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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

Dansette

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