Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland should take a few days off this Thanksgiving. He probably needs it. Last Monday, the editor embarrassed himself on WSMV-Channel 4 trying to defend the newspaper’s efforts to force Nashville Electric Service (NES) to reveal the addresses and unpublished telephone numbers of all NES customers.
Brushing aside concerns that releasing the information could expose some people to danger, Sutherland challenged television reporter Dennis Ferrier to “name one example” where anyone had been hurt after being tracked down through NES. Ferrier did. The camera cut to a 1994 murder scene of a police informant who was killed shortly after NES had given his address to a caller.
Sutherland sputtered and backtracked. That was “just one” incident, he said, and there was no proof NES was “directly responsible” for the killing. He didn’t sound convincing.
Tuesday, when Channel 4 broadcast a follow-up, Sutherland let government editor Frank Gibson defend the paper’s position. Sutherland had other problems to handle that day, such as answering questions from the Scene about The Tennessean’s controversial series of articles alleging that a “mysterious pattern of illnesses” afflicts people who live around nuclear facilities. But the editor didn’t handle that well either.
On Nov. 12, The Wall Street Journal had published a column by science writer Michael Fumento critically dissecting The Tennessean’s series and charging that Sutherland himself had exaggerated his reporters’ findings. So the Scene asked Sutherland, “Why didn’t The Tennessean reprint Fumento’s column?”
The editor, who typically prefers that interviews with the Scene’s media critic be conducted by fax machine, wrote back several hours later: “We called about reprinting it, but have not obtained permission as of yesterday.”
Four days earlier, Tennessean editorial page editor Sandra Roberts had faxed Fumento a request to reprint his article. In that letter, Roberts explained to Fumento that The Tennessean had “obtained permission of the WSJ” to reprint his column, but only “on the condition that we have your permission. Obviously, if we are going to reprint it, we need to do so quickly.”
“I called her immediately,” said Fumento, who gave the Scene a copy of Roberts’ letter. “I told her she was welcome to use it and that there would be no charge.”
But, according to Fumento, Roberts then began to hedge, explaining that the paper “might not be able to reprint the column after all.” According to Fumento, Roberts then transferred him to media reporter John Shiffman, who was preparing a story about the column and wanted to ask him a few questions.
“I thought it was all just a setup to get me to talk to their reporter so he could do a hatchet job on me,” Fumento said this week. “He didn’t ask much about the column but wanted to know all the jobs I’d ever been fired from.”
Roberts told the Scene this week she hadn’t told Sutherland that The Tennessean had, in fact, been given permission to reprint Fumento’s column on the same day it ran in the Journal. The column still hasn’t appeared in The Tennessean.
The Scene had other questions for Sutherland: “In the absence of comparative data, what is the basis of your assertion that there is a ‘pattern’ of illnesses around nuclear facilities?”
The editor never answered that question. He did, however, deny that the paper had written the series to win journalism prizes. The Scene hadn’t asked him about that.
Sutherland also sent a 2,200-word rebuttal he’d written earlier about Fumento’s column. In his response, Sutherland revealed for the first time that the paper had “hired an expert consultant” to “analyze our reporting” about the mysterious illnesses.
“Who is he? What’s his background?” asked Fumento when told of the expert’s role in the story. “If they named him, it might give the series some credibility.”
The Scene sent Sutherland another fax this week, asking who the expert is. But Sutherland wouldn’t answer. It seems that the expert’s advice was all “off the record,” according to the editor, so that the expert “could share his thoughts freely.” In other words, Sutherland now defends the series by boasting that the stories were written with the help of “one of the country’s top experts in his field,” but won’t tell anyone who the paper hired or even what his field is.
WSMV-Channel 4 officials announced to the newsroom last week that J.T. Thompson is the station’s new news director, replacing Al Tompkins, who resigned in mid-August.
Thompson, 37, has been acting news director since Tompkins left. At the time, station sources told the Scene it was “highly unlikely” that Thompson, who started as a lowly associate producer four years ago, would get the director’s job on a permanent basis. Since then, according to station sources, Thompson’s laid-back style has won over the support, or at least the acceptance, of the station’s influential anchors.
Thompson, who admires Tompkins, said he plans no major changes in the newsroom, but emphasized that he’s more of a “team player” than his predecessor, whom some staffers described as a micro-manager and, at times, an intimidating bully.
The decision to appoint Thompson means comfortable continuity for Channel 4, which has not named an outsider as news director in more than 20 years. That’s one reason Channel 4 is still, according to the latest ratings, the area’s most watched local, evening news show.
To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (244-7989, ext. 445), call him at his office, 252-2363, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.