Monthly Archives: March 2006

Strange bedfellows

It’s odd how the wheel of fate can turn foes into allies.
In the never-ending struggle for access to government information, the News Sentinel long has backed the efforts of County Commissioner Wanda Moody to examine records in the Sheriff’s Department, and we have chastized Sheriff Tim Hutchison whenever he has held back. But when Moody’s attorney, Herb Moncier, recently entered a motion to seal his legal bills in the case, my name soon was on a petition to intervene — against Moody.,1406,KNS_347_4572858,00.html
To borrow from Jerry Maguire: “Show me the records!”
In an entirely separate case, Moncier, representing former Commissioner Bee DeSelm, has dogged Hutchison over the issue of term limits. Suddenly, due to a Shelby County case, Moody learns she’s term-limited and, perhaps, off the May ballot.
If Moncier has his way, Hutchison will be right beside her.

The skinny on skin

Many years ago, when I was at The Albuquerque Tribune, I interviewed for a job at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. I arrived in the morning, reported to the managing editor and was soon escorted into the morning news meeting where all hell had broken loose.
This was in the very early days of color photography in newspapers. The CA was graphically cutting-edge at the time, and much effort had been put into creating its first full-color fashion photo, which appeared in that morning’s paper. Unfortunately, because of the limited systems for handling color film, no proof of the photo had been produced. Instead, the graphics editor had selected the image from a series of transparencies.
What he couldn’t tell studying the lovely picture over a light table was that just a tad too much of the model could be spied in the fold of her blouse. The phones started ringing off the hook as Memphis got its first glimpse of the newspaper’s state-of-the-art photojournalism.
Systems for handling color photos have improved since then, but papers still get calls about the attire, or lack thereof, of fashion models. When I was in Denver, the department store bra ads on Page 3 were a frequent source of concern. Here in Knoxville, we know we are going to get a few calls and letters when our Style section ventures into the risque.
Last week, it was belts. I confess, when I saw the photo I asked if it was shot in our very own studio. It was, but all decorum was observed, I was assured.

Casting about

Well, I’ve entered the world of podcasting. Our Editorial Board started its endorsement interviews Monday, and this year we are recording and podcasting them. The first ones have been posted on,1406,KNS_630,00.html
I sure don’t have a radio voice and am pretty inept at introducing the sessions. But I thought some of the candidates had interesting things to say. Former County Commission chairman Leo Cooper lashed out at his opponent, incumbent Scott Moore, with several accusations of “shenanigans.” And judgeship candidate David Lee had pointed criticism of incumbent Bill Swann, with whom he has a personal grudge.
We are experimenting with the podcasts to give voters another way to learn about candidates and to help lift the veil of secrecy on our endorsement process. It’s that old transparency things again.

Bad news is good news?

Each week, Jack Lail, our online managing editor, produces a report on the stories that generated the most hits on our Web site. It’s always instructive to read. Sports stories dominate the traffic, especially UT football. Typically, only one or two non-sports stories break into the top 10, and those are not necessarily our finest journalistic efforts.
Last week was a strong week for news, or a weak week for sports, depending on how you look at it. Half the top 10 stories were breaking news reports.
The top story was an AP article about a woman being crushed to death by a robotic arm in a Springfield, Tenn., auto parts plant.,1406,KNS_348_4564283,00.html
No. 3 was the story of the minister being killed and his wife and children disappearing.,1406,KNS_348_4564377,00.html
No. 4 was the former Vol who killed himself and his two young daughters.,1406,KNS_347_4565079,00.html
No. 7 was about the minister’s wife being charged with his killing.,1406,KNS_347_4569527,00.html
No. 8 was a snow warning for East Tennessee.,1406,KNS_347_4564535,00.html
The rest of the top 10 were all Lady Vols stories.

‘Straw man’ story provides fodder for debate

Last Sunday we ran a story in the A section headlined “Bush using straw men more often these days.”,1406,KNS_350_4566468,00.html The piece, by Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, pointed to instances in which the president advanced his positions by juxtaposing them against what “some people say,” even if that didn’t accurately reflect the arguments against his policies.
I thought the story was worth running, even though, in hindsight, I wish we had labeled it as “analysis.” All good politicians these days use sophisticated rhetorical devices and public relations ploys to pitch their viewpoints while making their opponents look bad. When newspapers explain those strategies, they are serving their watchdog function and helping the public make informed decisions.
I was troubled, though, when a reader later brought to my attention the fact that the writer of the story was married to an official in the Clinton administration who was later an aide to the Kerry campaign. That triggered a fresh discussion in the newsroom about being alert to the danger of bias in wire stories.
On Thursday, we published a Readers Corner letter critical of the story, and this coming Sunday we will run an article we obtained from Editor & Publisher magazine looking at the reaction — good and bad — the piece has sparked on blogs throughout the nation.,1406,KNS_350_4567427,00.htm

Making silk purse out of pork barrel earmark

A reader asked that the News Sentinel start tracking the “earmarks,” or pork barrel legislation, pushed by our local congressmen. I sent the comment on to Richard Powelson, our reporter in Washington, and he responded with this thoughtful note:
“Thanks for the reader’s input. We (KNS) already regularly report on any earmarked funding that East Tennessee members of Congress manage to insert into highway, bridge, urban development or National Park Service bills. But I simply report the facts and don’t call them ‘earmarks.’ (See example in my past article posted as an extended entry.)
“Some people think that all earmarked projects are a waste of federal money (‘pork’) because they only hear about the questionable projects in the national media. Such as a $200-million bridge in Alaska that relatively few people will use. Alaska’s Sen. Stevens used his clout to earmark money for that project and it was widely reported in the U.S.
“By contrast, when the Tennessee delegation announced road and bridge projects that they were able to insert in a big highway bill last year, local officials, such as Mayor Haslam, praised their work.
“It could be a good editorial or column sometime to elaborate on how these earmarks are either incredibly wasteful spending or a godsend — depending on where one lives and which area is winning the project.”

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The drama of defeat

Often the best sports photos aren’t of the games being played, they are of the players reacting to the action. It’s the old “thrill of victory and agony of defeat” idea. Sports is all about striving, about people investing months or years of effort toward difficult, and sometimes elusive, goals.
The human drama of athletics is often best portrayed through the faces of those who tried, and failed. And when those are the faces of kids, problems can arise. A high school boy, or girl, does not necessarily want to be immortalized in tears.
Our photographers are good at capturing the emotion of sports, and we consider such images important to telling the full story. I don’t think a kid should feel bad about showing disappointment after a season of exhausting toil ends a few points short of complete success. But some readers feel differently. A photo of a tearful Webb quarterback last season triggered several strong complaints. This past week, a shot of a Bearden basketball player wiping his eye prompted an irate phone call.
We’re not looking to violate the privacy of the youthful athletes we cover. But at the same time, we want to tell their stories with the full drama they deserve, win or lose.
Folks are bound to disagree, at times, on where that line should be drawn.

Taking stock of stocks

What do the following newspapers have in common: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Charlotte Observer, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Indianapolis Star, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The New York Times, Orlando Sentinel, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and Rocky Mountain News?
They all have trimmed or eliminated their stock listings since the first of the year. Although the possibility has been discussed off and on at the Knoxville News Sentinel, we aren’t actively moving in the direction right now. But I would be surprised if the year went by without the idea coming under serious consideration.
The reason? Most people who follow stocks these days do it online. Stock listings — enormous eaters of what we call “newshole,” the space in the paper for news content — are just about obsolete. A couple of months ago we expanded our online stock offerings. It soon may be time to dump the dead wood version.

Identifying sex-assault victims

We had some interesting discussions yesterday about today’s story of the arraignment of the man suspected of sexually assaulting four child actors when he was an employee of the Dixie Stampede dinner theater.,1406,KNS_347_4548365,00.html
Lke most newspapers, the News Sentinel does not identify victims of sexual assault. But what about naming the parents of children who have been assaulted? Isn’t that tantamont to identifying the victims? Or how about running photos of those parents, even if their names aren’t included in the captions? Should the fact that local TV stations had named and videoed the parents make a difference?
In the end, we decided to stick strictly to our principles, naming neither the children nor the parents and not showing any identifying photos of the parents, although our photographer, Miles Cary, had some dramatic ones. Part of what convinced us were the words of one of the parents, who said:
“It’s been horrible. He couldn’t even go to school for a whole year because all the children would taunt him, which caused him to wet his pants and throw up.”
The boy was transferred to another school “where no one knows him,” the mother said. But is that still true now that the mother has, with full cooperation, been on TV?
Was ours an ethical decision, or were we merely kidding ourselves to think that what we did mattered in this day and age? I’m not sure. But I left the news meeting yesterday glad to have had the discussion and satisfied to be acting on principle, even if it proves to be for naught.

Equal opportunity mud

Some folks were quick to criticize me for citing a Republican attack ad as an example of why I’ve been worn down through the years by cynical politics. Let me balance the scale right now. Here’s the Democrats’ entry in the Tennessee Mud Bowl:
Just to be clear on one point — while I don’t think this type of dialog is particularly good for the body politic, I’ll defend anyone’s right to engage in it. And at the News Sentinel, we’ll happily report anything politicians have to say, and just as happily publish their political advertising.
Let the marketplace of ideas decide whose message should survive, and whose should die. I’m just one person, and I may be wrong.
On that note, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with both Harold Ford Jr. and Bill Frist, and they both struck me as intelligent, patriotic, dedicated, ambitious and sincere within the limits of their profession. I enjoyed being with both of them.