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