Sunday, January 4, 2009

Part V: The Rise and Fall of The Tennessean

After writing so much about The Tennessean, the only thing that really makes any sense in reaction to its decline is to laugh.

And there was plenty of lunacy to laugh at -- just like a sitcom such as The Office or Taxi.

It got so damn weird that it was funny. My immediate editor and I always talked about writing a script for a sitcom based on the newspaper. The true stories were that damn hilarious. Actually, every newsroom has such stories. But there was a bit of dementia to those at The Tennessean.

For instance:

* Theeditorwhoshallgonameless once called my immediate editor and myself into his office, which usually meant I had written something about Phil Bredesen that he or Andrea Conte did not like. And they were threatening not to come to one of his weekly wine tastings in his office.

So we creeped in, and this behemoth was sitting with his considerable legs underneath him upon on woefully outmatched, high back, leather office chair. He broke several of them during his tenure, and left a frightening oily, greasy mark on each headrest as if the Exxon Valdez had just run aground. Holy Captain Hazlewood, Batman!

Now back to the really weird part. We walked in, and theeditorwhoshallbenameless had some crazy website up on his computer that makes sounds and he wants to show it off to us on deadline. So we nod our heads in amazement, not really at the website, but him.

Then we left. And my editor swears I said: "Well, look on the bright side. At least he didn't have his pants off."

* So the editorwhoshallgonameless one day took a several month project on cancer research developments at Vanderbilt to a family reunion in Mt. Juliet before publication. And he returns to tell my editor that the series of stories doesn't work because his family didn't like and understand them. So the poor editor has to go tell the reporter the bad news, which makes the reporter hate my editor, not the Mr. Family Reunion. And who knows how many blind banjo relatives were at the reunion.

* Once while on vacation, theeditorwhoshallgonameless called into the newsroom and schedules an emergency meeting. What's the frequency, Kenneth? The guy has discovered there is diversity in Nashville. I shit you not. So he makes my immediate editor the project leader and gives out general assignment to staffers, including me. There is one big problem. The project is supposed to be written over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, the traditional times when journalists jump ship for leave time unused. So all the other minor editors won't commit any of their reporters to the project. They also have to meet their MBO bonus plans, which can be like $7,000 a piece in extra casg. So to meet his MBO, one editor scheduled a session for reporters on how to fill out expense reports instead of allowing that time to be used for project.

So the project does not get done. And theeditorwhoshallgonameless blames my immediate boss for his dysfunctional newsroom. I shit you not.

* Then there was the time government editor Frank Gibson was having a heart attack in the newsroom. All his editor buddies of a decade or more couldn't be bothered to take the guy to the hospital. So it falls on my boss who is new to his job to take a supposed mainstay in newsroom management to the hospital while his supposed buddies work on oblivous to the pain inside The Tennessean ... and as usual on the outside, too.

* The Three-Star Letter Writers Banquet was about the only time each year that Tennessean editors lowered themselves to meet readers in person. Held each May, it sometimes conflicted with Holy Week Mass, including Good Friday, for me. But these folks never did care that much about personal faith.

Well, at one banquet, the editorwhoshallgonameless got loaded. And he started saying a lot of things at the podium that were untrue, such as the chief justice of state Supreme Court was a death penalty proponent. He then accused religion writer Ray Waddle of trying to take the flower setting from the table Waddle hosted for a group of readers. Waddle was insulted and incensed. That was the usual feeling anytime that this editor came out of his office.

* Nashville Scene media critic Henry Walker was very good at what he did and truthful in what he wrote. And that really bothered theeditorwhoshallgonameless. So a big meeting with writers and editors of significance was held in his office one late afternoon. The point of discussion was how to respond to Walker. Matt Pulle was simply a cheap shot artist as a media critic. Walker was very good. Dave Green was named as the person to verbally spar with Walker in writing. But he was no match. You cannot deny the truth.

* Theeditorwhoshallgonameless scheduled a big meeting in his home with editors as to what could be done to improve the newspaper. The only problem with that was the looming presence of a Titans versus Redskins' matchup on Monday Night Football. Yet my immediate boss and others had compiled an impressive spread sheet on stories and critical issues in the community. As they were preparing to make their presentation, they were interrupted by the host. The Monday Night Football game between the Titans and Redskins in D.C. was going to begin in a couple of hours. And he had invited guests. So the meeting to improve The Tennessean was stopped and never reconvened. All because of a stinkin' football. By the way, the Titans won that night. Readers lost, again.

* Meet Mr. F-Bomb. When confronted, editorial page editor Dwight Lewis could be a most vulgar man. He once f-bombed my immediate boss after he replied to Lewis' criticism of my writing topics. Then Lewis came up to me and told me to tell my boss that he was not angry with him. You'll notice he never apologized.

When I on another occasion told Lewis he took a walk on the Sam Levy Homes project demanded by theeditorwhoshallgonameless, he uttered a string of obscencities, including telling me that I sucked shit out of Bush's ass and I was a traitor who sneaked into The Tennessean as a liberal. His point was clear. If I had been a moderate or conservative, I never would have been hired by The Tennessean as a columnist. Thank goodness Craig Moon was around as publisher, and the other members of the operation committee, with whom I sought refuge and support and friendship. These were some very good people at what they did professionally and who they were inside.

* One of the best things to happen to me in my life and career was when the great John Seigenthaler brought the great David Halberstam over to me to be introduced. And I shook that hands of both of these great men. Yet I was later ashamed that both men -- at a gathering at the Freedom Forum -- had to hear reporter Susan Thomas say that there was no other way to have compiled the infamous Cayce Homes project without going in undercover to report on those people. Sadly, theeditorwhoshallgonameless never challenged her contention, nor any other people in The Tennessean leadership. There really is nothing funny to this story. I just feel it should be known.

* My immediate editor and I asked for a meeting with theeditorwhoshallgonameless to discuss making a difference in the readership area of The Tennessean. I had compiled a list of activist, community based organizations throughout Middle Tennessee and had put them in the computer to create a database that readers could access. We also wanted to hold an annual conference with these organizations so they could network with each other and people with resources.

So we took in a lot of passion and papers into the office to show the big cheese and get his feedback and ultimate support. We were given five minutes. Then the topic was turned to how much I had been unfair to Phil Bredesen in my writing. Yet never once was a case made to force me to run a single correction on anything I had written about the man, who is of more a myth than substance. But the making a difference effort was sunk on that day in favor of a politician more than capable of taking care of himself.

* There are so many other stories to tell. But I'll close with the funniest one that was most telling of the culture in The Tennessean newsroom. It also is the most sad when it comes to corruption within the hearts and personal lives of too many of the people in charge.

The Tennessean in my day had its big Christmas party at Vanderbilt Lowe's. It rented the ballroom for all the departments. But the newsroom got more. It got a a much smaller ballroom a floor above for itself. And then there was a suite above with bedrooms for even more intimate celebration.

Well, on this night, the second floor was hopping. Knight Stivender, now the online editor at The Tennessean, and another female reporter from WAM, decided to put on a little show to tease theeditorwhoshallgonameless. They danced as if they were a lesbian couple. It was quite provocative on the dance floor. Yet many of us were laughing.

Still, their message got through. The big cheese who was sitting and watching the spectacle like Herod the Great next to his poor wife, went over to my immediate boss and thanked him to staying downtown instead of going to WAM, which operated out of Franklin. But the thing he wanted to know most was the following: "Are those two an item?"

Now for the weird part. In the suite above and later, the same two women were lying next to each other on the bed in one of the bedrooms. Again, they were just friends and college colleagues. But another couple there was trying to entice them into a foursome, with no luck.

Meanwhile, in the bathroom, the bathtub had been filled with ice and beer. But a very handsome black reporter made better use of it after taking his fiance home early from the party. He returned to dump all the ice and beer out of the bathtub to make whoopee with an employee from marketing. The poor fella was the attraction of many white women in the building, including one who shined his knob in The Tennessean parking lot and two others who participated in a threesome with him. How's that for affirmative action?!

I'm sure your office has similiar stories. But The Tennessean advertised itself as being something and someone different. It said it was there for the readers, that it was one of you. It wasn't then, and it sure isn't now.

As Forrest Gump said, "and that's all I have to say about that."

Amen. And thanks for reading the series.

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