Monthly Archives: August 2007

My old paper facing closure

Sad news today. The E.W. Scripps Co. is putting The Albuquerque Tribune up for sale, with the understanding that it will be closed if no buyer is found. The paper is an afternoon newspaper, a dying breed. It’s in a “joint operating agreement,” the same kind of arrangement that used to bind the News Sentinel and the now-departed Knoxville Journal.
I started my Scripps career at The Tribune in 1977. When I left in 1991, its circulation had just slipped under 40,000. Today it’s around 10,000.
The Tribune has a remarkable history. It was founded by a retired oilman named Carl Magee, who used it to break the Teapot Dome scandal, which shattered the Harding Administration and sent the secretary of the interior, former New Mexico Sen. Albert Fall, to prison. The Scripps logo — the lighthouse — and its slogan — Give Light and the People Will Find Their Own Way” — both originated at The Trib. Albuquerque also was the hometown of Scripps war correspondent Ernie Pyle during World War II, and it fell to the editor of The Tribune to notify his widow that he had been killed. In the early ’90s the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the government’s use of unwitting citizens as nuclear guinea pigs during the Cold War.
Besides all that, there are some wonderful people and good friends at the paper. I had hoped I wouldn’t see the day it published its last edition. I’m still hoping that will somehow hold true.

Thoughts on settling sunshine suit

Word of the county’s proposed settlement of our sunshine suit was the media buzz over the weekend, and today the commission takes up the issue. A few thoughts:
* If we win the lawsuit, the Open Meetings Law provides for only two remedies: the actions in violation of the law are declared void and an injunction is issued barring the public body from further violations. That would mean the county commission would have to redo the appointments, and the chancellor would issue an injunction. Some folks in the public seem to want tar-and-feathering added to the remedies. Sorry, that’s not in the law.
* The redo plan the law director presented was pretty remarkable, in my opinion. It provided the framework for what would seem to me to be a perfectly legal and open appointment process. I don’t think I would have any problem with a redo that followed those procedures.
* However, a redo isn’t the point. The politicians have been convinced, I believe, that the News Sentinel’s real motivation is a disagreement with the outcome of the appointments meeting. Truth is, I couldn’t care less about the outcome. It’s the Open Meetings Law I’ve been concerned about. So any settlement has to uphold the validity of the law.
* Frank Cagle makes some good points about the risk of going to court on behalf of open government laws. There’s always the danger you’ll lose, and the law will collapse. We weighed that risk in considering our suit and concluded that the Jan. 31 meeting was such an egregious violation, that the law already was lost in Knox County if we didn’t stand up for it.

Was it wrong to name Catholic High teacher?

This morning’s paper and yesterday’s included stories about a teacher, who has left Catholic High School, being investigated by the state Department of Children’s Services on allegations that she had an inappropriate relationship with a student. We identified the teacher and drew heat for doing so. This comment online articulated the criticism:
“It is extremely irresponsible for you, as a journalist, to go ahead and publish the name of the teacher alleged to be under investigation. You should wait until it is fact. to do anything less is sensationalistic, factually inaccurate garbage. After the Kim Kallenberg/Powell story, the News-Sentinel should know better than anyone that the particular nature of these types of allegations are VERY harmful to the alleged perpetrator, even if untrue. A stigma is attached to that person permanently.”
This is a tough question for a newspaper. We realize that stories such as this hurt individuals and anger their friends. We worry that the persons involved might, in fact, be innocent.
But we also realize that such an allegation is clearly of public interest, and waiting until a charge “is fact,” as the comment suggests, would mean waiting through months, or even years, of ajudication. That might be a correct course of action if the allegation seemed baseless and was not being taken seriously. But in this case, the teacher and school have parted ways, the state has been called in and a defense attorney has been hired. Others are treating the allegation seriously, and we have consistently tried to deal with such incidents seriously, as well, whether the teacher involved was male or female.
We realize, too, that in such cases the newspaper does not operate in a vacuum. Information, and misinformation, spreads whether we put something in the paper or not. When I got home last night, I asked my sons, both students at West High School, if they’d heard anything about a teacher at Catholic getting in trouble. “Oh yeah,” they replied. “It was ‘Ms. D.'” And they went on to share other details from the rumor mill. How had they, at West High, known all this? Text messages from friends. E-mails. Facebook. You name it.
Having reported the allegations, the newspaper now is obligated to follow the matter to its conclusion. If, eventually, the teacher is cleared of wrongdoing, we will report that. Granted, that won’t wipe away memory of the incident. But gossip about the case would exist and persist whether or not the newspaper ever published a story. The grapevine doesn’t stick to the facts, either. The newspaper does and will make every effort to reveal the truth about the allegations, good or bad.

County now considering a do-over

The law director’s office now is proposing to the county commissioners that they “re do” the Jan. 31 “Black Wednesday” appointments to avoid going to trial in the News Sentinel’s open meetings lawsuit. In my humble opinion, the proposal is an indication of how thoroughly the county’s “it takes a quorum” argument has been discredited. Last week, Chancellor Daryl Fansler spent considerable time citing the many Court of Appeals decisions supporting the newspaper’s “two or more” intepretation the law.
It’s interesting that the commissioners are starting to talk about wanting to save taxpayers’ money. That didn’t seem to be a big motivation last winter when we first filed suit and the prospect of a quick “do-over” meeting and settlement were first raised.
Perhaps the prospect of Rick Hollow and Herb Moncier grilling commissioners under oath in front of a jury for two or three weeks in September is prompting some reconsideration of the idea.

Community members challenge NS on Finch

I met this morning with Mayor Ragsdale and nearly 20 representatives of Knoxville’s African American community concerned about the News Sentinel’s coverage of Cynthia Finch and, before her, Renee Kesler.
Finch is Knox County’s director of community services. Kesler was Knoxville’s director of community development until her resignation last November. Both ran into questions about how their offices handled the administration and distribution of grant money.
The community representatives included some of Knoxville’s leading black citizens, including Sarah Moore Greene, Leroy Thompson, Margaret Gaiter, John Sibley and Frank Shanklin Jr. They expressed their support for Finch and Kesler as two of the best and brightest of Knox County’s African American community. They especially questioned the extent and fairness of the News Sentinel’s recent stories on Finch. A few of their remarks labelled the stories as racist.
I will be the first to admit the News Sentinel can do a better job understanding Knoxville’s black community and giving it the thorough and insightful coverage it deserves. But I have to object — as I did during the meeting — to the accusations of racism. Cynthia Finch’s administration has come under scrutiny because she holds high office, not because she is black. The questions that have been raised have been valid and have prompted the mayor to call for a HUD review and a revamping of the grant process.
Much of the reporting has been done by Ansley Haman, one of our youngest staff members. Her efforts have been vigorous but entirely professional. In no way do I believe she is motivated by racial bias, and she has my complete confidence.
As to the overall coverage of Knoxville’s African American community, that’s my responsibility and I’ll be looking for ways to improve.

A couple of self disclosures

The following will be appearing in my column Sunday:
County Commission Chairman Scott Moore challenged me on the radio last week over the fact that the daughter of the News Sentinel’s editorial page editor, Hoyt Canady, and the daughter of Chancellor Daryl Fansler are going to be dorm-mates this fall when they start at the University of Tennessee.
The young women have known each other since elementary school, and the families have been acquainted for years.
Moore said the issue would have been “on the front page” if it had involved county officials. I doubt it.
Canady told me about the matter when came up a couple of weeks ago, and Fansler, who’s hearing my suit against the commission, disclosed it in court.
Here’s another self-disclosure: My wife and I paid the property taxes on our house late this year.
Sometimes we’re not as organized with the mail as we should be. Things got shuffled around, and a couple of months went by before she asked if I’d ever written that check. I hadn’t, but I mailed it off right away.
Some alert sleuth in one of our government offices took note of the lapse and anonymously sent a copy of the telltale evidence to my boss, publisher Bruce Hartmann.

On pimping and primping

I received this note from a reader:
“The heading on Page E8, August 9th, should read: “Primp” Your Kitchen Aide….
The meaning of the word “pimp” is…….well we all know what it is. Shame on You.”
I responded with the following:
“Thank you for your note. There actually is a popular TV show called “Pimp my Ride,” during which junker cars are turned into lavish customized automobiles. The headline was meant to allude to that show. However, as your note indicates, it probably was a poor choice of allusion. I appreciate the feedback.”
The problem, of course, is that the allusion was fine for one generation of readers, but not so good for another. Ah, the challenges of attracting the 18-34 demographic to a product whose most loyal customers are at the other end of adulthood.

A glimmer in our sunshine suit

We scored a win in our Sunshine lawsuit against the County Commission today. The county law director had argued for dismissal by summary judgment for a variety of reasons. Two critical issues remained this morning: Did a quorum of the commission have to meet secretly to violate the law? Did the Jan. 31 meeting “cure” any violation that took place.
Chancellor Fansler dictated his ruling from the bench. He spent most of the time citing case law supporting our argument that for a violation to occur, a quorum wasn’t necessary, just an “informal assemblage” of two or more commissioners deliberating public issues. Based on that, he ruled against the county’s motion to dismiss on that count. Then he indicated that the facts of the case would determine whether the subsequent meeting cured any violation, and those facts would have to be determined at trial.
Right now is looks like we’re on track to go to trial two weeks from today. A big question mark is whether Herb Moncier will be there with us. He wants to intervene or consolidate his open-meetings suits with ours. But Herb is insisting on a jury trial. We are planning a trial before the chancellor. It’s not even clear that a jury trial is allowed under the sunshine law. Herb and the law directors office will argue that question on Friday.

New schools-related Web site off to a good start

Our new School Matters site to have gotten off to a good start.
This is the first time the News Sentinel has sponsored a Web site that will be operated by community volunteers. I’m really excited about its prospects, especially because of the people who are involved.
This idea didn’t originate in the News Sentinel. Rather, after the recent school rezoning flap, a group of citizens approached the newspaper to talk about how to foster more community dialog on local education issues. These concerned citizens included Pam Treacy, Lisa Starbuck, Jamey Dobbs, Tamara Shepherd and Doug and Cathy McCaughan. They had encountered each other through the blogosphere and wanted to build from there.
After a series of meetings, we came up with the School Matters site, which in built on the Ning social-networking platform to take advantage of its features. Jigsha Desai, our KnoxNews editor, designed the site and will maintain the backend.
To help get discussions rolling, I’ve posted my column for this Sunday, which talks about the school board’s decision to increase payouts for accumulated sick leave.
It looks like the site already is gaining traction. Several dozen members have joined, including a few school board members.
A key to School Matters success will be keeping the discussions lively but civil. When it comes to the topic of local schools, lively shouldn’t be a problem, and I think the moderators will handle the issue of civility just fine.

Ruling in News Sentinel lawsuit

Earlier this week, we were in court arguing the county’s motion for summary judgment of our open meetings lawsuit against the commission. Chancellor Fansler ruled in favor of the constitutionality of the Sunshine Law, but he took the other arguments under advisement and said he would rule by the end of the week. Today he announced that he will dictate a ruling from the bench Tuesday morning and told the parties to allow an hour to an hour and a half.
The three remaining arguments the county makes are: 1) a quorum is necessary to violate the law, 2) any violation that occurred was “cured” because the votes then took place in an open meeting, and 3) our suit should be dismissed because the chancellor already dismissed Herb Moncier’s suit, which included a sunshine law claim.
I have no idea how this will come out. It seems clear, though, that the chancellor is taking the matter quite seriously, and I appreciate that. Assuming our suit isn’t dismissed, it goes to trial Aug. 28.