Desperately Seeking the News
By Henry Walker
AUGUST 25, 1997: When does a "disturbance" become a "riot"? "When whites are confronting blacks, rocks and bottles are being thrown at cops in riot gear, and a store is looted and burned...you put those elements together and it sounds like a riot to me," said Associated Press news editor Frank Baker.
Baker, a nine-year AP veteran who moved to Nashville less than two months ago, drew strong criticism from Metro police, Mayor Phil Bredesen, and local journalists for calling last week's confrontation at an East Nashville housing project a "riot" in an AP news story distributed nationwide.
"Nobody else called it a riot but the Associated Press," said Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland, who discussed the issue at length with his staff. "To me it wasn't a riot. That's a very inflammatory word." Sutherland sent an e-mail to AP bureau chief Kent Flanagan questioning the use of what Flanagan now calls "the `R' word."
"[Sutherland] was concerned about the image of the city," Flanagan said. The day after the incident, newspapers around the country published the AP story, which referred to "the rioting" and included a headline written by Baker: "Crowd riots after officer kills suspect."
Although Flanagan said he "personally wouldn't have called the incident a riot," he stands by the AP's reporting of the incident and bristled at criticisms from Bredesen.
Both Bredesen and the police accused the wire service of exaggerating the size of the crowd that confronted police in the Sam Levy Homes after the fatal shooting of Leon Fisher early last Sunday. Based on statements from several witnesses, AP reporter Add Seymour Jr. wrote that "a crowd of 200 to 300" gathered after the shooting and that "some threw rocks and bottles at police." Metro officers said the crowd numbered fewer than 100 people.
Thinking that the AP had reported a crowd of "400," Bredesen complained to the Scene that the AP had carelessly given readers a distorted picture of the incident. In fact, the only mention of "400" in the AP story was a reference to the number of people who had completed a job-training program at the store.
Seymour, a young African American who grew up a few blocks from the Sam Levy Homes, said, "On a hot weekend night, there would have been at least 200 or more people outside even if there hadn't been a shooting." Seymour says he also questioned Baker's use of the word "riot" but was overruled. "I don't know how much of a riot it was," he said, "but it wasn't my call."
Meanwhile, similar discussions were going on in other Nashville newsrooms.
"We made sure we didn't call it a riot," said WKRN-Channel 2 reporter Andy Cordan. "I lived in South Central L.A.," he said, adding that he knows the difference between a riot and a disturbance. WSMV-Channel 4 news director Al Tompkins even issued a memo banning use of the word "riot" in connection with the Settle Court incident unless "someone in authority chose to use that word."
In retrospect, Flanagan says the issue "was a learning experience for my people." Though Baker still insists he made the right choice, he acknowledges that the incident has made him more sensitive to the nuance and power of words and the impact of one line in an AP story on the national wire.
In making a tough judgment call, Baker leaned one way; Flanagan, Sutherland, and Tompkins leaned the other. Perhaps it's because Baker, 31, is too young to remember the race riots of 1967 and 1968. Even in Nashville, which was relatively peaceful, the presence of tanks, troops, curfews, and Molotov cocktails left a powerful impression. It's likely the other three journalists, who are 15 to 20 years older than Baker, can't help but remember those images whenever the word "riot" is used in a news story.
Extra newsLaurels to WTVF-Channel 5's Larry Brinton for breaking two unusual stories last week, while everyone else in the media ignored them.
On Aug. 6, just after noon, a well-dressed couple stepped through a large, fourth-floor window at the Metro Courthouse to a six-foot ledge overlooking James Robertson Parkway. There, hidden from the cars below but in full view of amazed prisoners and guards at the Metro Jail across the street, the couple had what used to be called a "nooner," i.e., an amorous afternoon rendezvous. Brinton not only told the story but showed still pictures from a videotape taken by a jail employee. "We could only show photos," Brinton said. "There was no way we could run the actual tape." Brinton said he is still trying to learn the couples' names.
Last Thursday, Brinton scored again, reporting that Metro Fire Department captain Michael Wilkerson, who commands a West Nashville fire hall, shot a bottle rocket into the station bathroom, injuring a female paramedic. After apologizing for the prank, Wilkerson was suspended for 10 days, losing almost $2,000 in pay. Well-meaning friends, however, circulated a fund-raising letter, requesting a "love offering" for the captain. Department spokeswoman Jean Ridley said the paramedic is undergoing ear surgery this week and may suffer permanent hearing loss. She added that the fund-raiser was a flop.
Without video, it's understandable why the other stations didn't follow up on Brinton's stories. But the daily papers have no excuse. Both stories belonged on the front of the "Local News" and "Metro/Region" sections. Any journalist who doesn't intuitively understand that is in the wrong profession.
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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