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Is Tim Chavez using his job to promote the GOP?



The message from a friend at The Tennessean was hard to believe: “Tim Chavez is listed as one of the 'Reagan Day Picnic’ speakers for the Tennessee Republican Party June 30. How can he get away with that? And they even have his column on the front page of their Web site.”

Say it ain’t so, Tim.

Surely he remembers the Sutherland fiasco. Less than a year ago, the Tennessean editor publicly apologized to readers for appearing in a Gore-for-president campaign video. As the editor reminded everyone, journalists (other than publishers) aren’t supposed to endorse candidates, work in campaigns, or engage in overtly partisan political activity.

It just looks bad.

Even for a columnist who wears his politics on his sleeve, giving a speech at a political rally is akin to writing about the publisher’s divorce. Every summer intern knows better.

But Chavez didn’t.

Along with Republican Congressman Ed Bryant and Republican gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary, Chavez agreed to address the GOP faithful at last Saturday’s picnic sponsored by the Davidson County Republican Party. Worse, Chavez promoted the event in his column.

On the day of the picnic, Chavez wrote that “Metro conservatives” would be gathering that afternoon to honor Ronald Reagan and discuss “relegating the Democratic Party statewide to political insignificance.” While helpfully telling readers where to go and when, Chavez never mentioned that the gathering was actually a GOP pep rally.

“I trust you saw Chavez trying to whip up his own crowd today,” my Tennessean friend wrote.

A year ago, the Gannett newspaper chain adopted a much-ballyhooed “statement of ethical principles” for all Gannett-owned papers. Sutherland himself helped write it (about the same time he agreed to appear in the Gore-for-president video).

“The Tennessean newsroom intends to live by those principles,” he promised readers (about six weeks before his public apology).

Here’s what the guidelines say:

♦ “We will remain free of outside interests...that may compromise the credibility of our news report.”

♦ “We will maintain an impartial, arm’s length relationship with anyone seeking to influence the news.”

♦ “We will avoid potential conflicts of interest and eliminate inappropriate influence on content.”

To illustrate the ethical principles, Gannett also adopted “recommended practices.” News staffers “are encouraged to be involved in worthwhile community activities, so long as this does not compromise the credibility of news coverage. When avoidable personal or business interests could compromise the newspaper’s credibility, such potential conflicts must be disclosed to one’s superior and, if relevant, to readers.”

Hmmm, let’s see. A journalist who opines about the governor’s race appearing alongside the likely Republican nominee? A columnist using the paper to drum up an audience for a political rally without telling readers that he’s scheduled to be on the program?

In the end, Chavez didn’t show up. He called event organizer Dave Backs at the last minute and canceled because of a family illness.

“He was sorry he couldn’t be here,” Backs said at the picnic. “He was going to talk about education issues.”

Chavez has written several columns lately praising Republican education programs, although more often than not, his columns are left-leaning. To gin up interest in Saturday’s meeting, one of the pro-Bush columns was posted on the state GOP’s Web site.

Backs himself thought it was a little odd that The Tennessean would allow a columnist to speak at a Republican Party rally but speculated that the liberal daily might be trying to “reach out to conservative readers to improve circulation.”

It’s more likely that Sutherland and managing editor Dave Green didn’t even know about it.

A young Tennessean reporter sent to cover the event didn’t know about it either. When told that Chavez was supposed to be on the program, he wondered aloud how it could have happened. Despite two hours of speechmaking, no story appeared in Sunday’s paper.

By deadline, Sutherland and Green had not responded to faxed questions about Chavez’s actions. Chavez himself, who declined comment, is a pleasant, unassuming man, the last person you’d suspect of letting ego get in the way of judgment. Maybe he accepted the invitation just to be polite. But you can bet he won’t do it again.

Sour note

The Country Music Association has asked that WSMV-Channel 4 reporter James Lewis not be assigned to cover CMA-sponsored events after Lewis allegedly “shoved” and “was abusive” to an association employee during Fan Fair.

“I’ve asked them to send someone else,” CMA publicist Wendy Pearl says, explaining that one of her assistants tried to prevent Lewis from going into the stands at Adelphia Coliseum to interview fans during a concert. “He said ‘just watch me’ and shoved her out of the way.”

Station sources confirm that the CMA sent Lewis’ boss an e-mail asking that other reporters be assigned to cover CMA events. The station has not yet responded.

Lewis himself did not return calls.

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