Monthly Archives: August 2006

A Religious Experience

For the past several weeks, we’ve been running a column proposed to us by a local writer, J. Brian Long. Each week Brian visits a different church service and tells about it. The columns are descriptive. Brian avoids offering opinions or making generalizations. Who are we, after all, to judge the faith practices of others?
Included in the report is an “at a glance” box of basic information, including a description of the congregation in attendance. This past week, for instance, he visited Berean Bible Church, attended by “approximately 300, 100 percent white, evenly divided in gender and age.”
A letter-writer raised concern over the racial description. “Did you print this fact as a warning or a bonus?” he asked. “That the News Sentinel reported it at all breathed life into racism, as it seems to point the way to a haven for bigots.”
Naturally, the notation wasn’t intended to indicate a positive or a negative. It was a neutral observation, but with the realization that churches often are highly segregated and would-be congregants might like to know the dominant color of the flock.
I’m not sure what the right answer is. My inclination is to favor honest facts presented in a non-judgmental way. That’s why I like the column.
Also, it reminds me of one of my favorite John Grisham novels, The Last Juror, in which 23-year-old Willie Traynor manages to buy a bankrupt weekly newspaper in Mississippi. Willie breathes life into the paper with his free spirit, and one of his projects is to visit and write about every church in Ford County.
Of coruse, it’s his blanket coverage of a brutal rape and murder that really helps the paper’s comeback.

With friends like this …

I’ve opined in the past for an elected attorney general. I fell in love with the idea in New Mexico. There the job inevitably was used as a stepping stone by ambitious lawyers. Two AGs during my stint in Albuquerque were Toney Anaya, who became governor, and Jeff Bingaman, who is still a U.S. senator.
How did these guys use election to the AG’s office to advance their careers? By exposing white-collar crime and government corruption, for one thing. Also, they were champions of open government, often forcing secretive officials to reveal records and conduct their meetings in public. A novel idea.
Contrast that to Tennessee, the only state where the Supreme Court appoints the attorney general. As a result, the AG is a lawyer’s lawyer with loyalty to the judicial-political establishment. As a result, we are treated to the spectacle of an assistant attorney general speaking to National Conference of State Legislatures about the harm public-records laws cause when the pesky press asks for too much.
“The response is to quit doing things in writing,” said Janet Kleinfelter, senior counsel in the AG’s office. “Everything starts getting done orally. You start having everything done by telephone.
People stop writing e-mails and writing down what is said in meetings. When we get sued, … there’s no record, there’s no history for us to go to, for lawyers to go to to say, ‘Here’s why we did this. Here’s why we did that.’ ”
Frank Gibson, director of Tennessee’s Coalition for Open Government, is the state’s foremost warrior for public access to meetings and records. In the extension of this post, he offers a telling response to Kleinfelter’s case for secrecy.
Is it possible that public officials could just not hide things from the citizens who employ them?

Continue reading

The truth about JonBenet

News of the arrest of a suspect for the JonBenet Ramsey murder set memories churning. I was in Denver at the time of her death and for several years after. With the exception of the Columbine shootings, it was the most talked about story we covered during my time at the Rocky Mountain News, and that includes coverage of the two Oklahoma City bomber trials.
Example: I was on a cruise with my wife for our 20th wedding anniversary. A very old woman at our dining table seemed almost comatose until she heard mention that I was from the Denver-Boulder area. Instantly, she was alert and curious. “Who killed that little girl?” she asked me.
As if I knew. Perhaps this arrest will finally answer the question.
If so, the case is a perfect example of why newspapers should not rush to judgment. For months and months after the murder, everyone, it seemed, assumed one of the Ramseys had committed the crime, despite their protestations. It was only after a couple of years that we really began to consider and explore the possibility of their innocence. One series I eventually edited examined the case for an intruder. It was compelling.
By the time I left Colorado, I truly had no idea who had killed that little girl, who, coincidentally, was the same age as my oldest son. He just started his junior year in high school.

Now you see it …

What guidelines should govern a newspaper’s handling of photo illustrations? The question may seem mundane. But publications continue to run afoul of the issue.
The problem is that, nowadays, you can’t believe your own eyes when it comes to digital photography.
Of course, manipulation of pictures predates the computer age. Darkroom wizards have long burned and dodged images to change the emphasis of photographs. But when it comes to moving pixels around, anything is possible, including ethical lapses.

A Slate article headlined “Don’t believe what you see in the papers” describes some of the recent cases of visual fraud by photojournalists. And a Dartmouth Web site presents a fascinating look at the recent history of photo manipulation in major publications (Oprah’s head on Ann-Margret’s body?).
Of course, photo illustrations can be fun. Clay Owen of our photo staff is a master who has won honors from the National Press Photographers Association for his clever distortions, such as this one from our new textme section, created with the help of artist Rey Pineda. The real trick is to be honest about what you’re doing.

Blogged down

Apologies. For some reason, our blog software wasn’t capturing comments over the weekend. The problem has been corrected, but most postings since Friday were lost.
Here’s the update note from Jigsha Desai, our online editor and blog administrator:
Comments are now working. They started working about 5 p.m. according to the corporate service desk.
Unfortunately, comments posted when the comment function wasn’t working (ie all day today) weren’t captured by the database and won’t ever appear on the blog. That really sucks in my opinion but there doesn’t appear to be anything the programmers can do.
What I would do is post a note on your blog saying comments posted today weren’t captured if your readers wish to post again.

So be it.

Peyton Manning’s big gift

One of the Vols chat sites is buzzing over word that I supposed went to see UT athletic director Mike Hamilton to complain about the Tennessean beating us on the story that Peyton Manning had pledged $1 million to UT athletics.
Not quite. I was upset that we were beaten on the story. As I’ve noted here before, the Tennessean has a good reporter on the UT beat, and we take it seriously when he scoops us, which he did on this story.
But it’s not UT I blame when that happens, it’s KNS. After the story appeared, I did call Mike Hamilton on the phone, and I asked him for his advice on how we could more effectively cover such stories. He offered some ideas that basically boiled down to this: work hard.
Makes sense to me.
Our beat reporters do work hard on the UT football beat. Over the past several weeks we’ve been ahead of the Tennessean on a number of stories including those involving Lee Smith and Marsalous Johnson. Some folks around here have speculated that someone at UT leaked the Manning story to the Tennessean out of annoyance that we wrote a story raising questions about athletes’ MySpace pages.
We’re the hometown paper, and we should make it our goal to get every news break out of the hometown team. When we fail — and sometimes we will — it’s our responsibility, not UT’s.

How much is that in blog years?

The News Sentinel’s Michael Silence celebrated his second anniversary of blogging today, which means the newspaper has been involved in steady blogging for two years, too.
We have about 14 active or semi-active blogs now. No Silence Here is the granddaddy. It also gets the most traffic, some 50,000 page views a month, give or take.
Are the blogs worth the time we invest in them, or should we redirect that effort to more traditional journalistic pursuits? The jury’s still out. I’m glad we’re vigorouly experimenting with this new medium, though. But I still think “blog” is a weird word.

Vols on MySpace

A fair amount of discussion went into how to play today’s story about the Vols’ MySpace and FaceBook pages. The fact is, some of them are pretty raunchy or crude., They certainly don’t reflect the images Phil Fulmer and Pat Summitt would like their players to project.
But then, these are college kids. How hard to you come down on them? MySpace and FaceBook pages are odd creatures of the cyber age. They are extremely personal, and yet visible to literally the entire the world.
In the end, I thought Mike Strange did a good job putting the issue in a larger perspective.,1406,KNS_294_4899147,00.html
Shield your eyes or don’t scroll down if you don’t want to see Cory Anderson’s page below.

Stop us before we elect again!

Well, if there’s one lesson to be learned by this year’s county commission races, it’s that — despite what they might say — voters sure love incumbents.
As of this writing at 10:25 p.m., it looks like only Commissioner David Collins will not be re-elected.
Collins may have been hurt by the other race in District 2, where incumbent Democrat Billy Tindell was challenged by write-in Democrat Amy Broyles. That campaign caused a furor among county Dems and perhaps boosted their turnout in the working-class district. Collins, a Republican, suffered the consequences at the hands of Mark Harmon, the journalism prof.
Voters may want term-limits, but when it comes to general elections, they still tend to vote by party and pick the old-favorite nominee.

Mad, sad or glad

One of my old editors used to say a newspaper’s job was to make readers mad, sad or glad. I think our mandate is broader than that. But firing up emotions has to be part of the mix.
When it comes to political columns, though, I sometimes am amazed at the hunger for anger some folks seem to have. Many readers hate Don Williams’ columns criticizing President Bush. Here’s one note of feedback he recently got:
My question is, do readers such as this enjoy getting mad? If so, do Don Williams’ columns provide a service they would miss if he were gone? I don’t mean this facetiously. If there were no value, psychic or otherwise, in reading a column, why would anyone do it?
I’d love to hear any insights.