Electronic and print media do different things. Typically, TV and radio provide the sound bites and breaking news while newspapers and magazines offer the analysis and perspective. But in a role reversal in the media pecking order, it was actually NewsChannel 5+, WTVF-NewsChannel 5’s cable affiliate, that provided the most insight into last Thursday’s election.
Minutes after Richard Fulton’s cryptic concession speech, in which he congratulated Bill Purcell without detailing his plans for a possible runoff campaign, 5+ reporter Lydia Lenker promptly secured an interview with Fulton campaign consultant Bill Fletcher. With a crowd of stunned Fulton supporters mingling somberly behind him, Fletcher at once confirmed that his candidate would not contest the runoff. Then in a revealing passage, a dour-looking Fletch seemed to distance himself from his candidate, saying, “He conducted his campaign his way, the way he wanted to do it.” So much for going down with the ship.
But while Fulton conceded to Purcell, it wasn’t clear if that meant that Purcell would still have to go through the formality of a runoff election or if that meant that third-place finisher Jay West would then become the runoff contender. A 5+ panel, featuring anchor Chris Clark and oft-quoted political analysts Pat Nolan and Mike Kopp, debated the possibilities. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the station corralled former Vice Mayor George Tate, who helped write the Metro Charter. Tate noted that because Fulton finished second and Purcell failed to receive a majority of votes, there would have to be a runoff between the two, even if Fulton was not going to contest it. A job well done: Providing clarity in this midst of rampant confusion is what the media are supposed to do.
The 5+ panel did a particularly good job running down the Council contests. Although that night there were a whopping 29 contested races, Nolan especially seemed to know interesting details about each one. Other highlights included Scott Couch’s interview with the ever classy Jay West and a Ben Hall report citing an interview with Metro’s election administrator Michael McDonald that confirmed, once and for all, that there would have to be a runoffeven if it’s just for showbetween Fulton and Purcell.
There were some problems, of course. Councilman at-large Vic Varallo joined the 5+ panel for a bit and in trying to congratulate the winner, could not recall his name. Varallo stammered for what seemed like an eternity before Kopp very audibly whispered, “Bill Purcell,” to the aging Council member. Also, while Lenker did secure a needed interview with Fulton, she could have asked at least one tough question, like, for example, “What the hell happened?” Or something to that effect.
And then there’s Pat Nolan himself. While his analysis is not unusually illuminating, Nolan has a knack for encapsulating conventional wisdom in a concise and cogent fashion. But here’s the problem for both Channel 5 and the horde of reporters, including this one, who quote him as a political observer: In June of 1998, Nolan donated $500 to Fulton’s campaign and worked for the candidate during his first stint as mayor.
The question is whether Nolan’s ties to Fulton affected his analysis. Some observers say that throughout the campaign, Nolan was nothing more than a Fulton apologist, stubbornly touting his prospects even when they were clearly dimming. But if Nolan did seem to take an optimistic view of the Fulton campaign, so did a lot of other journalists. For example, while the Scene’s Liz Murray Garrigan was the only reporter in town to conclude a week before the election that Purcell was indeed the front runner, in the paper’s office pool, only Bruce Dobie and Phil Ashford predicted Purcell to actually finish on top.
Overall, however, NewsChannel 5+ excelled. In stark contrast, The Tennessean’s post-election coverage was unexceptional, revealing little that Channel 5+ viewers didn’t know 10 or so hours before. The gaggle of staff writers who covered the races, many of whom have called Nashville home for less than two years, struggled to put the election in perspective. The paper’s coverage included precious little analysis of the results, save the obligatory quotes from the aforementioned Nolan, while largely neglecting the surprising returns from the Council races. In addition, it would have been nice if one reporter could have gotten an original quote from Purcell rather than culling a few sound bites from his giddy victory speech.
Comings and goings
While The Tennessean political reporting this past election was noticeably shallow, look for that beat to improve immensely. Next month, former city editor Tommy Goldsmith rejoins the daily. After a brief stint at Vanderbilt University’s news and public affairs department, the veteran journalist will write about city politics.
Also, sports editor John Gibson has a new job. He’ll serve as the paper’s reader editor, an unfortunate gig that involves responding to reader questions. Finally, writer Rick de Yampert will return to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, where he worked before coming to The Tennessean. A lively writer who brought some verve to the middling daily, De Yampert will be missed.
Matt Pulle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or by phone at 244-7989, ext. 445.