Monthly Archives: August 2011

‘Mom and pop’ news rules on News Sentinel sites

Often I get complaints that the News Sentinel is too parochial, especially in its choice of stories for the front page. Here’s a typical letter I recently received, which got a good bit of comment when it was posted online:
stormb465c9ee2dc65bdf647e2_t607.jpg“As we speak, there is a hurricane threatening millions of people all along the east coast. Most of the world is on the edge of their seats watching the battle for freedom in Libya, after the evil dictator Gadhafi’s 42 years in power. I go out this morning and pick up my newspaper, and quickly look at the front page, looking for an update on these two important issues. The lead story: LODGE LACKING RECORDS. HUH??? I happen to know about this Lodge from past articles, but lead story on the front page??!! The next prominent story is: A (GARDEN) PLOT TWIST. Something about Knoxville’s Public Service Department clearing some guys garden by mistake. I had to go to page 12A to find updates on Hurricane Irene and Libya. Actually, I didn’t want to take the time to search for these stories, so I flipped on MSNBC News and got an immediate update on those stories and other very important issues.
“I know that mom and pop issues are important to lots of folks in Knoxville. But, Knoxville is the major metropolitan city in East Tennessee, with major industry and a major university, and, I like to think, people that are progressive and think about global and priority issues. If I were a business, contemplating bringing my company to Knoxville, and I read today’s front page, I would honestly question how progressive this community is. Come on now! This is not that hard. Articles like the LODGE and GARDEN mystery are important, and I do enjoy reading about these type of human interest stories. But, these stories belong in Section B or C. A city newspaper needs to reflect the progressive thinking of it’s readers. Metropolitan Knoxville deserves better.”
This was my response to the reader:
Thank you for your note. Your comment reflects the dilemma of publishing a local newspaper in today’s media environment. Although you wanted to see Libya and the hurricane on the front page, you did not actually expect to get the latest news of those two events from the newspaper. Many other outlets, such as MSNBC and the News Sentinel website, have considerably more information, updated more recently.
“As a local newspaper, we can feature on the front page the stories everyone considers important, even though we know the gesture will be largely symbolic and the information we present will be, at best, redundant and, at worst, outdated and incomplete. Or we can feature on the front page the stories that are important only locally but about which we have authoritative and exclusive information.
“We have chosen to emphasize, and invest in, what we do best and what others cannot do — reporting Knoxville news. I’m not sure I would consider that unprogressive, but rather realistic about the modern media world.”
The situation was called to mind again when i saw the stats for the most-viewed stories on our website last Saturday, when Irene was hitting the coast.
Mary_Lou_Horner_t120.jpgThe top nine stories were all from, including articles about recruits, the basketball and football teams, Pat Summitt, the NCAA investigation and even ticket sales. The next seven stories were local news stories on, led by word that former County Commissioner Mary Lou Horner has Alzheimer’s disease. The community garden story, which had been on the site for more than a day by then, still ranked 18th in readership, and it was only after that — at No. 19 — that the latest storm news showed up. News of Libya was nowhere in the top 50.

Details of Jenkins’ death trigger outrage

We have gotten several emails angry about Jim Balloch’s story that included a paragraph toward the end describing details of Loudon County Assessor Chuck Jenkins’ suicide.
“I am an attorney in Loudon County and a close friend of Chuck Jenkins’ family,” wrote Kimberlee A. Waterhouse. “I have been there with them every day and most nights since his very unfortunate death. I have personally witnessed the devastation to his wife and daughters. You should read many times the comments made by ‘docphillips‘ and search your heart as to how you can make right what you have done by publishing those intimate details of his death. It was unnecessary and very harmful to the entire family to have those details put out in the public especially in a small community. I can not fathom what you or your newspaper could have thought was a justifiable reason for your actions.”
Normally we would not have included details of a suicide, which in this case were taken from the police incident report. But Jenkins’ fight against political corruption in Loudon County had raised many questions about his death.
“Doesn’t add up to suicide at all,” wrote a commenter on a column I wrote about Jenkins. “‘Found in basement’ immediately perked up my ears. Where you take someone when you want to get rid of them and not make a lot of noise in the process. Was there a suicide note? Did friends and loved ones see any signs? Usually they do. And if they don’t, the decedent will usually leave some sort of letter or explanation behind. Will the truth about everything ever be truly known?”
Wrote another commenter: “You should have the KNS push for an investigation into whether or not the death of Mr. Jenkins was, in fact, a suicide.”
Based on these sorts of comments, we pushed to see the police incident report, and, tragically, the details of Jenkins’ death make it pretty clear that it was a suicide.

Pat Summitt’s illness will affect Lady Vols coverage

I got a call today from Richard Martin, a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times. He’s a medical writer working on a story about how media coverage of Pat Summitt might be affected by her diagnosis of early onset dementia.
utrutgers16_sy_t607.jpgI explained to him that Summitt was so highly regarded that reporters were unlikely to be critical as she balances coaching with battling the disease. There’s no denying, though, that the illness adds a significant new dimension to coverage of the Lady Vols basketball program. Even if there is no second guessing of Summitt’s coaching, there will be ongoing coverage of her health.
In fact, as Martin pointed out, Summitt is the first celebrity sufferer of Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicts more than 25 million people worldwide. Her struggle could be a high-profile one that proves invaluable in raising awareness of the disease and the issues surrounding it. But that would shift the focus of some Lady Vols stories.
The News Sentinel’s Dan Fleser is as close to the Lady Vols as any reporter in the country, and his coverage of women’s basketball earned him the 2008 Mel Greenberg Award, presented by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association to recognize commitment to the game. His coverage of Pat Summitt and the University of Tennessee team will continue to be marked by sensitivity, respect, insight and thoroughness.

Column on source who killed self drew reaction

My column about the suicide of Loudon County Assessor Chuck Jenkins drew quite a bit of comment, online and via emails. Jenkins was a source of information for writer Hugh Willett in his reporting about the dealings between Rarity Bay developer Mike Ross and Jenkins’ predecessor Doyle Arp.
jenkins03_t160.jpgMany of the comments were positive and from people who knew Jenkins, such as this one:
“Let me introduce my self. I am Don Hawkins, pastor of Crossroads Church of the Nazarene, in Lenoir City. I was the pastor of Mr. Chuck Jenkins. I just wanted to thank you for your article in the Sunday, August 14, issue of the the News Sentinel. I thought it to be fair and sensitive concerning the situation. These things are delicate, but you spoke the truth and I appreciated it. Chuck Jenkins was one the best men I have ever known. He was a wonderful Christian man and as you stated, “an honest and dedicated public official “. Thank you again for what you said.”
But at least one letter, from Lewis Edgar, principal broker for Rarity Bay Realty, was harshly critical, and I offer it here:
“Michael Ross may decide my email violates my Independent Contractor Confidential Agreement with Rarity Bay. If it does I will leave Rarity Bay knowing I was judged by a fair and honorable man; Michael Ross.
“My office, at Rarity Bay, is less than 30 feet from the office occupied by Michael Ross; so I can say ‘I know Michael Ross.’ Additionally, I know professionally and personally, Doyle Arp. It is my opinion that both have worked tirelessly to improve Loudon County and Tennessee.
rarity3e_t607.jpg“Here are some reasonable questions that should be answered by Jack McElroy and Hugh Willett. They are:
1. Does McElroy or Willett know Michael Ross or Doyle Arp, personally or professionally?
2. Did Jack McElroy or Hugh Willett research the man with “a disturbing complaint” Frank Renkel?
3. Did their research reveal Mr. Renkel’s successful involvement as a real estate purchasing in South Florida and Tennessee?
4. Did this research reveal Mr. Renkel’s introduction to Rarity Bay was from a South Florida and Tennessee Real Estate Investor?
5. Would an astute real estate buyer, like Mr. Renkel, seek a lowering of the assessment on their real estate holdings?
“Answers to the questions above will simply acknowledge Frank Renkel was a very good hard nose real estate buyer; however, it’s very important to remember ‘hard nose real estate buyer’; certainly not a novice.
“If you print these questions, with answers, I believe your blog postings will change. At the very least they will be posted with a particle of knowledge that was glaringly omitted from this article.
“Oh, and one last little juicy fact that requires me to quote McElroy. I quote ‘Late last year Dunavant opted not to prosecute, saying there was no evidence that Arp had gotten any payback for helping Ross, even though Ross had hired Arp’s son while dad trimmed the developer’s taxes’. That is a very strong insinuation Mr. McElroy. If you did your research you would know that Arp’s son worked, like me, as a real estate agent for Rarity; commission only; no paycheck! Hummm lets think about this for a moment; I’m Arp’s son and my dad is saving this developer a massive amount of money I would, at the very least, expect a paycheck!
“Mr. Mc Elroy I will take as fact all your statement that Mr. Jenkins was an “honest and dedicated public official”. I will take your statement as fact because I do not know Mr. Jenkins and not taking your word would be despicable, and disrespectable, on my part. However, you didn’t give the appearance of s single thought before throwing Michael Ross, Doyle Arp and Doyle’s son in the flames of ‘The guilty’. Does Mr. Dunavant’s decision not to prosecute qualify him for the “no good dead goes unpunished” classification? Your article appears to say yes especially when it goes against your view that vile evil resides in every fiber of Michael Ross, Doyle Arp, their family, business and associates. At least give your readers all of the information. Too sad you are taken seriously by your readers.”

State slaps fee on checking its payroll database

Obstacles crop up when you want to find out how much government officials are paid. A trigger seems to be our annual list of the area’s highest paid public officials. We include the list each year in our Book of Lists directory and publish it in the paper.
Not surprisingly, TVA and UT employees dominate the top 100, with a few KUB and other government executives sprinkled in. But in 2010, TVA abruptly decided that only its top five salaries were public record and refused to release the rest. The agency quickly changed its mind after local congressmen registered their displeasure.
This year it’s the State of Tennessee that is proving difficult. As a matter of routine, we ask for the names and salaries of anyone in the Knoxville area working for state government — as opposed to UT — making $185,000-a-year or more. That would give us any names we needed to include in our top-100 list, which ended at $190,000 last year. This has never been a problem for the state, and, in fact, no state employee has made the list.
F-A_Logo.jpgThis year, however, our researcher got the following response from Lola Potter, public information office from the state Department of Finance and Administration:
“Since the last time you asked for this information, management of salary and compensation information has switched from the Department of Human Resources to the Department of Finance & Administration. Unlike Human Resources, F&A has the ability to charge a reasonable fee for working to provide specific information, based on time spent by a computer programmer to produce the information. The fee to produce the information you’ve requested is: 4 hours @ $27.6352 = $110.54. Please let me know how you’d like to proceed.”
Obviously we could cough up $110 to learn that, once again, no East Tennessee state employee made the list. But the charge is absurd. The state payroll is posted online as a searchable database. The only problem is, the public can search it only by name or position, not by salary. But salary is one of the data fields.
How it could take a state “computer programmer” with access to the database four hours to conduct such a search is beyond comprehension. So, we are amending our request to ask that the state just email us a copy of the database so we can do the search ourselves. It will be interesting to see what response that spawns.

Government secrecy fouls Amazon debate

Behind the debate over whether or not Amazon should have to collect sales taxes at its Tennessee distribution centers is an issue of government secrecy that involves many other taxpayers – or non-taxpayers as the case may be.
transparencylogo-recoveryMap-small.gifThe deal with Amazon comes in the form of a “private letter ruling” by the state commissioner of revenue. This is an administrative decision on what taxes have to be collected or paid. Such letters used to be made public, though in redacted form. But in 2008, Gov, Phil Bredesen determined such letters no longer had to published at all. Some 180 private letters have been issued since then, but the public knows nothing about what they say.
robertshomepage.jpgA bill that would have required these rulings to be posted on the state website — with identifying information redacted — died in the legislature this year. Richard Roberts, revenue commissioner for Gov. Bill Haslam, opposed the measure, saying it “would negatively affect potential job growth by impinging on taxpayer confidentiality.” He argued that release of information should be left to his discretion.
Haslam and his team should be less worried about confidentiality and more worried about taxpayer confidence in the system. The governor already has a perception problem when it comes to transparency. He came under fire during the campaign for refusing to reveal his Pilot-related income, and he launched his term by limiting the financial disclosures of officials in his administration. Employing government largesse to lure large employers to the state is one thing. Cutting secret deals with big business is quite another.
By the way, anyone dissatisfied with their tax situation can request a private letter ruling from the Revenue Department. Instructions are on its website. The problem is, you have to include $500 with your request – or $10,000 if you’d like your ruling expedited.

Cyberbullying law may face First Amendment suit

Among the bad bills passed by the Legislature this year was an amendment to the criminal harassment statute that made it a crime to communicate about another person or display an image via email, web postings or the like that deliberately caused emotional distress or fear. The law, which went into effect July 1, also lets cops and prosecutors demand records from social networks and other service providers to find out who posted any offending message.
As must be particularly obvious to folks who read blogs, this is fraught with First Amendment difficulties. Word is a legal challenge is planned by Media Coalition, an association that defends First Amendment rights. We criticized the bill in an editorial during the session, but too late. It passed by an overwhelming marjority.

Ramadan ‘Mini Page’ sparks complaints

Usually the ‘Mini Page’ is a section of the paper that triggers only positive reactions. It runs in the Comics section every Sunday and features articles, games and illustrations on topical themes. It is targeted toward children, though I hear from many adults who enjoy the page, also.
minipage.jpgBut the July 31 ‘Mini Page’ triggered a couple of complaints because it featured the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which began Aug. 1. A website even posted an attack on the page that included the following:
“I’d venture to say that very few parents ‘police’ the ‘Comics’ section of the Sunday paper before letting their children read the comics. Heck…it almost got past me. I’d venture to say that people would be up in arms if this page would have been plastered with ‘Jesus’ and encouragement to celebrate and worship like a Christian. I’ll bet they wouldn’t even dare put anything on the ‘Mini Page’ like that for fear of being tarred and feathered. This slipped right through though, and I’ve noticed little if any negative reaction here in the Knoxville area. They are slipping this through to our children right under our noses and we are none the wiser.”
Actually, many ‘Mini Pages’ have celebrated Christmas through the years. A search of the Mini Page Archives maintained by the University of North Carolina turns up dozens of them through the years, addressing themes such as Christmas trees, carols, traditions, history, symbols, foods and the spirit of Christmas. A few pages through the years also have dealt with Jewish holidays. But the archive, covering 1969 to 2007, includes no other page about Ramadan.
This apparently was the first time the holiday — celebrated by a few million Americans and a fifth of the world’s population — has been presented.