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Desperately Seeking the News




Ten days ago, the female co-owner of a West Nashville donut shop was shot twice behind the left ear at point-blank range during a bungled robbery attempt. Incredibly, the woman was not seriously hurt and returned to work the same day. The dramatic story made the Banner’s front page and was the only Tennessee item in USA Today’s 50-state roundup. The Tennessean wrote one paragraph.

Over the last three weeks, local historians have been feuding with state architect Mike Fitts over the location of one of the city’s best-known monuments, a 1927 statue commemorating the Battle of Nashville. The issue was apparently resolved last Thursday, according to the Banner, when Gov. Sundquist personally told the state architect that the statue should be located on the site of the battle and not, as Fitts wanted, on the Bicentennial Mall. The Banner covered the story from start to finish. Except for a guest column by a local preservationist, The Tennessean ignored the entire matter.

Last Friday, the Banner published a front-page story revealing that the Sundquist administration had once again interfered with efforts by state employees to enforce environmental protection laws. A state biologist was ordered not to cite a developer who illegally destroyed protected wetlands while building a golf course at Chickasaw State Park in West Tennessee. According to the Banner, the golf course is a pet project of Lt. Gov. John Wilder, speaker of the state senate and political ally of the governor. Nothing about the controversy has appeared in The Tennessean.

Early Saturday, two robbers were caught in the wake of a shoot-out with an employee at San Antonio Taco across 21st Avenue South from Vanderbilt. One robber was shot by the restaurant’s night manager, who started carrying a gun following an earlier robbery by the same pair. The Banner published the story under a five-column headline on the front of its “Metro/Region” section. Local television stations carried it. The Tennessean didn’t write a word.

Politics, crime, local history—these are stories that connect readers to their community. It’s what local papers have always done best. According to sources at the morning paper, however, editors at The Tennessean tell staffers the paper is no longer the city’s “newspaper of record.” That means legitimate news stories are regularly ignored in favor of features on “hot button” topics—like health care and education—selected through market research.

Boosted, in part, by the area’s booming economy and an aggressive telemarketing campaign, The Tennessean’s circulation has risen steadily in recent years, defying national trends. But the paper is becoming increasingly irrelevant to readers primarily interested in local news. The paper is drifting and doesn’t know it. It has lost its mission—and eventually, it will lose its readers too.


Anyone who cares about journalism will enjoy A History of Tennessee Newspapers, recently published by the Tennessee Press Association in celebration of the state’s bicentennial. Edited by Dr. Jack Mooney of East Tennessee State University, the book includes histories of most of the state’s newspapers and profiles of famous journalists.

Columbia publisher Sam Kennedy wrote the chapter on Middle Tennessee newspapers. Lamenting the growing influence of newspaper chains, Kennedy says the “only true independent daily” in Middle Tennessee today is the Shelbyville Times Gazette. The Banner, he writes, may be “locally owned and published,” but “its economic welfare is tied” to a joint operating agreement with the Gannett Company, owners of The Tennessean.

Kennedy describes the “lions” of Nashville journalism, including Luke Lea, Silliman Evans, and James G. “Jimmy” Stahlman, and complains that chain-owned newspapers are boring. “Those who molded opinion first, inviting both advertiser and public to follow or be damned, have been replaced by the politically and economically correct,” he writes. “Today’s newspapers are good, they are often informative, but they are often dull.”

An old lion himself, Kennedy can’t resist stirring things up. After criticizing Nashville’s papers, Kennedy said, he got a call from Banner news editor Tony Kessler inviting Kennedy to write an occasional column and to offer suggestions about news stories. Kennedy, a lawyer and former prosecutor, told Kessler the paper ought to look closely at Supreme Court Justice Penny White. The Banner, which had already started investigating White, jumped in with both feet. Other papers soon followed the Banner’s lead, and, thanks largely to the media, former Justice White is now practicing law again. Jimmy Stahlman would have been proud. A History of Tennessee Newspapers is available for $31.06 from the Tennessee Press Association. Call (423) 584-5761 and ask for Greg Sherrill.

Odds and ends

Laurels to Tennessean political reporter Larry Daughtrey for his first-person account of the 1968 Democratic Convention when the young reporter was clubbed by an out-of-control Chicago cop. Last week no journalist in the country did a better job than Daughtrey in describing how a generation of Americans “slipped its cultural moorings” that Wednesday night 28 years ago. Daughtrey, when he wants to be, is a first-rate reporter and one of the paper’s best writers. Too often, though, he’s a cheerleader for state Democrats.

Daughtrey’s wife, also a Democrat, is a prominent federal judge and Supreme Court wanna-be—something to keep in mind whenever husband Larry writes about that wanna-be namer of Supreme Court nominees, Al Gore.

♦ Radio station WRLT’s politically incorrect morning deejay, Adam Dread, has quit the station after his contract expired last Friday. Neither Dread nor the station seems disappointed. Dread says he expects to be at another station soon, but, for the time being, Dread and his regular guests, including the Scene’s media critic, are off mic.

To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (244-7989, ext. 445), call him directly at 252-2363 or send an e-mail to hwalker@bccb.com.

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