Monthly Archives: September 2006

A mystery solved?

For a long time, online readers have occasionally complained that their votes weren’t being registered or their comments captured in the online surveys we conduct in response to our daily editorials. The mystery has been a perplexing one. Now, though, it may have been solved.
One of the gurus in our corporate Web department noticed that some changes were made late last year in the poll module of the Vignette content-management system we use to create our Web pages. At the time, the programmer apparently forgot that Vignette does not like apostrophes. The result was that any comments with an apostrophe were not being saved. The problem was ferreted out with the help of a user who provided the text of a comment that refused to post.
The apostrophe issue has been fixed on our “development servers” and should be in production in a few days — hopefully by the end of the week.
As an aside, the same systems sleuth discovered that there may be issues involving the “ass” string in the profanity filter. It could be causing problems with words like “assume” and “bass.” This investigation is continuing. As we learned in journalism school: Never assume anything.

Taking the Pulse of the West coverage

If you haven’t read Metro Pulse’s editorial criticizing the News Sentinel’s coverage of the Scott West story, I commend it to you. It makes a strong statement about dubious journalism, though not in the way it intends.
The editorial, headlined “Save It For the Editorial Page,” avers that Metro Pulse is so shocked –shocked!– at the News Sentinel’s slipshod work that it is breaking with its preferred policy of not criticizing the metro daily. In this case, it says, “We feel obligated to let them know that somebody is holding their reportage to a standard, and that there are some things we just shouldn’t put up with.”
It then goes on to cite the failings of the News Sentinel’s coverage, charging that the paper:
* “Managed to drag its readership along on a roller-coaster ride of bi-polar reportage: over-the-top stories that make Scott and Bernadette West out to be the saviors of downtown, a preposterous overgeneralization — followed by depictions of them as “convicted dope peddlers” to whom the judicial system is pandering.”
* Allowed its coverage to be “narrated by grandstanding politicians with a penchant for memorable one-liners.”
* “Played fast and loose with descriptors of the Wests that assumed guilt, even though the parties technically only pleaded guilty a few days ago.”
It cites two stories as “especially egregious:”
An Aug. 25 story reporting a plea bargain by Scott West’s brother offended MP’s sensibilities by stating: “The businesses many credit with the rebirth of Market Square would not only have gone belly up without drug money. They wouldn’t exist.” This, Metro Pulse protests, was not attributed until two paragraphs later. The alt-weekly also complains that the statement was “misleading and unfair” because the Wests’ businesses are not “solely responsible” for Market Square vitality and the Wests businesses “are popular with legitimate receipts.”,1406,KNS_347_4943435,00.html
A Sept. 14 story — “Are the Wests Getting Special Treatment?”– was fabricated, MP says, because it made an “unjustified” comparison between government’s handling of the Wests’ liquor license and that of Richard Hillard, owner of Coyote Joe’s. “To imply that by allowing the Wests’ businesses to remain open, they’re receiving special treatment, is ludicrous.”,1406,KNS_347_4991175,00.html
Let me offer an alternative perspective:
* In writing more than 20 articles about the West case, the News Sentinel reported many dimensions of a complex story. If that’s “bipolar,” so be it.
* When Tim Burchett gave voice to widespread public suspicion about the government’s handling of the case, the News Sentinel quoted him. If the state senator was “grandstanding,” the readers could judge.
* Reporter Jamie Satterfield applied the same tell-it-like-it-is style she brings to all her lively court stories. Her word choice is and was accurate, but not deferential. Must a well-connected, urbane criminal be treated more courteously than crooks of less lofty status?
* The mind-blowing central revelation of the West case was that drug laundering had been an economic driver in the revitalization of Market Square. That detail did not deserve obfuscation.
* A guy with a bar on Clinton Highway came to us with a gripe that his case wasn’t handled as gently as the Wests. I don’t know why including his point of view in the public dialog was “unjustified.”
As readers of this blog know, I’ll admit that the News Sentinel often deserves criticism for much of what it does. I sincerely wish that Metro Pulse would take us to task more frequently, triggering more discussion of journalistic standards. Happily, bloggers and the Halls Shopper have taken up the slack in media criticism.
In this case, however, Metro Pulse is not unbiased enough to judge another publication’s objectivity and should instead focus on examining its own.
Links to many of the News Sentinel’s story about the West case as well as copies of key documents in the case can be found at,1406,KNS_376_4990918,00.html

Revolving door

In a comment to the Halls Shopper posting, 50 Cents Wasted (my favorite nemesis) criticizes the News Sentinel for “revolving door programs for employees to become spokespersons for local government departments.” The remark is at least partially directed at our recent hiring of Amy Nolan from City Hall and City Hall’s subsequent hiring of our reporter, Randy Kenner, to replace her.
Amy worked for the News Sentinel for many years before she was hired by Margie Nichols, former WBIR news director, to be a spokesperson for the Haslam Administration. Amy had done a great job in our Business department, and when we needed to name a permanent editor to our new Greater Knoxville Business Journal, she seemed like an ideal choice. She was a veteran reporter and manager who now also had been seasoned by seeing the world from the other side of the notebook, as the subject of news stories. She was well respected in the business community and had a world of contacts throughout Knoxville.
But was she somehow tainted by having gone over to the “dark side” of public relations? If so, she is not alone. Newspapers across the country have recognized that good people can cross the line from advocate to observer and work with integrity. William Safire, for instance, was a PR exec and speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew before joining The New York Times as a columnist. He won a Pulitzer Prize a few years later.
The fact is, public relations is one of the few career alternatives for people whose training and expertise is in writing, editing and generally presenting information. Many reporters, ready to try work outside the newsroom, make the switch. Besides Kenner, earlier this year we lost Larisa Brass, another fine reporter, to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Typically, these organizations hire journalists for the same reasons newspapers do, because they are hardworking and smart.
Might Randy or Larisa ever be welcomed back to the newspaper? Perhaps. Clearly it would be inappropriate to hire them to cover the institutions they just left. But if the job were right and they were willing, I’d be delighted to have either one back at the News Sentinel. They are people of integrity who would do a good job — just like Amy.

Competing with the Halls Shopper

I’ve been getting a number of calls lately asking why the News Sentinel is covering up stories that the Halls Shopper has played big. The stories, by Betty Bean, are featured on the paper’s Web site under the label “County Confidential,” a dig at the News Sentinel’s “Cocke County Confidential” series.
The answer is that we aren’t covering up the stories, we just don’t have them. Sometimes the Halls Shopper beats us on legitimate news. Other times, it publishes stories that don’t meet our standards of verification or attribution. These stories, based largely on interviews with Mayor Ragsdale’s former political ally Tyler Harber, are interesting and well written. We just don’t know if they are fair and accurate, or even true. We haven’t had a chance to check them out yet, although that’s something we intend to do soon.
Last year, the Halls Shopper was purchased by the company that owns the News Sentinel. So we’re kin now. But that doesn’t mean we get along. Sandra Clark operates the Shopper with considerable autonomy, and she sure doesn’t consult with me. More power to her.

Dealing with rumors

Rumors are a fact of life. The grapevine is the original mass medium, and the speed-of-fiber communications of the Internet only accelerates the dissemination of what may or may not be true.
More than ever, a newspaper finds itself accused of intentionally suppressing news when it doesn’t print what’s rumored. Typically, though, the “news” simply isn’t true or can’t be confirmed.
Still, if everybody is talking about something, shouldn’t the newspaper have it? Well, maybe.
A case in point is Pat Summitt’s separation from her husband. It has been grist for the mill for many weeks. But we recognized that, short of a public record of divorce or some acknowledgement by the coach, reporting the rumor could be seen as an unwarranted intrusion into her privacy.
Dan Fleser, who covers the LadyVols, was sensitive to the sensibilities of Coach Summitt, but he also was aware that the separation was common knowledge, and avoiding public acknowledgement might merely fuel private speculation. Today, he brought the matter into the open in a column,,1406,KNS_19597_4970803,00.html which also is posted here as an extension.
The column drew some criticism, but also praise. I thought it was tastefully and appropriately handled. More importantly, my understanding is that coach Summitt agreed.

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