Desperately Seeking the News
By Henry Walker
JULY 28, 1997: A Tennessean investigation of Hispanic gangs in Nashville was wildly inaccurate, "insulting," and nothing more than "stereotypical race-baiting," a leader in the Hispanic community charged Monday.
The Sunday story by Jay Hamburg, Jon Yates, and Hector Becerra featured front-page color photographs of a tattooed, bandanna-wearing, self-styled gang member and reported that "police say" there are "20-30 Hispanic gangs" in Nashville "numbering about 600 members."
"Those numbers are absurd," said Mario Ramos, president of Unamonos, an Hispanic advocacy group. "Our community is being painted by the paper as a bunch of gang bangers. It's outrageous and insulting." Ramos, an attorney whose practice includes criminal defense work, says he knows of "one, maybe two" Hispanic gangs in Nashville and joked that, "if there were 600 Hispanic gang members out there committing crimes, I'd be a millionaire by now."
Metro police agree with Ramos that The Tennessean's numbers are exaggerated. There are perhaps "500-600 total gang members in Nashville," including whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, according to Police Department spokesman Don Aaron. "Hispanics would make up only a very small part of that total," he said.
The Tennessean story relied on numbers provided by two Davidson County Sheriff's Office deputies who have been studying local gangs to monitor their impact on county jails. The deputies estimate there are "as many as 4,800 total gang members in Nashville," according to The Tennessean.
The sheriff's office, however, serves warrants and runs Metro's jails. It has no police powers. The two deputies "presumably got their information about gangs by interviewing inmates," a sheriff's office spokesman said. Metro police, on the other hand, base their estimates on intelligence from officers in the field and interviews with people in the community, according to Aaron.
"This is a huge goof," said Ivan Cintron, director of public relations for Unamonos. A former reporter for the Nashville Business Journal, Cintron said reaction to the story in the Hispanic community "ranged from incredulousness to outrage," and he described the paper's over-hyped portrayal of gangs as "typical of its slipshod reporting about Hispanics." Cintron said a delegation from Unamonos will request a meeting with Tennessean editors to discuss the problem.
"How many Tennessean reporters does it take to screw up a story?" Cintron asked. "Now we know the answer is, `Three.' "
A couple of years ago, Banner columnist Ruth Ann Leach embarrassed herself by attacking the Metro Transit Authority for what she believed was unwarranted censorship. After the MTA ordered the removal of advertisements describing "the best sandwich you can eat with your pants on," Leach asked in her column, "Could someone explain to me why that's offensive?" Apparently, no one ever did.
In Tuesday's Tennessean reporter Mark Ippolito wrote a vivid, first-person account of his visit to a strip bar in Chattanooga. Ippolito described watching one dancer's "privates hovering about the distance between your face and this newspaper." At intervals, the reporter added, the dancer "would suddenly grab my crotch."
This all occurred, Ippolito wrote, at a "skank bar" called "Puss'n'Boots."
Doesn't anybody read this stuff? Ippolito surely wouldn't have talked about "skank" if he knew what it meant, but there's bound to be someone in the newsroom who could have told him.
Reporters, generally speaking, aren't very good at writing about local history. That's because journalists are used to getting their information from interviews, not books. The result is often a mishmash of half-remembered anecdotes instead of history. But readers don't know the difference.
For example, a rehabilitated building on Fifth Avenue South near Broadway was once "a former stop on the Underground Railroad," according to Tennessean reporter Will Pinkston. Relying only on statements by the building's owner, Pinkston wrote that the old house "still has a trap door leading to its basement where slaves escaping to the North during the Civil War were hidden."
Pinkston also managed to get the neighbors upset. "I would rather see it as a museum or something," lamented a developer after being told about the building's history.
But Pinkston's story, which appeared two weeks ago in the "Business" section, was pure fiction. "There was no underground railroad in Nashville," said Jim Hoobler, author of Cities Under the Gun, a history of Nashville during the Civil War. "We're much too far south."
Last week, The Tennessean's Jon Yates, another cub reporter, wrote a front-page story rehashing for the umpteenth time the controversy over Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate calvary commander and the first "Grand Wizard" of the original Ku Klux Klan, a secret political organization founded in Pulaski in 1866. Citing unnamed "historians," Yates wrote that Forrest "disbanded the Klan in 1877 because it had served its purpose to fight for state's rights."
But Forrest ordered the Klan disbanded in 1869, not 1877, right after the resignation of the hated, radical governor, Parson Brownlow. And the Klan's purpose was not "to fight for states' rights"--that issue had been settled by the war--but to maintain order in areas where there was no effective civil authority and to keep newly enfranchised black voters away from the polls.
Even veteran Tennessean columnist Catherine Darnell, who ought to know better, wrote Saturday that she had toured East Nashville with two elderly former residents, who reminisced about "the 1914 fire that devastated the Edgehill area" and the "tornado that ripped through the area around 1930." In fact, Nashville's most famous fire occurred in 1916, not 1914. The city's worst tornado hit in 1933. All Darnell had to do was look the dates up.
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 email@example.com.
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