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Desperately Seeking the News




To no one’s surprise, TVA announced several months ago that electric rates would stay at current levels for another year. That makes 10 consecutive years without an increase. Nothing new there. But last week the Nashville Banner wrote a long editorial describing, yet again, the continued rate freeze and praising TVA’s “efficiency and productivity” under the “decisive” leadership of TVA chairman Craven Crowell.

Why the flattery? On the day the editorial appeared, Banner publisher Irby Simpkins was in China hobnobbing with Crowell and other TVA executives on an economic development mission. The editorial didn’t mention the China trip, nor did the paper bring up recent criticism of Crowell for awarding lucrative consulting contracts to friends and former coworkers to pay for, among other things, expensive visits to China.

Hearing that the Scene was asking questions about the China trip, Simpkins called from his hotel room in Beijing. “This is an important event,” he said. “It’s too bad there’s no one from the press here to cover it.”

A TVA spokesman said one purpose of the trip is to attract Chinese investment to the Tennessee Valley. Since Simpkins wasn’t there to write news stories, perhaps he was promising the Chinese favorable editorials.

Being half a world away didn’t keep Simpkins from continuing to use the Banner’s editorial page to flatter new friends like Crowell, while taking shots at enemies such as former state Finance Commissioner Bob Corker.

One of Gov. Don Sundquist’s most effective cabinet members, Corker left state government in July after months of behind-the-scenes sniping from Deputy Gov. Peaches Simpkins and occasional editorial attacks from her husband, Irby, in the Banner. The day after praising Crowell, the Banner criticized Corker for an obscure dispute involving pension benefits for outgoing members of the Public Service Commission. The paper blamed Corker for negotiating a deal with state legislators that, one Republican said, seems to “smack of politics and cronyism.” In fact, Corker had nothing to do with the PSC negotiations. They were handled, for the most part, by Peaches herself.

Most readers could care less about the pension dispute. Even the Banner’s own reporters ignored it. There was no apparent reason for the editorial other than to take a misplaced swipe at Corker.

“Peaches is still doing whatever she can to drive a wedge between Corker and Sundquist,” said an administration insider, “or, in this case, between Corker and state Republicans who are angry over the PSC deal.”

There’s nothing wrong with Simpkins speaking his mind through the Banner’s editorials. Strong-minded publishers and editors are part of what makes a good newspaper. But Simpkins too often follows a private agenda that leaves readers in the dark. Annotations would be helpful.


The Nashville Scene, too, could have used a translator to explain an anonymous, carefully written article in last week’s issue. “Setting the Record Straight With Mario” purported to “clear up any confusion that may have arisen” from a recent, highly critical review of Mario’s Ristorante by Scene food writer Kay West.

Scene editor and co-owner Bruce Dobie wouldn’t talk about the article and refused even to say who wrote it. But Jack Norman Jr., attorney for local restaurant owner Mario Ferrari, was more forthcoming.

“We thought [West’s review] was libelous,” Norman said, “and we sent the paper a letter asking for a retraction.” The attorney explained that anyone who intends to sue a newspaper for libel must first notify the paper of the allegedly defamatory statements. If the errors were made in good faith and the paper prints a “full and fair correction, apology, or retraction,” the plaintiff can “recover only actual, and not punitive, damages.”

Actual damages from a single article are hard to prove, even for a high-profile restaurant. Without the possibility of punitive damages, most libel cases aren’t worth pursuing.

After sending the letter, Norman met several times with Scene attorney John Williams. The two lawyers negotiated the wording in last week’s article. Norman said neither Dobie nor West was involved in the meetings.

Since the article’s publication, Norman said both sides have agreed to “let bygones be bygones” and not to discuss the matter further. “There were some bruised egos,” Norman said, “but everybody’s satisfied now.”

The only media coverage of the Scene’s legal troubles was an unusual story in last week’s Green Hills News by its publisher, Gary Cunningham. A friend of Ferrari, Cunningham wrote that the “number of inaccuracies in the article” coupled with the fact that a Scene account executive tried to persuade Mario to buy ads in the paper “to hit back at West” put the restaurant owner “in the driver’s seat.” According to Cunningham, Mario would either win his case or, just by filing suit, “drive the Scene’s libel insurance through the roof, if they could find a carrier that would insure them.”

Dobie said he disagreed with some aspects of Cunningham’s article and that the Green Hills publisher did not interview anyone at the Scene about the story. Dobie and his attorney both emphasized that last week’s “clarification” was not, in their view, a correction or retraction.

Maggie Bond, an account executive at the Scene, readily admits she tried to convince Mario to buy ads poking fun at West’s critical review.

Having borrowed heavily to buy the Scene, Dobie and co-owner Albie Del Favero are understandably nervous about libel suits. But that’s no excuse to mystify readers with anonymous, unexplained legalspeak.

West’s critical review provoked an unusually large number of letters and calls. Ironically, last week’s “clarification” seems likely to do Mario more harm than good by bringing up the controversy again. That’s the trouble with libel suits. They often backfire. Dobie, West, Williams, and Norman all realize that. Ferrari, one suspects, does not.

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