The Blame Game 

Talk radio personalities played second fiddle to a TV reporter

Talk radio personalities played second fiddle to a TV reporter

Don’t blame conservative radio personality Steve Gill.

It was WKRN-Channel 2’s Chris Bundgaard, not a talk-radio host, who first reported at noon last Thursday that state legislators were working on an eleventh-hour scheme to pass an income tax.

That’s how Gill first heard the news.

Don’t blame Republican income tax foe and state Sen. Marsha Blackburn either.

It was state Sen. Jerry Cooper, not Blackburn, who excitedly blurted out to Bundgaard in a 4:15 p.m., on-camera interview that pro-income tax senators thought they had the votes and planned to bring their plan to the Senate floor early that evening.

That may have been how Blackburn herself, excluded from the ongoing negotiations, found out about the resurrected tax plan. She notified talk-show hosts Gill and Phil Valentine. Other television stations soon added to the frenzy, reporting similar versions of Bundgaard’s earlier scoop. Their live reports from Capitol Hill lent credibility to the high-decibel warnings from Gill and Valentine and helped build the crowd of protesters.

Sources say Cooper’s plan depended on three Republican senators—David Fowler, Mark Norris, and Ron Ramsey—who briefly entertained the idea of voting for a flat-rate income tax, as long as there was a public referendum on the matter later. But after being verbally horsewhipped in a private, hurriedly called meeting with other Republicans, the three backed down and the tenuous compromise collapsed. By the time most protesters arrived, the other side had already surrendered.

It took another horn-blaring, window-breaking hour, though, for the radio and television reporters finally to realize that Bundgaard’s original story—dutifully repeated by the rest—had been superceded by events.

During that time, Bundgaard himself was locked out of the Capitol along with many demonstrators. Fellow Channel 2 staffer Jay Korff stayed inside and was the first television journalist to report that the Senate had passed the “bare bones” budget, effectively ending the tax debate.

WTVF-Channel 5’s Scott Couch seemed stuck forever at a side door of the Capitol, where angry demonstrators confronted police. He was in the right place, though, to catch a legislative spokesman announce to the cheering crowd that the Senate had passed the no-tax budget.

With the station’s best political reporter, Lydia Lenker, sick at home, Channel 5 sent Ben Hall and Sybril Bennett to the Capitol instead. Bennett, who has been at the station about a year, reportedly tapped Tennessean staffer Duren Cheek on the shoulder and asked something like, “Sen. Rochelle, are you available for an interview?” Cheek politely corrected her.

WSMV-Channel 4’s Dennis Ferrier seemed to spend most of his time sympathetically interviewing protesters and editorializing against an income tax. Handicapped by the recent retirement of Jim Travis, the Channel 4 team offered the least informative reports of the three stations and, despite a near riot inside the state Capitol, switched back to regular programming as soon as the news hour ended.

A numbers game

How many protesters were inside the Capitol?

♦ “About 100,” reported Rebecca Ferrar and Tom Humphrey in The Knoxville News Sentinel.

♦ “About 200,” the Associated Press wrote.

♦ “Perhaps 300,” according to Joe White’s story in The City Paper, and another “500 shouting demonstrators” outside.

♦ “More than 1,000...stormed the Capitol,” reported The Tennessean, “with several hundred more across the street.” The paper never reported how many actually made it into the building.

A little irony

One of four demonstrators detained Thursday night was Anna Hobbs, wife of conservative political writer Bill Hobbs, whose anti-tax protests regularly appear in The City Paper. When a Metro cop wouldn’t let the couple drive past him, Anna let fly with an epithet or two. She was handcuffed, charged with disorderly conduct, then released.

Anna should know all about freedom of speech. Her father, Charles Overby, is chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum, parent organization of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt.

Below the belt

The lowest blow Thursday night was not the rock thrown through a window in the governor’s office but the anonymous demonstrator who reportedly socked Tennessean political editor Frank Gibson in the gut.

Fellow Gannettoid Dwight Lewis wrote Sunday that the protester was “apparently thinking” that Gibson was a legislator.

Gibson is in charge of the paper’s one-sided, pro-income tax news coverage. It seems just as likely that the anti-tax thug knew exactly what he was doing.

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