Monthly Archives: June 2009

Prostitution series draws some complaints

Any time you deal with a topic as gritty as prostitution you are going to get some complaints.
Our three-part series on the topic launched Sunday. We haven’t been overwhelmed with calls and e-mails, but we’ve been getting some. Here are a couple::
“Really … how important is it for the trash of Knoxville (sex and prostitution) to be publicized on the FRONT PAGE????? Just wondering, exactly what is the reason for the series? Will it sell more papers? Will it encourage more women to get into the business? Will it encourage more men to solicit the women? Will it entice more teenagers? Will it stop prostitution?”
“One of the first thing I noticed was the arrest discrepancy: 525 people (mostly women) arrested for selling sex, and only 257 people (mostly men) arrested for buying it. The rest of the article consists mostly of stories, and pictures, of prostitutes only. There’s even a column of mug shots, all of female prostitutes. What about the johns? Yes, these tend to be men with jobs and families and reputations. And yes, these are the people most likely to sue a newspaper? What of it? Prostitutes aren’t dirt, they are victims, and they are being inordinately punished first by the legal system and now by your paper.”
It’s a cliche that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, so the story is not a new one. But it is a social issue that deserves periodic examination.
Reporter J.J. Stambaugh has uncovered some new dimensions to the age-old problem, including the extensive use of the Internet to thwart police and the very high incidence of some sexually transmitted diseases in Knoxville. He’s done a thorough job looking into the issue and deals with it in a forthright and sensitive manner.
The series doesn’t in any way makes prostitution look attractive. Our photographs by Adam Brimer, who actually is working as an intern, and our video by Web producer Erin Chapin are particulary disturbing and powerful.
As to the question of johns, we have a list of everyone arrested for soliciting prostitution from January 1999 to May 2009 posted online.

When private e-mails are public business

Personal e-mails have become part of the scandal surrounding South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. The State newspaper in Columbia anonymously received damaging e-mails several months ago but published them only after the story broke earlier this week.
Also this week, the News Sentinel received a response to its request to inspect the e-mails county Law Director Bill Lockett sent and received at work. Asssistant Law Director Joe Jarret released some of the e-mails but said others fell under attorney-client privilege.
“Further,” he wrote, “we have been advised that personal e-mails that do not meet the definition of a public record under Tennessee Law are likewise not subject to disclosure.”
So, sitting in a file on a government computer are e-mails Lockett wrote while working for taxpayers that the public can’t see because they have been deemed personal.
The problem, of course, is that what the law director’s office considers personal might very well be of considerable public interest. After all, it’s personal business — such as a $10,000 loan from a developer — that has undermined Lockett’s credibility to the point that the County Commission doesn’t want him involved in county business.
Sanford’s affair with an Argentine mistress, and any e-mails on government computers related to it, would seem to now be public business. Similarly, the e-mails of former UT president J. Wade Gilley about his personal relationship with a subordinate became public business when they led to his resignation.
An unreported court case in another Tennessee jurisdiction may support Jarret’s interpretation of the public records act. But we are pursuing the matter further.

KNS wins awards for advocacy journalism

In a comment on an earlier post, Number9 quotes the Wikipedia definition of advocacy journalism:
“Advocacy journalism is a genre of journalism that intentionally and transparently adopts a non-objective viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose. Because it is intended to be factual, it is distinguished from propaganda. It is also distinct from instances of media bias and failures of objectivity in media outlets, which attempt to be–or which present themselves as–objective or neutral.”
I think that’s a fair definition. Most of the News Sentinel’s journalism does not fit into that category. But some does. I would say our lawsuit and editorial push for openness in Knox County government a couple of years ago was a case of advocacy journalism. So, likewise, was our push last year to allow citizens to vote on the charter amendments developed through the Knox County, One Question process.
For what it’s worth, the News Sentinel won the Tennessee Press Association’s public service award the past two years for those initiatives.
I think, as the definition indicates, transparency is the secret to assuring that advocacy journalism is honest journalism.

Journalists worst fault? We’re narcissists

In a recent Vanity Fair article, Mark Pressman rates the validity of nine reasons people hate the media.
On a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 being “you’re right, we’re scum of the earth,” Pressman thinks there’s considerable validity to the accusations that the media are too liberal (7) and screw up too much (7).
But he bestows his highest score — an 8 — on the sense that journalists are a bunch of narcissists:
“Ever notice how the media is obsessed with reporting on itself? Who cares! Maybe they should spend less time navel-gazing and more time giving us real news.”
I guess the fact that I’m blogging about this item shows I’m “guilty as charged,” too.
My only question is why Pressman only came up with nine reasons people hate the media. On any given day, I must hear at least 20.

Column on Obama smear draws accusations of bias

I’ve gotten quite a bit of response to my Sunday column that blamed the dissemination of a racial smear by a legislative aide on a blurring of the line between political opposition and racist attack within certain circles of the Tennessee Republican Party.
Some readers have complained that I criticized the Republicans for this incident but haven’t taken on the Democrats for David Letterman’s remarks about Sarah Palin or for similar incidents.
Here’s what one wrote:
“Sometime ago I was offended when a friend, an avowed liberal Democrat, kept forwarding, via emails, cartoons showing President George W. Bush dodging the cross hairs of an assassin’s telescopic sight (and) Vice President Cheney dying of a massive and painful heart attack. I asked him to quit when he sent a clip of Donald Rumsfeld being beheaded by Islamic terrorists. I wonder if any of the staff of the News Sentinel received any of these email cartoons on their company computers? If so, I never saw any indignation forthcoming supporting political civility. … When David Letterman insulted Governor Palin, insinuated the molestation of her child, was that a real knee slapper moment in the N/S newsroom?”
I agree that e-mails gleefully contemplating the deaths of Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld are offensive, and I thought Letterman’s remark about Palin’s 14-year-old daughter was inappropriate.
The difference is that the Obama e-mail was spread by an aide to one of the GOP leaders of the Tennessee legislature from her office during the session.
If folks are aware of aides to top Democrats in Tennessee distributing such vile material, please let me know. That’ll be a story that will warrant comment, too.

Turnabout kept gun records open to public

Frank Gibson, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, was so certain that handgun-carry permits would be made secret that he listed the closure of those records among the measures that were “adopted” on his report to the TCOG board last Thursday.
Gibson was able to announce that the bill had failed in the final moments of the 2009 legislature when a handful of Republicans decided to “take a walk” during the voting, denying the measure a majority in the state Senate.
The bill had seemed like a sure thing ever since The Commercial Appeal in Memphis posted a database of the records on its Web site, angering the Tennessee Firearms Association and other gun supporters.
Why the sudden turn of events?
It seems gun lobbyists and the Republican Party realized that, if the records were closed, they, too, would no longer be able to use the database, which was valuable for marketing and fund-raising. Attempts were made to modify the bill to ban the media and the public but to allow the firearms industry and conservative political organizations access to the data. But Sen. Doug Overbey, a lawyer, pointed out the unconstitutionality of such discrimination.
Sen. Majority Leader Mark Norris had sponsored the bill. Soon after its failure, he was off to Chattanooga for a family event. There, in the Sheraton Read House, he stumbled upon the Tennessee Press Association’s summer convention, where Gibson had given his legislative report.
When the two met, Norris jokingly accused Gibson of stalking him until Gibson pointed out that he had arrived in Chattanooga a few hours earlier than the senator, and that maybe the situation was the other way around.

Will liberal bias taint AP’s new service?

The Associated Press announced this week it will begin distributing content from four nonprofit investigative reporting groups: the Center for Public Integrity, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and ProPublica.
The American Spectator and others criticized the move, labelling the four groups as “left-leaning.”
There is liberal funding behind some of the groups. ProPublica, for instance, is the creation of Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler, savings and loan billionaires who have been big Democratic donors and were critics of the Bush Administration. But they have hired a highly respected journalist, Paul Steiger, as editor and chief. Steiger won 16 Pulitzer Prizes as managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and says he has been given a free hand at ProPublica.
In any event, the groups are doing some interesting work. The Center for Public Integrity has teamed up with Northwestern University to create a public database of 22,000 trips taken by Pentagon officials but paid for by private interests. ProPublica, meanwhile, is teaming with The New York Times to create a national database where reporters can post their source documents for readers to examine.
Those efforts seem like the kind of unfiltered presentations of information that media critics have been calling for.
If the journalism the groups deliver through the AP is good, it’ll be a benefit to News Sentinel readers regardless of funding sources.

D-Day still in readers’ minds

Back from vacation, and a few of the messages awaiting me are criticisms of our coverage — or lack thereof — of the 65th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy.
Here’s what one letter-writer had to say:
You and your newspaper should be ashamed. June 6th, 65 years ago, thousands of American men and women gave their lives along with other Allied forces in defense of freedom. The only mention in your so-called “newspaper” is a guest column on the editorial page. Shame on you!
We didn’t forget about the anniversary. Fred Brown, our retired senior writer, actually went to Normandy to cover the honoring of a Knoxville D-Day veteran. But his report on the event couldn’t appear until the Sunday paper, on June 7.
And many readers still expect to see D-Day coverage — on D-Day.

McElroy screws up on the radio

I made a big mistake on the T. Blackman radio show this morning, referring to p-card misuse involving alcohol purchases by John Troyer.
That was a complete brain cramp. John Troyer is the current county finance director. John Werner, the former director, is who I meant to refer to.
I’ve called Mr. Troyer with my apologies and will go on the air on the same show at the same time tomorrow to repeat those apologies.