Desperately Seeking the News
By Henry Walker
OCTOBER 6, 1997: "Henry, I've got to fire you." Nashville Scene editor Bruce Dobie got straight to the point. "I can't have a media critic who lies to the press."
He was right, on both points. I had lied, repeatedly, to reporters from The Tennessean, the Banner, The Commercial Appeal, and The Tennessee Journal, all of whom had called to ask if I'd been present at the much-discussed Scene staff party where state Sen. Steve Cohen either did or didn't join reporters in puffing on a joint.
Two weeks ago, Scene reporter Liz Murray Garrigan wrote that Cohen is "so comfortable among journalists that he has been known to step out on the porch and smoke a joint with a group of them at a private party." She didn't say which party. Asked to explain, Cohen allegedly replied, "It's a generational thing. I don't do it very often."
The pot-smoking charge made statewide news. Cohen denied it, saying he hadn't had a joint since 1974. He admitted he'd been to a Scene party, however, where other people were passing marijuana. He said he didn't smoke it and that his remarks to Garrigan were misinterpreted.
Two days after Garrigan's story appeared, my phone started ringing. "I don't know anything about that specific incident," I told Banner reporter Jeff Woods, "but if I had been at a party like the one Cohen describes..., I certainly wouldn't have written about it." I told other journalists the same thing.
But I was at the party, and Dobie and some staffers knew it. My editor found himself in a dilemma.
"If it comes out that you lied to the press and I didn't do anything about it, it would damage the Scene," Dobie explained. "I'd have to fire myself." Instead, he fired me.
The lie festered in me too. I had made a serious mistake, and I needed to come clean.
I was at the party, all right, and I'm sorry I lied. But that's all I'll say. If anyone asks who else was there, or whether anyone puffed on a joint, I won't tell them. It was a private party, and, as far as I'm concerned, that's how it should have stayed.
Garrigan wrote a terrific story about Cohen, but she was wrong to raise the issue of pot smoking. Three months after the party, Garrigan asked the senator, on the record, if he was worried that sharing a joint with reporters might someday come back to haunt him. She agrees that the party itself was a private affair and says that, if Cohen had declined to comment, she wouldn't have written anything. In her view, it wasn't Cohen's behavior at the party but his subsequent statements that justified her saying he "has been known" to share a joint with reporters.
That's too fine a distinction for me. If the party was off-the-record, so was Garrigan's loaded question.
No one forced Cohen to attend the Scene staff party or to answer Garrigan's question. Raising the issue certainly wasn't "entrapment," as some journalism professors have charged. But it was a betrayal of an implied promise of confidentiality, the promise that comes from spending time together as friends and having a mutual respect for one another's privacy.
You don't share a drink with a Baptist and then ask him about it in front of the preacher. In my view, the same rule applies to reporters and sources.
"I've never had a story that was worth a friendship," an Associated Press reporter told me recently. "That's not everybody's code, but it's mine." It's mine too.
Am I still fired? Not if you're reading this column. But I will be if I ever do it again. And I should be.
Sour notesScene free-lancer Larry Adams, who for two years has reviewed performances by the Nashville Symphony, is also paid by the Symphony to write liner notes for the orchestra's albums. Adams "will no longer be reviewing Symphony performances" as long as he has this relationship with the orchestra, Scene editor Bruce Dobie said. Three weeks ago, Dobie spiked part of Adams' column in which the critic reviewed the Symphony's latest release, Romance at Sunset, a collection of light classical music. As Adams disclosed in his column, he also wrote the album's liner notes, which comment on each piece and its composer. Adams said he also wrote the notes for another Symphony album released last year and has committed to write at least one more set of notes. Sources say Adams receives about $100 for each album, slightly less than he is paid for a Scene column.
Adams says he's done nothing wrong and ought to be able to continue writing both liner notes and Symphony reviews. Banner reviewer Henry Arnold, former Tennessean classical music critic Jerome Reed, and free-lance music writer Bob Oermann, who writes regularly for The Tennessean, all support him.
Oermann said he's written "about 50 sets of liner notes" and sees no conflict in taking money from a record label to write notes for one album while also writing stories about other artists from the same label. Scene pop music writer Michael McCall does it too.
In other circumstances Dobie has acknowledged that every time he tries to fashion a conflict-of-interest rule for free-lancers, the rule bends and breaks under exceptions. "Some things our writers do make me uncomfortable," Dobie said once, "but eventually it boils down to whether I trust the writer." That's what he needs to do here.
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