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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

Tax Rolls, Appraisals, New Calculations

Shelby County mayor AC Wharton once said at a public gathering: “We have a saying in county government. ‘Don’t tax him. Don’t tax me. Tax the man behind the tree.’

In Shelby County, the man behind that tree usually is the city of Memphis taxpayer. The county’s 2009 certified tax rolls show why.

http://www.memphisdailynews.com/editorial/Article.aspx?id=42154

Despite the fear of some taxpayers this year that county taxpayers outside the city might get hit with drastic increases in tax value to make up for value declines in the city – a fear that showed up in letters to the editor and comments in The Commercial Appeal, among other places – a comparison of the 2008 and 2009 tax rolls does not bear that out.

Most of the increase in assessed value because of the 2009 reappraisal fell within Memphis. And in both 2008 and 2009, Memphis and Shelby County had roughly the same percentages of tax value – meaning taxpayers in those areas collectively carried about the same share of the overall county tax burden both years.

The assessed value within Memphis comprised about 61.4 percent of the county’s overall tax base in 2008. The county outside the city last year comprised about 38.5 percent of the county’s overall tax base.

This year, Memphis comprises 61.8 percent of the county’s overall tax base, and the county outside the city comprises 38.1 percent.

State epidemiologist on swine flu

Dr. Tim Jones, the Tennessee medical epidemiologist, told reporters in a conference call Monday afternoon that although no cases of swine flu have been reported in the state he expects infections here.

“We are currently at the stage of this outbreak that we are no longer able to contain it,” Dr. Jones said. “Now, our strategy is basically to slow down the spread. We fully expect to have cases in Tennessee and throughout the U.S.”

However, healthy people should be able to recover without taking anti-viral drugs, he said. Jones recommended that people respond to an outbreak as they would during any flu season.

This year’s flu vaccine does not protect against the swine flu, which Jones referred to as a “novel flu” outbreak. The incubation period from contact with the virus to actual illness averages about four days, he said.

Jones said the state has requested anti-viral medications from the Strategic National Stockpile, which is administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of the medicine would go to hospitals and the other half to regional health departments.

In most cases, people will have recovered from the flu before tests confirm that they had this “novel” virus, Jones said.

Behind this door…

Allen Stanford had a personal bathroom within his private office at his company’s Houston headquarters. And to the left of the shower in his bathroom was a door – Stanford’s personal entrance and exit to the parking lot, which let him come and go in privacy.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/feedarticle/8473055

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.

Dansette

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