Thursday, August 15, 2002

Promise Not To Laugh, OK?

It seems the Commercial Appeal is being goaded into holding a community roundtable to confront issues of credibility. It seems this is a project of the Associated Press Managing Editors, called the National Roundtable Credibility Project.

The project's aim is to halt what many view as the erosion of
newspapers' credibility with their readers....

Face to face with staff members of their hometown newspaper,
these readers can, as the APME says, "shine a spotlight on a
newspaper's sore spot.''
Sure don't sound too enthused, do they?

Well, the CA doesn't lack for issue of credibility. For instance, right off the top of my head:

* The CA's editorial and other columnists are, to a man and woman, identifiably liberal. Now, they do run conservative columnists on the editorial page, some quite respected. But, why doesn't the CA have a single conservative staff columnist?

* The CA is an unwavering and vociferous supporter of anything to do with downtown "revitalization." This is often to the point of uncriticality, and sometimes to the point of ruthlessness to opponents of these plans. Why is the CA so nakedly "booster?"

* The CA has regularly run investigations into the Ford family and their various doings. But the paper, which has decried sprawl to the point of running articles examining it, has yet to run a single investigation of any developers. Nor have they ever run a story looking into the political and financial relationships between developers and City politicians. Why are they hesitating?

* William B. Tanner ran an aggressive outdoor advertising sign business, buying up the competition and routinely chopping down trees without permit to build new signs. His actions were well-documented and controversial. Then he mysteriously sold his business and retired. Many months later, the CA runs a long, admiring Feature story about him, ostensibly about his bout with cancer and his "eclectic art collection" and unusual, but good, taste. The article glossed over his former difficulties. Mere weeks later, Tanner received death threats. He had one explosive device detonated on his property and another left to be discovered. The story was held back, deep, into the Metro section. It has since disappeared. What's really going on?

* This one is highly subjective, but talk to most Memphis blacks and they'll tell you, the ones who bother to read the paper, that it is deeply biased against them. Even a lily-white like me can see some merit to that argument. How does the CA respond? Where can they point to refute the charge? Certainly not to the top editors, who are all white men but one.

In fact, the CA is very white. Just walk through the various sections every day of the week. The marquee reporters--Perrusquia, Locker, Wade, Erskine, Fontenay? White. Editorial columnists--Thorp, Branson, Kelly, Brosnan? White. Business, investment, marketing? White. Sports? White. Television, humor, music? White. Pets? White. Religion? White. Health, food? White. Medical, parenting, schoolwork, etiquette, dress, advice? White. Social? White. History? White. There's a few blacks in the side columns of the "Neighbors" section and the one "Wise Consumer" columnist, and...that's it. In a city that's more than half black that's criminal. What postive steps has the CA taken to address this? Why has it taken so long, and produced so little visible result?

Give me more time and I could think up a lot of others. But the CA has already chosen their topic. Are you ready?
Our topic: Good news vs. bad news. What is the newspaper's obligation?
I warned you not to laugh. They think their credibility problem is in the perception that they write too much bad news and not enough good news. They must have laughed up their sleeves, or sat around quite solemnly nodding their heads, over this one.

The whole point of this exercise is:
...for each newspaper to pick a topic relevant to its

These roundtable meetings won't be a miracle cure. But they are
a beginning, a way for newspapers to be more open about what
they do. A way to restore the kind of understanding and
communication on which credibility depends.
A better way, of course, one the CA routinely calls for from the government it purports to cover, is transparency. Open conversation between reporters and readers, columnists and community. One up-and-coming idea that's been around a while is an ombudsman. That's someone who represents the reader interest inside the edifice of the paper. It has worked well for hundreds of papers around the country. Another good idea is for reporters and columnists to start keeping blogs like this. But keeping everyone safely behind the glass walls of the CA building, more secure than any ivory tower, only breeds distrust.

Still, the CA does promise "a comfortable conference room at the Fogelman Executive Center at the University of Memphis." See? Not even inside the CA.

"Even if you aren't picked, we'll publish a story afterward to let you know what was said." Gee, that's really comforting.

Your Working Boy is giving serious consideration to going undercover and attending this wind-ding, just to spy on the enemy firsthand and report the truth to you.

Until next time, that is all.
Your Working Boy

No comments: