Sunday, November 01, 2009

No correction of Tennessean reporter's erroneous coverage of Metro Parks controversy

Ten days ago City Paper expatriate Nate Rau reported from his new post at the Tennessean that the Metro Parks department was unique from every other Metro office in one unflattering way, and he reported it as fact:
In a year when nearly every department in Metro faced budget cuts of 10 percent or more, Parks & Recreation was the only one to come in over budget, and it has continued to run a deficit for the first two months of this budget year.
This morning, Tennessee editorial page editor Dwight Lewis passed on information about the Metro budget vastly different than that with which Rau ran, and he reported it as fact:
[Parks Director Roy] Wilson is in hot water because the Parks Department went over budget by $704,000 for the fiscal year 2009, which ended in June.

After a Parks Department board meeting Wednesday, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told a reporter for this newspaper [Rau] that his primary concern was that Wilson did not alert the administration that his department had run over budget, especially when most other agencies stuck to budget reductions of at least 10 percent for the year.

If you check the records, though, you will see that the Parks Department wasn't the only one to go over budget. Other departments, however, alerted the Finance Department about the problems and sought supplemental revenue.
I've maintained before that Nate Rau uncritically transmits Dean administration spin, and I wonder once again if on October 22 Rau simply ran with what the Finance Director or someone else told him instead of delving beyond the spin.

In a couple of other stories on Parks in the last ten days, Rau did mention down-the-page that a council member and the Finance Director pointed out that other departments went over budget. However, there are two problems with the original story. First, he wrote that it was only Parks that went over as if he were reporting fact rather than hearsay. Second, no correction was made to the original story online. It still conveys beyond any doubt that Parks was the only department to go over budget. In fact, the political news aggregator at rival SouthComm posted Rau's reportage as fact with no corrections and no questions, thus reiterating and spreading the error.

So, now that dust is settling after the horror that Parks had overages, now that we are finding out that overages are closer to a norm that the Dean administration treats with supplemental revenues, what are we left with? We're left the story that drama was really that Roy Wilson did not tell Metro Finance about the overages. That's it. And that's got Council Member at-Large Ronnie Steine calling out the hounds to hunt Wilson down? That's got Gail Kerr wistfully pondering the chance that state parks commissioner Jim Fyke might come back (so, that golf course overages might be appropriately reported to Finance under a new director)?

Look, I'm not happy with what Mr. Wilson did, but the overages were not worth all of the sensationalism. While proper procedure may not have been followed, it sounds like there are some egos involved, too, as well as tactical moves to discredit a department that could be on the council blacklist come next spring-summer budget season when the fight for money begins all over again. Or maybe an upper echelon just wants Wilson out. Ronnie Steine's letter to Roy Wilson looks high-hat now. Is council's Grand Inquisitor going to call every department that had overages before his budget committee with sternly-worded letters showcased in the press?

Beyond the $185,000 inappropriately allotted so that some guys could play winter golf, this whole thing is starting to stink, from county executives above Parks to reporters and columnists who transmit spin and participate in the cloak-and-dagger games. It is hard for me to see how any good suited to regular Nashvillians can come from any of the mess.

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