Time running out on Freedom of Information reform

Supporters of open government are on the 1-yard line in an effort to pass reforms to the Freedom of Information Act. But the clock is about to run out.

freedom-of-informationFor the past several months, the FOIA Improvement Act has been in the works, and it cleared the Senate Monday after Sen. Jay Rockefeller dropped his objections. But now the House has to sign off. Last year the lower chamber passed even broader legislation – by unanimous vote. But House leadership has not put this year’s bill on the calendar, and the House could adjourn as early as Thursday. That would mean work would have to start all over again next year.

Key provisions in the bill would spell out the “presumption of openness” inherent in the law and would codify the “foreseeable harm” standard, which says information should be given out unless foreseeable harm would result. The bill also would make it easier to get documents of historical interest and would strengthen the FOIA ombudsman role.

Supporters of the reform should contact the House leadership, by phone if possible, or via Twitter by direct Tweets:  @SpeakerBoehner, @GOPLeader, @NancyPelosi, @WhipHoyer.

Jamie Satterfield launches legal-affairs blog

The News Sentinel’s legal affairs expert, Jamie Satterfield, has started a blog that she’s dubbed “Lady Justice Unmasked.” Here’s how she describes its mission:

Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield

“Have you ever wondered how Cain got away with offing his brother? (Murder wasn’t on the books, er, tablets ala the ten commandments, yet.) Ever read how a guy confessed but walked thanks to a judge’s ruling and wondered what the heck? Gave a politico a mental high-five for proposing one of those take that you filthy (criminal) animal laws and cussed the liberal commies on Tennessee’s high court for striking it down with nary a clue as to why? Enjoyed a dumb criminal story and went to bed assured you’d never be the dude who left his wallet behind at the crime scene?

“Well, then, you are going to love Lady Justice Unmasked because here you are going to find all the legal news, analysis, occasional rants and dumb criminal tales this country girl with a quarter century of legal and crime reporting can dish out.”

Check it out.


News Sentinel to appeal TVA’s denial of info on subsidy

The News Sentinel soon will be appealing TVA’s denial of a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the specifics of a subsidy the agency is giving a South Korean auto parts manufacturer expanding its operations in Clinton.

“Release of these details would cause TVA competitive harm by allowing other utilities, who are competing for the same customers, insight into TVA’s programs and strategies for attracting businesses to the Tennessee Valley,” the federally owned corporation stated in its refusal letter. “Release of the information would also impair the effectiveness of TVA’s economic development program by stifling TVA’s ability to obtain such confidential information from future prospective companies.”

Gov. Bill Haslam shakes hands with Y.K. Woo, president of South Korean auto parts maker SL America after an announcement of expansion of its Anderson County plant. TVA contributed a hidden amount  of incentives to the deal.

Gov. Bill Haslam shakes hands with Y.K. Woo, president of South Korean auto parts maker SL Americam after an announcement of expansion of its Clinton plant. TVA contributed a hidden amount of incentives to the deal.

The response ignores the fact that TVA is a public agency and the resources it is providing — to a private company — are public resources.

Incentives for economic development are a matter of public concern. Economists don’t even agree that they work, as the Federal Reserve Bulletin discussed in an article entitled: “Economic Development Incentives: Research Approaches and Current Views.” One issue the article noted was how incentives can lead to bidding wars among communities:

“In 1980, Nissan received an estimated $33 million, or $8,000 per anticipated job, for locating a new facility in Tennessee. The amount of subsequent incentive packages handed out to Mazda, Saturn, DiamondStar, and Toyota, among others, rose over the next few years, and by 1987, Toyota was receiving an estimated $150 million, or $50,000 per anticipated job, for locating a new facility in Kentucky. And the incentive packages were growing again before long.”

All of the other government agencies contributing incentives to the Clinton expansion made public what their subsidies were. But the administrators of TVA have determined that their need for managerial flexibility outweighs the citizenry’s need to evaluate how public resources are being deployed.

It’s worth keeping in mind that TVA’s CEO, Bill Johnson, is the nation’s highest paid federal official, pocketing a compensation package worth $4.6 million in fiscal 2014 and landing a raise last month that will let him earn nearly $1 million more in 2015. The agency also announced last month that it would be awarding $131 million in year-end bonuses to employees, an average of nearly $11,400 each.

In justifying its largess, TVA noted that it helped lure some $8.5 billion of new investment to the Tennessee Valley in the past year, which is supposed to add 60,300 new jobs.

“Economic development is a core component of TVA’s mission to serve and improve the quality of life of the 9 million residents in the Valley,” Johnson said. “It is a credit to the dedicated work of our employees and the strong relationships we have built with our customers and communities that together we had a banner year in 2014.”

What public resources did TVA exchange for that economic investment? That’s a secret the agency says the people have no right to know.

Series on poverty begins Sunday

Some 71,000 people in Knox County live below the federal poverty line. Starting Sunday, the News Sentinel will be profiling a few of them, a task that proved more challenging than we expected when we started the project.

Three News Sentinel journalists — photographers Amy Smotherman Burgess and Michael Patrick and writer Kristi Nelson — determined more than a year ago to focus fresh attention on the plight of the poor in our community. They began spending an hour or two, here and there, shooting photos, collecting stories.

But poverty carries a stigma, and many people did not want their stories told, especially if they had school-aged children who might be taunted. Folks living on the edge also have other things to worry about than getting in the paper. Time and again, the journalists hooked up with someone to profile only to lose track of them. Their phones were disconnected. They moved without notice. They missed appointments for reasons unknown.

Sometimes, too, the journalists had to break off contact if the facts they needed were not forthcoming or the subjects proved deceitful.

Many agencies that interact with the poor were not helpful, either. Protective of the privacy of their clients, they were unable or unwilling to connect the journalists with people who wanted their stories told. One notable exception was the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee.

Ultimately, though, several gutsy individuals agreed to share their stories, and the result was the “Struggling to get by” series that runs Sunday-Wednesday.

The purpose of the timing is twofold.  As we consider our blessings the week of Thanksgiving, it’s appropriate that we also think of those who are less fortunate. On Thanksgiving Day, too, the News Sentinel kicks off its annual Empty Stocking Fund campaign — for the 102nd year. It will be just one of many opportunities that people will have this holiday season to act on behalf of those who are in need.

Motley Fool returns to News Sentinel

Motley Fool“The Motley Fool” is back in the paper. The popular personal-finance feature was discontinued a few weeks ago, after the theme of the News Sentinel’s Monday features section changed from “Dollars & Sense” to “Tech.”

Well, the theme of the Friday section has now changed from “Get Active” to “Home & Garden,” and readers made it known that they missed the Fool feature. It was back today, on Page 6D.

Unfortunately, our personal-finance coverage will take a hit early next year. We received notice from the Wall Street Journal that it is discontinuing its “Wall Street Journal Sunday” pages, which we’ve carried in our Business section for about 12 years. The change won’t happen until February, and we’ll be looking for replacement content between now and then.

Why we named A.J. Johnson in story on rape allegation

Less than two weeks ago I wrote a column discussing the News Sentinel’s handling of an accusation of sexual assault against University of Tennessee running back Marlin Lane in April 2013. At that time we decided not to write a story about the incident based on our guidelines for identifying suspects who are not actually charged with crimes. The Tennessean in Nashville recently made the incident public for the first time.

In the column I promised that we would be discussing the guidelines within the newsroom and reviewing how they were applied to the Lane case. I also stated: “In today’s environment, with the new Title IX guidelines for universities dealing with sex-assault accusations and the heightened societal concern, it is possible, perhaps likely, that the call would have gone otherwise.”

Linebacker A.J. Johnson on Oct. 11, 2014.

Linebacker A.J. Johnson on Oct. 11, 2014.

Little did I know that the issue would re-emerge so quickly. Monday, in compliance with the Title IX guidelines, UT issued a statement that a rape allegation involving a UT student had been reported. Soon other media outlets in town were quoting anonymous sources as saying that all-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson was a suspect. The News Sentinel also was told anonymously that Johnson was a suspect, but as a matter of policy we do not attribute such defamatory information to unnamed sources.

Later in the day, however, football coach Butch Jones acknowledged at a press conference that the allegation involved UT football players, and not long after that, the university announced the suspension of Johnson and defensive back Michael Williams. We wrote a story tying the rape allegation to the suspensions, something we never did in the Lane case. Lane also was suspended, although he never was charged and ultimately was reinstated on the team.

So what was different this time?

First, the rape allegation was announced by UT. Then, Jones said publicly that UT players were involved. Meanwhile, there was widespread speculation, rumors and reports about which players were implicated. Finally, the incident arose at a time of heightened public concern about the issues of campus sexual assault and domestic and sexual violence by football players.

The upshot was that, although Johnson and Williams have not been charged with a crime – and may never  be – we have linked them to the allegation, even though we still don’t have on-the-record or documentary information that they actually are suspects in the case.

Jumble puzzle will feature well known cartoonists as ‘Guest Jumblers’

Starting Monday, well-known cartoonists will be acting as “Guest Jumblers,” illustrating and, in some cases, creating puns for the scrambled word puzzle that appears daily in the News Sentinel’s comics section.

jumbleThe regular Jumble artist is Jeff Knurek. The guests he invited to participate this year are:

• Mort and Greg Walker, creators of “Beetle Bailey”
• Jerry Scott and Rick Kirkman, co-creators of “Baby Blues”
• Jerry Van Amerongen, creator of “Ballard Street”
• Cathy Guisewite, creator of “Cathy”
• Patrick McDonnell, creator of “Mutts”
• Lynn Johnston, creator of “For Better or For Worse”

“I’ve played Jumble for many years,” said Baby Blues co-creator Rick Kirkman. “My wife and I used to do Jumble a lot together. This was a chance to be a part of something on the comics pages that was there long before I became a syndicated cartoonist. What an honor.”

Jumble is marking its 60th anniversary this year. This is the second year for Guest Jumbler Week.

‘Go Knoxville’ section debuts Thursday

The News Sentinel’s new “Go Knoxville” publication hits the streets Thursday. The section – “Go” for short – will be in free-distribution racks in high-foot-traffic areas starting on Thursday afternoons and will be included in the daily newspaper on Fridays in place of our “Knoxville.com” entertainment guide.

"Go Knoxville" logo

“Go Knoxville” logo

“Go” will pick up many of the features of “Knoxville.com”: coverage of local music by Wayne Bledsoe and Jer Cole; stories by Amy McRary on the arts and on family happenings; dining reviews by the anonymous Grub Scout; Kevin Saylor’s Notsville parody column; Matt Ward’s pub crawls; Chuck Campbell’s music reviews; extensive coverage of new movies; and listings of every sort of local happening.

But there will be new content as well: an “Outdoors” section featuring a weekly excursion and an calendar of activities provided by the Outdoor Knoxville initiative; a column by “Downtown Randall Brown” highlighting don’t-miss events, especially in the central city; and a pair of new comic panels: “Bliss” by Harry Bliss and “Loose Parts” by Dave Blazek.

We also will be adding a couple of popular features from the recently shuttered Metro Pulse: “News of the Weird” and “Free Will Astrology.”

The section sports a brand-new look, as well.

Digitally, the content of “Go Knoxville” as well as daily things-to-do coverage still will appear on our Knoxville.com website (though the URL GoKnoxville.com will work, too).

This first edition includes a special treat: a Hike of the Month by writer Morgan Simmons and photographer Adam Lau. Readers familiar with this feature will recognize Lau’s spectacular visuals. Hike of the Month will appear regular in “Go” instead of our Friday features section, which now will change its name from “Active Life” to “Home and Garden,” reflecting its increased emphasis on the great indoors.

News Sentinel launches new iOS apps

News Sentinel's new app for iPhone and iPad

News Sentinel’s new app for iPhone and iPad

The News Sentinel has launched a new version of its iPhone and iPad apps. (Fear not. An Android version is in the works and will launch later this year.)

The new iOS app merges our previously distinct tablet and smartphone apps. The app now dynamically reconfigures for either screen size. It also is iOS 8 compatible, so it’s good to go for iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.

The look-and-feel features edge-to-edge images, and video plays with a touch on articles. Alerts include direct links to stories.

On the iPhone, the new version is just an update. On the iPad, though, you’ll need to go into the App Store to get the new app.

Beware bogus subscription renewal notices

Some News Sentinel customers have reported receiving bogus subscription renewal notices. Apparently this is part of a national scam. Here’s an explanation from the Newspaper Association of America:

Sample of bogus subscription renewal notice

Sample of bogus subscription renewal notice

“These notices falsely imply that they are sent on behalf of the named publication and falsely represent that the consumer is obtaining a favorable price. In reality, these notices are not authorized by the publications whose subscriptions are advertised, and often quote prices substantially higher the actual subscription price. Unfortunately, many consumers are taken in by these misleading notices and pay the excessive prices to the scammers. When they do, the scammers renew the consumer’s subscription with the newspaper and keep the substantial difference between the price they charged and the actual subscription price.

“The scammers appear to operate under more than 40 different names, which include Circulation Billing Services, Publishers Billing Emporium, Readers Payment Service, and Associated Publishers Network. In the recent cases that have come to our attention, the return address for the scammers has been in White City, Oregon, Henderson, Nevada; or Reno, Nevada. But there may be others perpetuating similar scams.”

Here’s how you can tell a News Sentinel bill is legit:
• Our Knoxville News Sentinel logo – lighthouse and our local address
• Your subscription frequency will be listed (what days receive the newspaper)
• You will have the ability to pay for 13-, 26- or 52-week billing terms
• Your payment is sent to our home office in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Readers with questions should call: 865-521-8181.