Thursday, August 12, 2004

Time For a Trip to the Minors?

I try not to write about Wendi Thomas too much. When I learned the Commercial Appeal's newest columnist was black, I was pretty happy. It marked an effort to include half the City's population in their columnist crew. Sadly, she hasn't lived up to her promise, proving to be predictable, shallow and light-weight.

I try to avoid her now, as she's a fish in a barrel target. But today's column about the Memphis Council for International Visitors (MCIV) is a subject I've been writing about this week and have some investment in and knowledge of. Let's take a look.

First of all, the headline promises something she fails to deliver:
Ball was dropped by all city 'players'
OK, why the quotes around players? Is she invoking black slang? But notice she does say "all."
Politics means never having to say you're sorry.

This week's example is provided by City Council chairman Joe Brown, who issued a half-hearted "my bad" Monday to the Iraqi delegation he barred from City Hall last week.

Brown says he's sorry if his actions were misconstrued. Not sorry for what he did, just sorry for those alarmed by what looked like a nasty case of ethnic profiling.

Brown made us look bad, but he shouldn't have to shoulder all the blame.
Actually, he said, "misconstrueded." He deserves all the shame and opprobium we can dump on him. His actions were foolish and hysterical. And if he shouldn't have to carry all the blame, then he definitely holds the lion's share.

Thomas gets him out of the way pretty quickly. She has other fish to fry.
Rule #1: When handling a situation that could explode into an internationally embarrassing mess, cover your behind and your bases.
That was my advice to the Shelby County Republican Party! They didn't like it though. It's important to remember that no one had any suspicion beforehand that the Iraqi visit would explode the way it would.

The MCIV handles dozens of these visits every year. (Read farther down for my talk with David Simmons of the MCIV.) They handled this visit exactly as they handle all their other delegations. Maybe they should have taken the poltical dimension into greater account, but they had no reason to suspect anything. They were following their own long-established process. This was routine for them.
The Memphis Council for International Visitors, which hosted the seven-member group, didn't even put a full team on the field.

No one met the delegation at the airport, so they took a cab. Strike one.
Oh dear. This is factually inaccurate! The Iraqis arrived Sunday night and were conveyed to their hotel just fine. On Monday morning, their transport picked them up as expected, but had the wrong itinerary and took them to City Hall instead of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau building on Union.

Sorry Wendi. Strike one on you!
The MCIV didn't tell the City Council about the visit, but instead chose to rely on council member Carol Chumney, an MCIV volunteer, to pass along the word.

Given Chumney's contentious dealings with most of the council, that's strike two.
Again, it's not normal practice for MCIV to involve city leader types in delegation visits. The MCIV changed their usual practice since the Iraqis were a special case, due to the war.

Approaching Chumney isn't the problem. But her difficulties with her peers was a contributing factor to the fumbled communications and turf-protection that developed.

Call it a ball.
(In a display of her inability to be even the least bit conciliatory, Chumney refused to add her name to the letter of apology signed by all the other council members; since she met with the delegation, she felt she had no reason to apologize.)
Honestly, this one is a wash for me. But it plays no role in our reputation, since she's one of the few Councillors to actually have met and talked with the Iraqis. And y'all already know my thoughts on Chumney otherwise.

Strike one, ball two.
The MCIV could have but didn't make a heads-up courtesy call to local police.
Again, they don't appear to have seen a need to. It's never been a part of their normal operations. Besides, what would calling the police achieve?

Strike two, ball two.
The MCIV could have but didn't make sure the National Civil Rights Museum would be open to visitors the day the delegation was to stop by. A movie was being shot at the museum that day, so the group was forced to postpone its visit.
As Simmons explained it to me, the MCIV doesn't create tour itineraries, but prefers to let the delegates decide their own destinations and work with the transportation to make the visits.

Strike Three. Yer out, Wendi!

But wait, she's not done.
The MCIV could have but didn't supply the group with a local guide who might have questioned the wisdom of, for example, walking downtown in a strange city at 10:45 p.m. to a drugstore that closed at 8. An Iraqi woman and a translator who left their hotel late last Tuesday headed to a (closed) Walgreens were robbed.
MCIV isn't responsible for downtown. That's Mayor Herenton's bailiwick. Try to blame him. Besides, doesn't all the tourist literature rave about our twenty-four hour downtown? Hmmmm...seems like it's not so safe after all? Why doesn't Wendi try to tell Belz and Turley that? I'd love to see that conversation.
Why didn't the MCIV do any of the things they could have done to help ensure a smooth visit?

It's not part of its protocol, MCIV board member David Simmons told me. "We're not responsible for being with them 24 hours a day or their security," Simmons said.
And there you go. Classic journalism setup. Line up your critical points -- boom, boom, boom, boom, boom -- then switch to the dummy whom you whack over the head. It makes them look hapless and stupid.

Simmons' point is correct. The State Department is fine with it, as that's how MCIV has been conducting themselves for thirty years. But Our Wendi knows better, with hindsight.
Besides, he said, the City Council approves the Police Department's budget, and if there weren't enough police downtown to keep the visitors from being robbed, well, blame the City Council.
She switches from a direct quote to a lengthy paraphrase, substituting her words for his. Cheap shot and a tactic to get the quote you need when the subject didn't say it. I'd love to know what he really said.
Simmons won't admit that MCIV dropped the ball, but he did say the MCIV's protocol will be revised to improve communication among local authorities.
Notice she's blamed him and he "won't admit" to her accusation. Again, standard journalism construct.
Too little, too late.

In the week since the flap began, the national media have had their fun with Memphis, and our reputation as a city of good abode has taken a beating.

And neither an improved protocol nor a deluge of mea culpas - sincere or not - can make up for that.
Now let's take stock. She's blamed Carol Chumney, the MCIV and Joe Brown. Is that "all the 'players'?" Hardly. There's Big Willie H., for one, who never did meet with the Iraqis, even though this is his city. There's all the City Councillors who couldn't be bothered to come out.

And I still don't understand the scare quotes around players. Can anyone enlighten me?

It's funny. I was talking to Simmons when Thomas called him. He was actually polite enough to finish our call, which went on for some time, before calling her back! In a subsequent email, he joked about Thomas' attitude in their interview. I can see what he noticed now. Did she even listen to what he said?

Why is Thomas so intent on blaming them? I don't know. If we grant her honest intentions, it comes down to not doing her job, I guess. Otherwise....

I started off my whole investigation believing the MCIV to be amateurs, as I noted early on. I've since revised that opinion. They have been successfully doing these visits several times a month for thirty years. I tend to want to hold our City Councillors and their poor working relationships largely to blame, but with an extra heaping portion for the ludicrously over-reacting Joe Brown, a man with delusions of imperial power.

Sorry Wendi. It sounds like you had an agenda first, not an open mind. You need to be benched for the rest of the season.

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