Friday, April 21, 2006

Massaging a Story?

I don't read mystery stories, but I do like a puzzle or two. Mostly I like intellectual challenge. So when I read this story about the "mystery" of how Shelby County's municipality libraries got $100,000 in State funding, I was still left with question or three. I wanted to know more.

The story starts by quoting from a State official wondering at the "mystery" (her word) of how non-State library sytem libraries got State money. The headline of the story picks it up. The storyline of the article plays along.

There is no mystery, though. The story itself tells you, about three-quarters of the way through, that the money came from Governor Bredesen's office! Mystery solved, yes?

Well, not quite. The story doesn't seem to note where the request was sent, though it does say that the grant appears to have originated from Collierville Mayor Linda Kerley and County Mayor AC Wharton. And you have to read it closely to learn that they money was from a separate source unconnected to the State-run library system.

The article wonders at the path of the request. It also makes some hay about how four "independent" libraries got money when State-system libraries are going wanting. So, I called the reporter who wrote the story, Tom Bailey Jr!

I asked him the plain, simple question: The money had to be deposited into a Collierville or Wolf River Library Consortium account. It had to come from a specific account somewhere, not just "Governor Bredesen's Personal Slush Fund." Had he checked those financial records?


The story is clear this was a "grant." That word has specific meaning in the world of government. Someone, somewhere, had to have written a grant application and it had to have been sent to a specific agency capable of making the grant. Had he seen the grant application or asked for it?


The story makes it seem that money was somehow "taken" from the State-run library system to finance the four private, municipal Shelby County libraries; that we benefitted at the expense of -- in the article's example -- Polk County. Were they from the same funding source?


Oooo-kay then, I'm thinking. This seems a contrived reporter's technique of making a story from what you have while obscuring the real purpose. If the money came from the Governor's office, from a "discretionary fund" he controls, then it has nothing to do with the State system and, therefore, the whole section with the State's "assistant state librarian for planning and development" is out of place and possibly misleading.

Bailey called the Governor's spokeswoman, Lydia Lenker, who gave a non-responsive answer:
Asked for a response from Bredesen, spokesman Lydia Lenker said she asked a number of people in the administration Thursday what they knew of the grant.

"They told me two things. They weren't aware of these grants. And these types of grants are administered through the Secretary of State's office. It appears it did not come from here."
But had he seen the grant request, or known the fund from which the money was drawn, it seems he'd have had more specific information to put into his request, leading to a more direct and responsive answer!

He did say that the Wolf River Library Consortium and Mayor Kerley were very "upfront" (his word) about making the request of Governor Bredesen via Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton. And it was also made clear to me by Bailey that the money the WRLC got had no relation to any funds distributed by the State-run library sytem. By going independent, they are no longer eligible for State-distributed funds. Giving the money to the WRLC would in no way impact any funding to any State library!

So what was the story?

I wondered to Bailey why the story hadn't begun something like "Governor Bredesen's office can't identify the source of funds given by their office to Shelby County's municipal libraries." That seems to be the true story here.

But in talking with Bailey what came through repeatedly was a question of "priority." That the Governor could take care of a personal request from a County Mayor but was somehow not concerned with libraries and their funding controlled by the State. The way the story was structured, apparently, was to emphasise the inequity of priority, rather than getting a clear answer.

He never did answer (that I remember, and it's not in my notes) why he didn't get copies of the grant proposal, nor see where the money came from. To me, that seems a blindingly obvious thing to do. He, consulting with an editor, decided to go with what they had as part of a continuing story. It wasn't, then, about getting answers so much as bringing "priorities" to light.

Bailey was polite and forthcoming in our discussion, so I'm loathe to go so far as pinning any kind of blame on him or accusing him of anything except possibly a failure of doggedness. But I do think it's something to think about for regular readers of the Commercial Appeal. And it's yet another data point for those of us who argue that reporters' personal thoughts, feelings, approaches and, yes, agendas (in the non-pejorative sense) do influence what's being covered and how it's being reported.

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