No Bandwagons, No Sacred Cows
15 years of looking at the news a little differently.
by John BranstonHere's the point of alternative newspapers. Call us underground papers, hippie papers, liberal rags, whatever you like. But at our best, we're alternative sources of news and views. It's as simple as that.
If there is a bandwagon, then there is no need for one more passenger. If all heads are nodding in agreement and pointing north, there must be something to be said for turning away and looking south. If someone or something is a sacred cow, who needs one more reporter paying their cheesy respects? If everyone loves the mayor or the home team or the new thing this year, you can bet that won't be true next year. If nobody will touch a story, then maybe somebody should.
These stories were Flyer firsts and pretty good (whether or not anyone else in the media followed up on them).
* Jackson Baker's weekly column, "Politics." The first, best, and now the only.
* Our reports on the first sure signs of the broken Herenton/Ford alliance in 1993, just two years after the landmark election.
* Gerry House and her deal with ServiceMaster. The national Superintendent of the Year as corporate huckster.
* "A License To Print Money," a 1992 look at profit margins and financials at The Commercial Appeal. Would you believe a profit of 36 percent?
* Medical Examiner O.C. Smith's story doesn't add up. For a year, only the Flyer said so.
* The corporate culture and energy futures buying at MLGW in 2001. Set the tone for what all media began reporting in 2004.
* "The Bucks Stop Here," our first of three salary surveys of local nonprofits in 1995.
* "The Liberation of Harold Ford": team coverage of the Ford trial in 1993.
* Our 1998 stories on special prosecutor Larry Parrish's privately financed role in raids on local topless clubs. Two years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court threw out the indictments and disqualified Parrish and the entire staff of this district attorney's office from pursuing the cases.
* The controversy around the Memphis Arts Council's Education in the Schools program in 2003. Who knew art bureaucrats could stonewall so well?
* Our late-1990s coverage on continuing problems inside the Shelby County Jail.
* Tim Sampson and We Recommend. Can he say those things?
* "Fortunate Sons": Richard Smith and Kerr Tigrett and their clash with the hallowed traditions of the University of Virginia.
* The Memphis Grizzlies. Repeat after us: The media are not supposed to be an extension of the Grizzlies marketing department.
* Willie Herenton tells us to "Go To Hell" and provides the Flyer with a cover story and headline. Hey City Council, school board, and MLGW: We feel your pain.
* Was President Bush AWOL in Alabama? We found the local angle that became national news.
Big Scoops, Cherries on Top
Yes, we're different; but we're also pretty damn good at being the same old thing.
by Jackson BakerIn his "Bandwagon" notes, John Branston offers a list of stories for which the Flyer has provided illumination in areas that would otherwise have remained dark or but dimly lit. He has in a way preempted much of my previously chosen subject area -- that of scoops -- exclusives on subjects of the day or freshly unearthed material or timely disclosures so detailed and provocative that they redefined the way in which significant things had to be viewed.
The fact is, the Flyer -- in a field of local news gatherers that includes a well-endowed daily paper and several enterprising broadcast stations -- has more than held its own in the simple, traditional act of breaking news. Branston does not mention some of his own scoops, many of them concerning the courts or the boardrooms of the Mid-South.
He does indicate, without expressly acknowledging his own vital contribution, the tag-team coverage he and I did at the second trial, in 1993, of former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. for bank fraud. This is one that resulted in the longtime congressman's final exculpation -- or "liberation," as we put it in a definitive concluding article, replete with analysis of evidence and interviews with jurors. (Bet you can't tell which one of us wrote which part of that 3,500-word opus; at this remove, we can barely tell ourselves.)
There are some omissions from the above list, notably examples of the peerless coverage of local sports by our late editor Dennis Freeland, one of those rare journalistic types who could remain hard of nose and still be generally beloved. Not a coaching change occurred in local college ranks without its having been prefigured and explained in advance in a Freeland column. His intuition was utterly reliable, whether concerning the strategic weaknesses of good-guy University of Memphis football coach Rip Scherer or the bad-guy aspects (and strategic weaknesses) of Tiger basketball coach Tic Price.
Most of our scoops, and most of our solid coverage over the years has come from simply working the beat, doing the day-to-day, hour-to-hour grunt coverage that might result in, say, Mary Cashiola's memorable member-by-member profile some months ago of the chaotically imploding Memphis school board. (Try merely attending one of those marathon school board sessions to see how hard a nose she has!)
The name Phil Campbell needs to be dragged in here; it was Campbell's dogged and richly documented pursuit of mutual backscratching arrangements between Mayor Willie Herenton and consultant Robert L. Green in mid-1997 that still remains a template for such investigations.
As different as we are -- and Branston has made a case for that -- we are also no slouches at the same old thing that journalism has always been: getting the news, getting it right, and getting it first. We have been inconvenienced in this regard by being a weekly and having to wait days sometimes to tell what we know -- but even that handicap has been whittled down somewhat in recent years by our ability to go 24/7 on the Flyer Web site: MemphisFlyer.com.
Surely somewhere else in this issue the numerous awards we've received over the years for newsgathering are touted up. If not, then count modesty as among our virtues. There are many things that we are -- and many ways of defining us: The Second Coming of the Second Daily; the Time and Newsweek of our circulation area; and, as Branston suggests, the indispensable Alternate Take.
I would just add to that that we are, uncommonly often, the first -- and best -- take.