Desperately Seeking the News
By Henry Walker
July 21, 1997: If media organizations are "tools of white supremacists," as several speakers charged during Fisk University's recent conference on race relations, it's hard to explain the panderingcoverage the conference received last week in the local press.
On the second day of the conference, a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist argued that white racism is rooted in "genetic survival" and fear of "black genetic dominance." Illustrating her argument with sexually explicit drawings, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing argued that whites are worried about the large sex organs of black men and that the white "obsessions" with getting a suntan and smoking cigars demonstrate that whites are fascinated by skin color and penis size.
The keynote speaker at the conference, Welsing was described by The Tennessean as "a national expert on racism." The story by reporter Linda Moore managed to leave out most of Welsing's crazier theories.
The next day, another race-relations "expert," rapper Chuck D, told the audience, "We got to kill some people" in order to solve the problem of racism. Fellow panelist, jazz drummer Max Roach, said he longed for the good old days of segregation. "I'm a segregationist totally," he reportedly told the audience.
The Tennessean's Rick de Yampert, who normally writes about rock music, assured readers that Chuck D was "perceived [by the audience] as speaking with metaphor and exaggeration in the confrontational tradition of his rap group." De Yampert noted that at least one audience member, who apparently didn't appreciate Chuck D's metaphorical style, told the rapper that "killing people is not a solution."
On Saturday, The Tennessean spun these bizarre statements into a front-page story headlined "Discomfort has a place at conference."
The conference finally ended Sunday with participants agreeing on 21 "action items" that will purportedly be sent to President Clinton for consideration. Among the items: "reparations for persons of color affected by global practices of genocide," the abandonment of the "Eurocentric framework" of public education, and "dismantling all media structures that reflect white supremacy and the imbalance of power." Beginning Sept. 1, the conference report stated, "all media organizations" will be "monitored" and "sanctioned" for racist content. It might be good to start with the reverse racism in the morning daily.
Nashville Banner reporter Lady Hereford did a generally better job than her counterparts at The Tennessean in conveying the overall level of nuttiness at the conference. But the Banner's lead editorial Friday afternoon praised the conference for attracting "the brightest, most forward looking experts of the day" and predicted that the conference would help "mend our nation's racial rift." The Banner said Clinton should study the conference's recommendations "with the same intensity that went into formulating them."
Legal uneaseNo lawyers have appeared yet at the Nashville Scene's offices in response to the paper's cover story about Baptist Hospital president David Stringfield. Before the article appeared, local attorney Bob Ballow implicitly threatened the paper with a libel suit based on what Ballow described as "prima facie evidence" that the story, although unpublished, was "not designed to be a fair, objective, and professional news piece."
However, Ballow's firm, King & Ballow, is a member of the New York-based Libel Defense Resource Center. One of the center's activities is to provide research assistance and litigation support to firms defending the media against libel suits. Firms pay $1,000 a year for membership.
If King & Ballow sues the Scene, the firm will be suspended from membership in the center, according to center executive director Sandra Baron. Firms are seldom suspended, "but it happens," Baron said. She added that merely threatening a suit doesn't affect a firm's membership.
King & Ballow represents a number of media clients, including the Nashville Banner and the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal weighed in this week with its own Page 1 investigation of Stringfield and Baptist. The story by reporter Monica Langley repeated several incidents previously included in the Scene but added more context about the hospital's marketing strategy. Langley's wrote her entire story without quoting a single anonymous source. The Scene story was based almost entirely on unnamed sources.
Odds and endsEvery now and then, the governor's press office arranges a "ceremonial" signing of legislation. It's not real news, just a photo op for the press. The real signings have already occurred.
Last week, Sundquist went through with the ceremonial signings of a bill that broadens visitation rights of grandparents and another piece of legislation that improves insurance coverage for women who need reconstructive breast surgery. Both bills had been closely followed in the media and, as The Tennessean reported a month ago, were signed into law on June 13.
The governor's spokesperson, Beth Fortune, said she made it clear that last week's signing had no legal significance. But at least one station, WTVF-Channel 5, didn't get the message. Anchor Vicki Yates happily reported as breaking "news" that grandparents who want to see their grandchildren and women who have mastectomies are now better off "thanks to laws signed today by Gov. Don Sundquist."
* Four times a week, according to The Tennessean's in-house news formula, readers want to see stories on "coping." That's why the paper runs articles like David Hefner's June 25 piece that warned of "ominous fire and health hazards" caused by hot weather. Despite weeks of rain, the No. 1 hazard on Hefner's list was brush fires caused by "outdoor foliage...set afire by extreme heat."
Another miracle, explained by science.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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