On Friday, May 14, Channel 5 morning host Dan MacDonald received a rather disturbing phone call from The Tennessean’s Kirk Loggins. An experienced reporter with a near institutional knowledge of the Metro Courthouse, Loggins was working on a story about how MacDonald and attorney James “Rusty” Omer apparently wriggled out of DUI charges by paying good lawyers to exploit weaknesses in the cases against them.
That a competent attorney can aid a defendant is not exactly headline news, but nevertheless, MacDonald surely must have known he was in trouble.
Last December, MacDonald was pulled over for speeding, and after he refused to take a Breathalyzer test, he was charged with DUI. MacDonald did not inform his boss, news director Mike Cutler, about the incident, and when the apparently flimsy charge was dismissed due to insufficient evidence, he probably figured it was ancient history. But soon after the Loggins phone call, MacDonald told both Cutler and station general manager Lem Lewis about what Loggins was reporting. Immediately, Lewis made the decision to suspend the morning host with pay.
Under the vaguely promising headline, “Critics say DUI charges disappear in some Metro cases,” The Tennessean prominently ran the story on the front page of its local section for the May 17 edition. It was, for the skilled Loggins, an uncharacteristically weak piece.
For one, only two examples were presented, and despite the subject of the headline, no “critics”unless you count the arresting officerwere quoted implying that either MacDonald or Omer received preferential treatment. The story, however, gave the readers the impression that the two were unjustly favored by having prosecuting attorneys vigorously defend how they handled the case. Indeed, if MacDonald and Omer are guilty of anything, it is of hiring a good attorney to poke holes in a bad case.
It’s doubtful that MacDonald used his public profile as a semi-recognizable TV reporter/anchor as leverage in the case against him. Indeed, when asked about both cases, Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson said, “I have no reason to believe that either of these cases were settled in an inappropriate way because of who they were. Absolutely zero.” And Deb Smith, the prosecuting attorney in charge of MacDonald’s case, said that in regard to the defendant, she “didn’t know him from Adam.”
But despite weaknesses in the article that executives at a news station should recognize, Lewis decided to take MacDonald off the air permanently not long after the story ran. Essentially, Lewis reacted not to the charge itself, which was dismissed due to insufficient evidence, but to the story and accompanying publicity that followed. Image is, after all, everything.
Anyhow, last Thursday, the general manager met with the chastened reporter and informed him of his decision. MacDonald soon told a few of his co-workers before that evening’s 6 p.m. news. After the newscast, Cutler held a staff meeting informing the newsroom of the decision. The following day, Lewis, who according to one staffer is that rare general manager who has the respect of his newsroom, spoke to his staff about his decision.
While he supposedly lectured sanctimoniously about how a news organization that routinely covers DUI cases can’t be tainted, the rank and file did not buy it. “Many people here are just devastated,” says one staffer. “The newsroom is just shocked.”
The staffer did acknowledge that MacDonald should have told Lewis about the incident immediately after it happened. “There are rules. But this seems tough. There’s no question he had to be punished, but after all he’s done for the station, this was a little severe.”
MacDonald is good at his job. This past Monday, Tennessean media writer John Shiffman wrote an excellent piece in which he reported the findings of a 14-member panel that rated recent TV news stories. Ironically, MacDonald’s timely story on how easy it can be for underage teens to purchase ammunition was rated as the best. Indeed, one judge said that the reporter was investigating things the ATF should be looking at.
But for MacDonald, who has worked at the station for a total of more than eight years, his days at News Channel 5 are numbered. Sources say that this January the station will exercise its “out clause” in MacDonald’s contract. (Until then, MacDonald might produce a few stories but he won’t be on air.) And not only will the newsman be out of a job, he may be prohibited from working at other local stations due to a non-compete clause in his contract.
In a business where ambitious reporters hop from market to market, MacDonald, 37, has made ties to the city. He is well-liked by his co-workers and is active in the community, recently running a marathon for the Leukemia Society raising $3,223, according to an official at the charity. Making matters infinitely worse is the fact that MacDonald’s wife is five months pregnant.
When contacted, Lewis said blankly, “We do not comment on personnel matters.” In addition, once Lewis and Cutler received word that other media outlets were working on the MacDonald story, they took the hypocritical step of telling their staff not to talk to reporters.
MacDonald, for his part, said that “it was inappropriate to comment at this time.” The newsman may well be considering legal action against the station.
I wonder if Channel 5 will hire a good attorney.