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Weekly weeders

By Henry Walker

July 8, 1997:  With one member decrying the nation's daily newspapers as "a bunch of scum-sucking pigs," the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) voted overwhelmingly last week to continue denying membership to any "alternative" paper owned by a daily newspaper.

The assembled publishers, gathered in Montreal for the association's annual convention, were accurately described by one participant as "a bunch of self-absorbed white people." The assemblage included a number of long-haired millionaires who still dress, talk, and vote like it's 1969. When it comes to business, though, they recognize who the enemy is.

"We're a trade organization, and we're here to protect our own interests," shouted Mike Lacey, executive editor of New Times Inc., a chain of successful alternative weeklies in cities such as Miami, Houston, and Los Angeles. "Dailies have started alternative papers," he said. "They see this market as their next revenue stream."

Although a majority of the AAN board recommended the controversial change, it was voted down by a 3-to-1 margin. Tennessee's three AAN papers split on the issue. Nashville Scene publisher Albie Del Favero and Memphis Flyer publisher Ken Neill voted to allow papers owned by dailies to be considered for membership on a case-by-case basis. Representing Knoxville's Metro Pulse, Charlotte Klasson voted to keep the dailies out.

"There's a lot of hypocrisy here," Neill said. "Why is a daily more venal than a weekly paper? The real issue is local ownership, not how many times a week you publish." Klasson replied that her paper is "at war" with the Knoxville News-Sentinel and said she saw no reason to sleep with the enemy.

Del Favero was elected AAN vice president, a position that is usually a stepping stone to the presidency of the 111-member organization. "I can't really say anything good about [Del Favero]," announced Tom Yoder of the Chicago Reader. "But I know his partner [Scene editor Bruce Dobie], and he's a good guy."

Flowers from fools

Laurels to WTVF-Channel 5's Larry Brinton for reporting last week that The Tennessean sought permission to send a gift of flowers or a fruit basket to accused serial killer Paul Reid.

As Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland confirmed Tuesday, an editor at the paper thought sending flowers or fruit to Reid at the Metro jail might persuade Reid to grant the paper an interview. The suggestion came from assistant managing editor/news Catherine Mayhew, who directed state-court reporter Kirk Loggins to ask officials at the Metro jail if Reid could accept the gifts.

Fortunately for The Tennessean, the sheriff's office refused permission. Even though he was not aware of the request at the time of Mayhew's proposal, Sutherland defends it as a "brainstorming" idea that the paper never actually decided to carry out. "We were examining how to get an interview with Reid," he said. "I've got no quarrel with asking the jail if we could send the gifts and then asking ourselves what the boundaries are."

Sutherland added there is "a lot of precedent" among newspapers for getting stories in that manner. He sees nothing wrong in principle with sending flowers to Reid, if that's what it takes to get the story.

Not everyone at The Tennessean agrees. Several staffers at the paper were angered and embarrassed by the idea of sending flowers to a man accused of murdering seven people. They should be. The Tennessean takes pains to learn what its readers think about the paper. The Gannettoids call it "ascertainment." Here's some ascertainment feedback for Mayhew:

The idea of sending flowers to Reid to get an interview insults the memory of the victims and should offend anyone who thinks even casually about the gift's implications. That a senior editor would seriously entertain the idea, and that Sutherland himself sees nothing wrong with it, shows how far out of touch the paper's managers are with their readers.

Off the record

While presiding over a private, off-the-record luncheon for members of the Capitol Hill press corps, Gov. Don Sundquist reportedly amused his guests with a pretty fair imitation of Fifth District Congressman Bob Clement.

Because the party was off the record, no one printed or broadcast Sundquist's joke except Tennessean political columnist Larry Daughtrey, who angered the governor's press secretary and some other reporters by publicizing the incident in a recent Sunday column.

Daughtrey's weekly column is like Teddy Bart's morning radio show: It may not be the paper's most popular feature, but it's read by everyone who counts. By making fun of Clement in a room full of reporters--all off the record, of course--Sundquist had to know that his jibe would get back to the thin-skinned congressman. But when Daughtrey put it in print, it was the journalistic equivalent of throwing a red flag between two bulls.

It was good journalism, but it drew fire on ethical grounds because of the arrangement with the governor. Daughtrey didn't attend the governor's luncheon. Two other Tennessean reporters did. Daughtrey didn't say how he learned about the joke and never mentioned that Sundquist had expressly asked that the joke be kept private.

"I was very disappointed to see that in Larry's column," said Beth Fortune, the governor's press officer. "I know the governor was disappointed too." Fortune said every other media outlet had honored the off the record pledge. She said that she had drafted a complaint to Daughtrey, but later "calmed down and decided not to send it." She described Daughtrey's actions as "irresponsible" and said the governor would now be less likely to have another off-the-record press session.

Among some media, especially the national press, it's now acceptable for a reporter to print off-the-record secrets if he or she learns them without making a pledge to remain silent. But even in Washington, the reporter who breaks the story should tell readers that the official's comments were made off-the-record and should explain, in general terms, how the reporter heard the story. By Nashville standards, Daughtrey broke the rules.

For his part, Daughtrey said he was only reporting information that was given to him. "I think you ought to print what you know," he said. "Had I been at the luncheon, obviously I wouldn't have used it." He said he heard about Sundquist's joke "from numerous sources inside and outside the Capitol Hill press." He didn't consult his two colleagues about the ethics of writing the story, but acknowledged that "maybe" he should have told readers that the governor's remarks were intended to be private.

Daughtrey didn't make a promise, but two of his colleagues did. Unless there's more at stake than a good punch line, that should have been enough.

On the other hand, Sundquist is an experienced politician of the Washington school and should have known better. Perhaps he should consider following Lamar Alexander's successful media strategy. The former governor talked constantly to the press, formally and informally, but never asked to go off-the-record. It's a good way to stay out of trouble.

To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (615-244-7989, ext. 445), call him at his office (615-252-2363), or send an e-mail to hwalker@bccb.com.

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