Monthly Archives: June 2008

An argument against an ethical violation

Thanks, all, for the comments on the previous post.
I understand the concerns being raised. Let me try to be a bit clearer about my point of view, and the News Sentinel’s.
Traditionally, newspapers have long endorsed causes and candidates. This opens them up to charges of bias. Some papers have abandoned editorials for that reason. Others, such as USA Today, try to stick to pro-con points of view. But the majority of American newspapers continue to believe that taking editorial positions not only benefits their communities but enhances their own credibility by making clear their viewpoints and self-perceived roles in their communities. Naturally, efforts must also be made to assure that reporting outside of the editorial pages remains objective and that opposing viewpoints are invited onto the opinion pages.
Newspapers also have traditionally embarked on journalistic crusades to shed light on selected issues. While the reporting undertaken in these efforts must also remain objective, the selection of issues is clearly subjective, and editorial support on the opinion pages typically accompanies these reports. Americans understand and accept this as a legitimate approach to journalism. If a topic is well selected and an initiative well handled, a newspaper’s credibility rises. If an effort is poorly handled, credibility is diminished.
Since the first term-limits decision in 2006, the News Sentinel has been giving special attention to the issue of county government. This was a subjective choice that has since been reflected in both our news and opinion pages. That first year, for instance, we encouraged write-in candidates to come forward. Dozens did, and we interviewed, profiled and, in some cases, endorsed them. This was a significant departure from past practices. In 2007, we continued our intense efforts, doing extensive reporting and also filing suit when we saw what we believed to be violations of the Open Meetings Act. This year, after a minority of county commissioners blocked a public vote on reform proposals by a broadly based and diligent group of citizens, we published their petitions, declaring unambiguously that we were doing so to help get the initiatives on the ballot so that the community could engage in a full debate of the issues involved.
Could monetary value be computed for the publication of those petitions? Sure. Similarly, ad-dollar values could be placed on the space we have given to dozens of editorials about county government, or to the profiles of write-in candidates, or to the investigative work done on the county grants program, the abuse of p-cards, the staffing in the fee offices or the nepotism and cronyism in a variety of offices. The out-of-pocket value of the sunshine suit, for that matter, exceeded $100,000.
That does not mean that any of these constitutes a direct or indirect monetary contribution to a political campaign or cause, as described in the Scripps ethics policy.
Generally speaking, the Scripps policy is designed to prevent conflicts of interest. If an individual who works for the newsroom also contributes to a political campaign, that person could face a conflict of interest that would force him or her to choose between reporting objectively or helping their chosen candidate or cause. Worse, readers might have no way of knowing of the conflict. Such a deception could seriously undermine the newspaper’s credibility.
Did publishing the petitions create of conflict of interest? One could argue that such a gesture of support means that news reporting on the issue will necessarily be biased and compromised. But, in fact, that argument can be – and is – made regarding any editorial position the newspaper takes. That charge of conflict of interest is inherent in the fact that we publish both opinion and objective reportage.
I believe that publishing the petitions violated neither the spirit nor the letter of the Scripps policy. As in the case of the News Sentinel facilitating write-in campaigns or filing the sunshine suit, the petitions were published in open and forthright support of public participation in local government. No deception was involved. I gained nothing personally. Neither did Bruce Hartmann, nor, to my knowledge, did any employee of the E.W. Scripps Co.
The larger question, though, is whether our readers believe the publication of the petitions was an ethical violation. If enough do, then our longterm credibility – our most important asset – will be damaged. To date, though, the reaction has been mostly positive, as has the reaction to our other efforts to encourage public dialog about and citizen involvement in local government.
We welcome opposing points of view, of course. That’s why this blog exists and these matters are posted for discussion. Sadly, we have received almost no letters for publication criticizing our actions or opposing placing the initiatives on the ballot. I encourage you to write for publication to as well as post on this blog.

Publishing petition sparks ethics complaint

Here’s a note I just got:
“I’m very surprised that the KNS is participating in the KCP group petition drive. As a poster, Number9, has stated this will violate your political policy. You disagree with him?”
Here’s my response:
Thanks for the note. Yes, I disagree. You may have seen my column. We have been very involved in encouraging citizen involvement and active public debate over local government in recent years, dating to our encouraging and lending legitimacy to the write-in candidates in 2006 to the sunshine suit in 2007 to publishing the petitions this year.
The News Sentinel and Scripps have policies against individual newsroom employees participating in political campaigns because of the potential for conflict of interest. But the newspaper, as an entity, has always taken editorial positions and made political endorsements.
In this case, at this point in time, we are not advocating anything except a public debate and a vote of the people on some proposals that have been developed through a serious and thoughtful citizen-driven process. Naturally, we welcome commentary from Number9 or anyone else who wishes to criticize us or oppose placing these proposals on the ballot.
It’s a little surprising to me, however, that people are offended by a newspaper vigorously facilitating public dialog over how to improve government. Odd that that would be labeled an ethical lapse.

Were sordid details necessary?

This comment from a reader is a type that we get frequently:
“My husband and I are faithful readers of the News Sentinel and truly enjoy the paper. But we are really disgusted with a story you ran on June 11, about an unfortunate young woman, Kelly Loudermilk, who died in her apartment. The story went on to state that her boyfriend walked in on her and another man. Was that really necessary? The next day, I read she had left children behind. How sad for them to know this awful information. I feel you were very cruel to print this. Please think about this in the future.”
Coverage of this story started on June 9 with a police dispatcher’s call. A woman had been found dead in an apartment, and the call was logged as a stabbing. A couple of small stories followed, as police determined there was, in fact, no foul play. But the detail of the discovery of the body, by a boyfriend who arrived to find the woman dead in bed beside another man, did emerge.
That detail was, unquestionably, lurid. But it also was one of the basic facts of the case as presented by the police.
Each day at the newspaper we report facts, many of which are grim or even shocking. They certainly must be disturbing to people who are close to the victims. And in many instances, we do omit painful details, especially if children are involved.
But many readers rely on us to give them the news, raw and unvarished though it may be. Determining which details to include and which to leave out is a judgment call, and the nature of our business is to publish the information we gather. We self-censor with reluctance.
If, in each case, we edited strickly with the injured parties’ point of view in mind, much news would never appear in the paper, and the community would be more poorly informed..

News Sentinel will print charter petitions, urge signing

Here’s my column for Sunday’s paper:
This Wednesday, the News Sentinel will take the unusual step of publishing a pair of petitions, the ones being circulated by Knox Charter Petition to change county government.
One petition would make County Commission more accountable by limiting nepotism and conflicts of interest while also shrinking the size of the commission. The second would make the executive branch more accountable by creating an independent inspector general, disclosing conflicts and replacing the elected fee offices with appointees subject to removal by the County Commission.
Are these good ideas? Arguments can be made on both sides.
But there’s no valid argument against letting citizens vote on them.
Sadly, some politicians have fought hard to prevent that vote.
The first obstacles were erected years ago. Through maneuvers still shrouded in mystery, legislators raised the requirement for petition signatures in Knox County from 15 percent of the votes in the last gubernatorial election to 15 percent of registered voters. The ploy means it now takes some 40,000 signatures, rather than about 15,000, to put a proposal on the ballot.
Commission could have removed that burden by simply placing the proposed amendments on the ballot themselves. Indeed, a large majority of commissioners wanted to do just that when the Knox Charter Petition group first came before it in February.
But opponents shifted the discussion away from the reasons for a referendum to demonization of the proponents. Commissioner Victoria DeFreese labeled them an “elite oligarchy stampede,” and Commissioner Greg “Lumpy” Lambert called them “the same folks that have been pushing for metro government for years.”
Never mind that the initiative was sparked by the long-awaited term-limits ruling and the “Black Wednesday” deal-fest that followed. Never mind, too, that the University of Tennessee’s Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy invested weeks researching how county governments operate most effectively, and hundreds of citizens discussed the issues at meetings throughout the county. And never mind that the proposals say absolutely nothing about metropolitan government.
When matters came to a final vote in April, a bloc of seven commissioners (Lambert, DeFreese, Ivan Harmon, Elaine Davis, Craig Leuthold, Scott Moore and Paul Pinkston) was able to prevent the two-thirds majority needed.
A plan to let a Charter Review Committee take up the issue also was shot down. Then, ironically, commissioners moved to strip the power of Charter Review Committees by letting County Commission reject any idea they ever come up with, effectively gutting that independent method of citizens proposing charter amendments.
So now only the petition process remains. Perhaps that’s appropriate.
Freedom to petition is one of the five great rights spelled out in that First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
If it takes 40,000 signatures, so be it.
The petitions that will appear in News Sentinels in Knox County on Wednesday will be identical to those circulating elsewhere in the county. I encourage all citizens to sign them and send them in according to the instructions attached.
You deserve, and should claim, your right to vote on these proposals on how your government should operate.

Secret recording of Amy Vandergriff offends reader

A long-time critic of our crime reporting took particular offense at our handling of the assault on clerk candidate Amy Henley-Vandergriff by her husband:
“For years I’ve found it difficult to get to the point in the News Sentinel’s crime and court stories, after wading through paragraphs about the alleged perpetrators’ street names and the sensationalism and innuendo the reporters throw in. But what goes below tabloid standards is to make available secret recordings made by a political candidate’s estranged husband, especially after the woman is allegedly a victim of domestic violence. Some parts of Ms.Vandergriff’s relationship with her husband may be relevant to the campaign and the public, but secret recordings and text messages are not.”
Henley-Vandergriff’s husband brought us the tape recording and a record of her text messages in an attempt to justify his assault on her and the young man sitting in a car with her on the night of June 10. The conversation deals with their troubled marriage and includes her saying they should put their problems aside during her campaign:
“You think about after this election when I win, how our lives will change and we’ll be living better than 98 percent of the people in Knox County. This is how stupid it is for you.”
We considered running only the portion of the tape recording during which the couple discusses her political ambitions but opted to run the entire recording to give the complete context. For better or worse, the article has been the most visited and the most commented upon news story on so far this month.
Henley-Vandergriff was the surprise winner of the Democratic primary in February, knocking off the incumbent clerk. A photo of her relishing her victory was the News Sentinel’s A1 centerpiece the morning after the elections.

Should Obama be described as ‘half black’?

A reader questions news stories describing Obama as black:
“Your June 8, article “Two words with mixed meaning: ‘black president'” caused me to think. I understand that Mr. Obama is only half black. That means to me that he is also half not-black. Perhaps your article should have used the phrase ‘half-black president.’ I never liked the terms white and black when it came to skin color. Are we not all just shades of brown? Was all that suffering and hard work from the Civil Rights era in vain? Did we not try hard to become a colorblind society with liberty and justice for all?”
The issue has deep and painful historical roots, of course, dating back to slavery when any amount of African heritage identified a person as black. For many years after, American society held to a similar standard. The year 2000 was the first time the Census Bureau allowed citizens to identify themselves as multiracial.
Obama considers himself to be black, which is the primary factor the News Sentinel would use in making an identification. But if he were to say that he wished to be identified as biracial, I would think we would comply. has an interesting item that discusses the issue further.

Where’s news of Midwest floods?

Today’s complaint:
“Page two had the celebrity news and page three had a giant Serta ad. Wonderful, except that 11 Midwest states are in disaster as a result of torrential rains. I looked in vain for some written news about this. Nada. What is wrong with this picture? Are your editors so imbued with local politics that the world stops? Are there not AP and Reuters feeds that perhaps might supersede UT football? I guess I thought newspapers were educational vehicles for important current events.”
The irony of this note is that the reader obviously already was well informed about the Midwest flooding. He wasn’t looking in the News Sentinel for news, but for affirmation, and perhaps more in-depth information. Not finding it, he came away feeling that the newspaper had not satisfied his needs.
The News Sentinel, of course, has no special ability to gather or provide news of Midwest flooding. More information than we could possibly publish is readily available through a variety of sources online and elsewhere. That’s why we have made a conscious decision to focus on local news, the niche in which we have unique capabilities.
We recently completed a content audit showing that, during the week measured, 54 percent of our editorial content was local. The rest included national and international news, stock listings, comics, etc. (The audit addressed only editorial content, not ads.)We’d actually like to push that local figure up to 60 percent in the coming year.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t find ways to include major national news in the paper, and, ideally, make the national news relevant to local readers.

Lack of D-Day coverage criticized

I received this note from a Vonore resident:
“On June 6th, I could not find any reference to the historic day (D-Day… to you
and your uninformed staff) in your paper. That is very sad. Your staff obviously has forgotten what happened 64 years ago on this day. I am extremely disappointed in your paper. May I suggest a full-page apology to the Americans who do not forget our history and the people who died on this day.”
We are publishing the criticism, but a full-page apology will not be forthcoming.
The handling of memorial coverage is an issue we deal with several times a year. This past Memorial Day, for instance, we carried A1 stories with a Memorial Day theme on Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday (when we published coverage of the actual Memorial Day events). But on Monday, our only coverage was on Page B1. That drew criticism.
Likewise, each year we try hard to “Remember Pearl Harbor,” though the tragic events of that day will be two-thirds of a century in the past this December. Is annual coverage still of widespread reader interest?
My father actually was at Normandy. Not on the day of the landing. He was in the Navy on an LST, which helped put ashore Patton’s tanks a few weeks after D-Day. There’s a famous photograph of his ship and other LSTs on the beach, which is a beehive of activity topped by barrage balloons. D-Day is of personal interest to me. But I’m not sure the 64th anniversary was newsworthy, although for at least one reader, it certainly was.

Reader hates Thomas Sowell

This recently from a reader:
“I request that you discontinue carrying the column by Thomas Sowell on the editorial pages of the News Sentinel. The content of Mr. Sowell’s column is filled with blatant untruths, distorted truths, and unacceptable vitriol. Although he presents material as fact in his column, a review of these facts reveals they are not. His content is misleading, demeaning and is of such low-quality journalism that I am surprised you are still publishing his material. Your readers deserve better than this.”
I’ve been hearing from readers about Thomas Sowell for at least 20 years now, dating back to my days in Albuquerque. Some find his columns shallow and simplistic. But many love him.
Sowell does have an admirable background. A high school drop out who got a GED after serving in the Marines, he eventually earned degrees from Harvard, Columbia and the University of Chicago. He is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
My biggest complaint is that I find Sowell predictable, but then, I’ve been reading him for two decades.