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Category: Politics

Herenton Cohen & More at Chism Picnic

Shelby County Commission Sidney Chism held his 9th annual picnic in southwest Memphis this afternoon. Billed as a bipartisan political event, the picnic is a rite of passage for any Democrat seeking local or state office.

2009 is an off election year, except for those of you living in Arlington and Lakeland. But there is no such thing as an off year for politics in Memphis. That is certainly the case this year.

‘Some of you I love to death but I am not going to support you,” Chism said as candidates took turns speaking.

Here are a few observations from the Chism picnic:

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton showed up in campaign mode even though he had no campaign literature or t-shirts touting his bid in the 2010 Democratic Congressional primary. As he arrived, Herenton spotted Steve Steffens, also known by his blog name Left Wing Cracker. Steffens was wearing a Cohen campaign t-shirt — the only Cohen t-shirt seen in the crowd. Herenton saw it and immediately said, “Why are you wearing that loser t-shirt?”

“I wish all of you well, except one candidate,” Herenton told the crowd weighted heavily with politicians active, inactive and prospective. “That’s the one that’s running against me. I don’t wish him well.”

Cohen showed up shortly after Herenton left. And he minimized Herenton’s presence in the race. “If I have an opponent or don’t have an opponent, the issue is Steve Cohen and how I do in my district,” Cohen said. “It’s really not the opposition, it’s me.”

Neither Herenton nor Cohen had signs up.

The most surprising campaign signage of the day came from County Commissioner James Harvey. He had three large placards reading: “Memphis Mayor 2011. James Harvey vs. A.C. Wharton. Who Should Be Mayor? Harvey 2011.”

“They are not campaign signs. It’s basically a campaign notice. I’m putting a notice to the community that there are other options, other than A C Wharton,” Harvey told The Daily News. “I think the bench of black leadership is very thin. I want to expand the bench and be competitive.”

“I appreciate him helping me get my name out. We’re glad Commissioner Harvey’s helping us out,” Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. responded when asked about the sign. “Tell him to get it right though. There’s no periods after A and C.”

Democratic candidates for governor Kim McMillan of Clarksville and Mike McWherter of Jackson were at the picnic as was Republican candidate for governor and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons. Democratic contenders Ward Cammack of Nashville and Roy Herron of Dresden had been in town the day before for a local Democratic party fundraiser at the Hatillo Theater.

State Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle had said he would make his decision on joining the Democratic pack once the legislative session ended. The session ended Thursday.

“I’m going to take a deep breath, take a break for a couple of weeks and talk to folks and see where we are. I’m awfully tired. We’ve had a hard year,” Kyle told The Daily News.

Shelby County Commission chairman Deidre Malone brought her still unofficial campaign for Shelby County mayor in the Democratic primary to the picnic along with plenty of supporters wearing t-shirts reading “Who Knows Shelby County?”

Also at the picnic, Bank of Bartlett president and 2002 mayoral contender Harold Byrd who was surprised to see some signs with his image and the slogan “United in Our Dreams.” Byrd is considering a bid in the 2010 Democratic mayoral primary but has made no decision yet. Chism has been a prominent backer of Byrd now as well as in 2002.

City Council chairman Myron Lowery was among the Malone supporters in the crowd. He took a turn on stage, saying “I am not running today, but I may be soon.” Lowery has expressed interest in running for Memphis mayor should Herenton leave before the end of his current term of office.

Herenton seemed to discourage that possibility, telling reporters that his supporters don’t want him to give up the mayor’s office while running for Congress.

Read more in Tuesday’s edition of The Daily News.

Letter to the Editor: The CA – From Someone Who’s Been There

Following is a letter to the editor from James W. (Woody) Brosnan, former reporter for The Commercial Appeal. The letter is in response to our article “Deadline: What it’s Really Like Inside the City’s Big Daily,” published in the April 29, 2009 weekly edition of The Memphis News. The letter will also be published in an upcoming edition of The Memphis News.

The CA – From Someone Who’s Been There

I largely agree with Bill Dries’ assessment of The Commercial Appeal’s disappearing political coverage, but as a staff member there for nearly 30 years, I would like to put the issue in a longer perspective.

I had the great privilege to be appointed to the newspaper’s Nashville bureau in 1979 and then five years later to the Washington bureaus under the late, great Mike Grehl, who was certainly the CA’s best editor in the past four decades.

Grehl’s gruff and demanding personality set the tone for the reporters. To borrow a term from an anti-gang program, our political coverage could best be described as “weed and seed.” Investigative reporters would uncover scandals, while the political reporters would maintain a constant in-your-face pressure on elected leaders.

The CA battled patronage and corruption in paving contracts under the administration of Gov. Ray Blanton. Even under the subsequent administration of Gov. Lamar Alexander, we looked at state regulatory boards that often served the self-interest of those they regulated, rather than consumers.

But beneath that tough hide, Grehl cared deeply about the city and the state. There was no shortage of stories about issues, whether it was the state’s failing schools or the state aid that led to the rebirth of Beale Street. We covered press conferences, but odds were that the next day’s story would be about something we thought would interest our readers, not the subject of the press release.

The Commercial Appeal was fiercely independent at a time when many other newspapers in the state were still partisan. The good politicians – and there are some – enjoyed making the tough sell to Grehl because they knew if they were successful, an endorsement would carry credibility.

The illness that cut short Grehl’s editorship was a tragedy for the newspaper and the city.

Even under Grehl, there had been a tension between the city desk, which handled Shelby County coverage, and the Tri-State desk, which handled state and political coverage. They mirrored two competing visions of Memphis.

One, which I will call the Tri-State view, saw Memphis as the center of a region, and deserving of a prominent role in state and even national politics. The other, which I see as insular and provincial to, at times, paranoid, viewed the world outside of Memphis with suspicion and was distrustful of anything and anyone not from Memphis.

CA editor Lionel Linder was an economic conservative who never quite understood the social conservatism of Memphis, but he continued to encourage regional and even national coverage. This continued for a time under Angus McEachran.

But the CA was coming under increasing budget pressure from parent company Scripps Howard’s executives. Outlying circulation was cut back. As Tri-State bureaus were closed, the “city” view of politics came to dominate. It seemed the more prominent state and even local politicians became, the less we wrote about them.

We went from full coverage of the 1992 and 1996 elections to the point where we did not even send anyone to the 2000 Democratic Convention, even though U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. was the keynote speaker.

We were going to thumb our noses at the politicians. We would poll Memphians about their issues and write about those. At a time when the world was increasingly wired, we treated our readers like a sub-species.

Not until the last week of the 2000 campaign did we stumble onto the story that Vice President Al Gore was about to lose his home state.

I believed The Commercial Appeal’s leadership also buckled under partisan criticism of the news coverage and its own internal factions. The rapid changeover in editors led to a buildup in bureaucracy as each new editor tried to bring in his own people.

Story lines were dictated after fractious morning news meetings. Some editors lacked the experience to make political news judgments; others lacked the discipline to restrain their personal views. Veteran reporters had to argue for stories to the detriment of their careers.

It is possible that these factions could have been controlled had Scripps hired a strong, consistent editor. We got Chris Peck, whose interest seemed to be in using the latest buzzword as often as possible, such as “citizen journalists.”

Disdain and disengagement continued to mark political coverage. One congressional aide told me his boss would never go to a meeting of the CA editorial board ever again after one board member fell asleep during their session. I told a columnist the person she wrote about was holding a press conference to respond to her column and she said she had no interest in attending. Easier to throw bricks from the stands than to get on the field, I suppose.

For me, it became very difficult and even bizarre. After I was able to carve out some expertise in covering the city’s largest employer, Fed Ex, Peck confessed that he found cargo to be “boring” and asked why I wasn’t writing more about cotton.

While working on a story Peck demanded about Ford Jr.’s presidential prospects, another editor circulated a memo accusing me of not wanting to talk to her about Jr.’s “dirty little secrets.” Even if I had known, or discovered what she was talking about, this kind of unprofessional language leaves a journalist defenseless against a charge of bias.

So in 2003, I became one of the first of many professionals to depart The Commercial Appeal, finding appreciation by editors in Albuquerque and Birmingham before Scripps closed those newspapers.

The Commercial Appeal now suffers under budget cuts and the declining interest in newspapers. What staff is left still musters some occasional enterprise, but it resembles more a local television station in sweeps week than a comprehensive newspaper.

James W. Brosnan

Letter to the Editor: My Side of the Story

Following is a letter to the editor from Charles Bernsen, former executive Metro editor at The Commercial Appeal. The letter is in response to our article “Deadline: What it’s Really Like Inside the City’s Big Daily,” published in the April 29, 2009 weekly edition of The Memphis News. The letter will also be published in an upcoming edition of The Memphis News.

My Side of the Story

Much of Bill Dries’ piece, “Deadline: What it’s Really Like Inside the City’s Big Daily (April 29-May5 issue),” was devoted to trashing Editor Chris Peck and other managers at The Commercial Appeal. I will let them defend themselves if they wish.

What concerns me is his claim that I had a “checkered history of political coverage that turned into a deep distrust and contempt for politics” when I became Metro editor.

Since he didn’t give me a chance to respond in the article, I would like to do so here.

First, his description of my work as a political reporter is an opinion for which he offers no explanation or evidence. More important, he completely mischaracterizes my attitude toward politics.

One reason Angus McEachran made me Metro editor in 1996 was to improve our political coverage, which had become dominated by process stories – announcements of candidate filings and endorsements, repetitious coverage of routine campaign events and horserace stories based on polls. Such coverage is not only useless and uninteresting to all but a few political insiders, but also the work of lazy journalists unwilling to get out of their comfortable routines.

After I became Metro editor (and many years before Chris Peck arrived), The CA exponentially increased the amount of independent polling it conducted, particularly to identify issues important to voters.

We built our coverage around exploring those issues and the candidates’ stands on them. We did longer profiles on candidates and others who had important roles in election campaigns. We devoted more energy to analyzing campaign contributions than simply printing the amounts listed in candidate filings.

We sponsored numerous debates and, of course, covered them fully. We also tried to use our limited resources intelligently, putting them into important races or those that were highly contested.

Every race, however, received coverage in our voters’ guide, which, with the advent of early voting, we began publishing weeks before Election Day.

I confess that these changes required that we do fewer stories about stump speeches and arcane endorsements that no one but the endorsing group and the candidate cared about. And, horror of horrors, there may have been a year or two when we didn’t cover the politicking at the Fourth of July St. Peter Picnic.

I can’t speak to what’s happened at The CA since I left in early 2004 to pursue a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University (and not, as Bill implied, because I was chased out).

However, I am quite proud of the improvements made in political coverage there during my tenure as executive Metro editor. I refer to them specifically on my resume as an important accomplishment.

Some reporters at The CA responded enthusiastically to these changes. Others were at least cooperative. A few were downright hostile. Bill was in the last category.

While reading his piece I had a flashback of him, hunkered down and glowering during our discussions about political coverage, refusing to listen, much less give a fair hearing to the coverage philosophy I was advocating. He still doesn’t.

Bill says of me in his article: “He did not want coverage of campaign events and rallies. … To him, the whole process was rigged and the newspaper’s view was the only valid one.”

No, that’s not what I said. I told Bill he could go to as many rallies and events as he wanted or had time to. Such events provide the background needed to cover a campaign well.

But I also warned him that we would not continue the past practice of filling the newspaper with stories about routine speeches and political events that had little, if any, new or worthwhile information.

I wanted smart, incisive coverage, not dull, repetitive coverage. Instead of doing a story every time a candidate came out with a new ad, for example, I wanted larger stories on a candidate’s advertising strategy and whether it was accurate or distorted the truth.

My approach put the onus on reporters. They could no longer just show up at political events as stenographers and call it news.

Bill would not or could not accept this approach. As a result, his role in political coverage grew smaller, which I know disappointed him. Apparently he has refused to concede and is still fighting valiantly for the return of the boring and irrelevant political coverage he loves.

Sadly, the war he wages has been over for more than a decade.

Charles Bernsen

Nashville

New Facebook Groups

At the end of the same week Memphis mayor Willie Herenton announced he’s thinking about making a run at Steve Cohen’s seat, a Facebook group in support of Cohen’s re-election has been formed and already picked up almost 200 members.

http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/group.php?gid=94060466720&ref=nf

The group’s description: “A group to show Steve Cohen and anyone who may challenge him exactly who we support in the next election cycle.”

And Shelby County mayor AC Wharton, whose mayoral term expires next year and who has already announced his candidacy for the 2011 Memphis mayoral race, has his own Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/pages/Friends-of-AC-Wharton/93062625179?v=wall&viewas=851744938

At last count, it’s picked up more than 400 fans.

“You don’t know me”

At a hearing on climate change Friday on Capitol Hill in D.C., Tenn. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn asked former vice president and Tenn. native Al Gore if he stood to personally benefit from any business investments related to his environmental awareness efforts.

He told her: “If you believe the reason I’ve been working on this issue for 30 years is because of greed, you don’t know me.”

See the video here –

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMJ3Xow9ZGM&feature=player_embedded

Dansette

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