Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tennessean helped finance convention center lobby group with $15,000 donation

The Tennessean released the list of donors who gave half-a-million dollars to the lobbying effort to build the Music City Convention Center and the Tennessean is itself on the list. Usually reliable Tennessean reporter Michael Cass didn't mention that last detail. The Tennessean's competition did not fail to mention it.

It seems as obscene as Jeff Woods characterizes it:

Remember when McNeely Pigott & Fox was under attack for blowing a half-million dollars of taxpayer money to flack for the Music City Center? Among the other ridiculous expenses, reporters noted the galling tidbit that it cost all of us $2,500 for MP&F to coach Gail Kerr on how to write a puff piece for the new convention center, which she dutifully did.

At the time, Tennessean editor Mark Silverman was outraged that any other media outlet would question the heretofore unsullied integrity of Nashville's mighty Gannett product .... Silverman tossed out a slew of defenses. Among them: The paper's newsroom staff signs ethics agreements pledging not to favor one side or take gifts from anyone.

So what are we to think now that the Music City Center Coalition has made public its list of donors? You guessed it--that little mom 'n' pop outfit known as The Tennessean is on the list for giving $5,000 $15,000. The ban on gifts must apply only to largesse coming in to the newsroom grunts.

Bruce Barry also weighs in against the Tennessean's defense that its contributions were made by a hived off business arm of the Gannett Corporation:

It is not business as usual for media operations whose main focus is news to donate to partisan political causes lobbying on controversial political issues that the news side is covering. We're not talking here about some far-flung conglomerate that happens to include a newsroom among vast holdings; this is a political contribution by the goddamn newspaper ....

The problem is that the appearance of such a naked conflict of interest compromises any claim to newsroom neutrality or impartiality. You manage a conflict of interest by eliminating the conflict, not by asserting afterwards that it had no effect on the purity of your motives or actions.

The negligent attitudes toward ethics at the Tennessean continue to grow in the wake of the Music City Center debate. It's difficult to look at a $15,000 donation and wonder whether their commitment to MCC made them late to news of unthinkable costs overruns months ago in the campaign to woo Nashvillians to the project. It's also hard to consider that sum of money and not think that the more recent op-ed exaggerations about MCC critics were not accidents.

The Tennessean has been giving MCC free publicity for more than a year, and now we learn the troubling news that the paper paid handsomely to bankroll the MCC campaign. They have risked their credibility as neutral journalists.

UPDATE: In his latest writing, the Tennessean's Michael Cass acknowledges the $15,000 donation, but excuses the editorial staff for not knowing. He also minimizes the half-a-million total corporate donations that drove the lobbying effort by suggesting that it was the Mayor who was the strongest impetus. And the $450,000 Metro budget oversight that involved attempts to influence public opinion on the Music City Center is treated like petty resistance to mayoral resolve.

I would respond to Mr. Cass that such reporting does not alleviate concerns based on perceptions that the Tennessean is predisposed to support the Mayor's financing plan for a new convention center. The Gannett Corporation is not going to invest $15,000 without insuring a yield with positive press.


  1. You know, Gannett has laid off a lot of people in the last couple of years because of budget problems. I wonder who lost their job so Gannett could afford an extra $15,000 to help promote the MCC. A project that's supposed to create jobs. (???)

  2. Did the group opposed to the convention center ever release a list of their donors and revenue sources?

  3. Why do you ask? Is there some shadow twin print media of Gannett that did not endorse MCC and donated $15,000 to Nashville's Priorities?

  4. I would hope you would apply the same standard of transparency to all parties in this discussion. You certainly were interested in the funding sources for English only and felt it was relevant to their motivation. Is the same thought not applicable to those who opposed the convention center? What do they have to gain by seeing it defeated? Where is the money coming from?