Switching sides 

Newspaper won't reveal writer's past

Newspaper won't reveal writer's past

Just four weeks after collecting his last paycheck from the marketing and public- affairs office at Columbia/HCA, Chris Scribner is now writing stories about his former employer as the Nashville Banner’s new health-care reporter.

Scribner spent the last year and a half at Columbia, drafting speeches for company executives. He left Columbia Dec. 31, according to a company spokesman.

Last week, Scribner debuted in the Banner’s ”Business“ section, covering the health-care industry. Thursday, he wrote a complimentary feature about Columbia’s redesigned Web site. Without mentioning his own recent employment, Scribner made several unsupported factual assertions and quoted an anonymous ”source familiar with [Columbia’s internal marketing] discussions.“ The same day, Scribner wrote another uncritical story about a Columbia business deal. In the last 10 days, Scribner’s byline has appeared on four other articles about local healthcare companies.

The Banner has yet to tell readers that Scribner was formerly employed by Columbia.

”I would have grave reservations about the objectivity of [Scribner’s] reports,“ said Steve Geiman, chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). Scribner ”was paid by a company to tell its story to the press and public. Now that same person is writing about the company“ in the Banner, Geiman said, calling the conflict a clear violation of SPJ’s ethical code. Geiman supervises a nationwide ethics ”hotline“ for journalists and said he’s heard of similar conflicts involving publicists who become reporters, but ”none quite this blatant.“ Other papers, he said, would have waited at least ”six months or a year“ before assigning a former corporate flack to cover his former employer.

The Banner obviously ”should have disclosed this information“ to readers, Geiman added. But even with disclosure, readers ”may reasonably expect that [Scribner’s] loyalty is to Columbia“ instead of the newspaper.

The ”only justification“ for hiring a Columbia employee to write about the company would be ”if he were bringing me inside knowledge about a major story [on Columbia] that I couldn’t get anywhere else,“ said Gary Klott, a former New York Times business writer who now writes a syndicated column and lectures on media ethics to business reporters. In any case, Klott said, the reporter’s ”background absolutely has to be revealed at the start.“

In defense of the Banner, it’s hard to find good business writers in Nashville. ”Most of them work in public relations or at one of the dailies,“ explained Business Nashville editor E. Thomas Wood, who said hiring someone like Scribner ”would make me uncomfortable“ but added, ”if I did it, I’d have to disclose [his background] at the outset.“ Nashville Business Journal editor Bill Lewis agreed. ”I would find some way to introduce [Scribner] to the community.“

Banner editors have no excuse. This isn’t a tough issue: You can’t be a corporate pitchman one day and, on the next, pretend to be a reporter interviewing your old boss. George Stephanopoulos may now be an ABC ”analyst,“ but at least he’s not covering press conferences at the White House.

Scribner declined comment. Banner editors did not return calls.

Odds and ends

Television news anchors, for the most part, don’t report news. They just read it.

Over at WTVF-Channel 5 last week, anchor Amy Marsalis read this ”news“ item: ”One of the story lines tonight on Chicago Hope is a bitter reality for many athletes.... As many as 62 percent of female athletes have some type of eating disorder. At least 20 percent of those will die from it.“

That’s one female athlete out of eight. The Winter Olympics could become a death camp.

”It does sound high when you break it down,“ Marsalis admitted Monday. She said the information came from another station and that she hadn’t checked the figures. Meanwhile, Channel 5 viewers also learned how to recognize the signs of anorexia: ”Obsession with being thin, fear of being fat.“ That about covers it.

After being contacted by the Scene, Marsalis called back to explain that the story should have said that 20 percent of women who are hospitalized for anorexia ultimately die. She said the station would run a correction.

* Six weeks ago, The Tennessean dishonestly reported the draft findings of an expert panel that had been studying environmental and health issues at Oak Ridge. The paper’s front-page story selectively focused on pieces of the report that seemed to support the paper’s own investigations and ignored conclusions that contradicted the newspaper’s allegations. As the Scene has previously pointed out, The Tennessean’s biased account undermined the credibility of the paper’s entire, year-long series on Oak Ridge.

Last week, the expert panel released its final report. Although the panel’s findings hadn’t changed, The Tennessean again put the story at the top of the front page. This time, though, reporter Laura Frank did it right, describing in detail the panel’s conclusions, including findings that debunked some of the paper’s own stories. An editorial later acknowledged that the paper’s concerns about a toxic waste incinerator in Oak Ridge now seem misplaced.

A laurel to the morning daily for getting it right the second time around.

* Things may be cooling at Oak Ridge, but they’re still heating up at TVA, where new allegations about the agency’s ineptitude keep rising to the surface. Although widely reported in Knoxville and Chattanooga, these charges rarely appear in the Nashville dailies. One reason may be Alan Carmichael, TVA’s communications director, a former Tennessean copy editor who now reports to TVA chairman Craven Crowell, another ex-Tennessean staffer.

Even Carmichael’s Tennessean pals, though, were surprised that Carmichael earns more than $200,000 a year in his government job, according to Sunday’s Knoxville News-Sentinel. Carmichael’s salary was also reported Monday in the local online service, ”NewSource,“ but hasn’t yet appeared in the Nashville dailies.

To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene ,(615) 244-7989, ext. 445, or send an e-mail to henry@nashscene.com.

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