea to D.U.I. but nothing less. The officer agreed.
By identifying himself as a Channel 4 news staffer, Thompson may have been trying to invoke the station’s influence. If so, that’s a firing offense. But Burgess thinks that Thompson, whose station’s flagging ratings make him embattled on another front, may have had a different motive. Thompson “seemed to be implying that I was picking on him because he worked for Channel 4,” Burgess told the Scene after the hearing. “But I had no idea who the guy was.”
Burgess brought the tape to court but didn’t show it. Police spokesman Don Aaron said copies of the tape would be made available to the public “if the tape is introduced as evidence in court” or “after the case is adjudicated.” But don’t expect to see it on the news. Although Channel 4 once aired a 16-part series on drunk drivers, no one in the newsroom has suggested publicizing Thompson’s own problem. You can bet the other local stations won’t touch it either.
That’s too bad. Thompson’s arrest is newsmaybe not a big story, but worth reporting, just like the alcohol-related arrest of Vanderbilt football player Jamie Winborn or the threatened arrest of Scene editor Bruce Dobie (for offering to pay a newsroom clerk for copies of Tennessean news clips). It could happen to anyone. And when it happens to someone in the media, there’s a special obligation to report it. Remember, reporters and editors are in the business of publicizing other people’s mistakes. They should air their own too.
Thompson has hired Roger May, one of the city’s best defense attorneys. Despite the tape, the evidence appears thin. After the hearing, the judge even advised Rohling that “this is one case the District Attorney’s office should think about settling.” Thompson, by the way, did not testify at his hearing and, through his attorney, declined to discuss the matter with the Scene.
Having recently been drawn-and-quartered in divorce court, former Nashville Banner publisher Irby Simpkins may be getting special immunity against getting shafted by the legal system again. He’s marrying a judge.
Courthouse sources say Irby and new love, Circuit Court Judge Muriel Robinson, are planning a spring weddinghis third, her fourth. Simpkins, who pocketed about $25 million after selling the Banner to Gannett, is also trying to rehabilitate his reputation as a publisher. In a recent interview with The City Paper, Simpkins said he “would have been glad to have sold [the Banner] to someone else, [but] no one made an offer.”
No one offered, of course, because Simpkins never told anyone the paper was for sale. And while Simpkins and co-owner Brownlee Currey Jr. negotiated secretly with Gannett to sell out for $65 millionin an apparent violation of federal antitrust lawsSimpkins was telling staffers he’d done everything he could to save the paper. They learned later, though, that the publisher had been paying himself more than $1 million a year during the paper’s final decade.
In another City Paper story, Simpkins said being the paper’s publisher was “kind of like being the shepherd [of the employees] in many ways.”
Pity the sheep.