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Manipulating the Media?

TV stations ignore request to hold school report.

By Mary Cashiola

A report released this week by the Memphis City Schools was supposed to be held, or embargoed, until a certain date, but some local TV stations decided not to wait.

The Memphis City Schools communication office released copies of the MGT district audit to media outlets Wednesday morning but asked that the information be embargoed until after MGT representatives could present it to the board of commissioners Thursday evening.

But by Wednesday evening, a quick summary of the report was already airing on local TV stations.

"We didn't think the embargo would be an issue," says Janice Crawford, communications director for the district. "We rarely embargo anything. ... The state embargoes test scores before the state school board meets and they've never had a problem."

Representatives from WMC-TV Channel 5 said they already had their copy of the study when they received an e-mail notice of the embargo. Though a notice was included with the study, they had not been made to sign anything saying they would honor the embargo, and WMC news director Peggy Phillip then called the school district to tell them the station would not comply.

Phillip said she could not see a compelling reason for withholding the information and called the embargo a "manipulation of the media." According to the station's policy, Phillip says, "Embargoes can be called for various reasons: national security, public safety issues, and personnel matters. None of those applied."

In the time-sensitive area of news reporting, one might wonder if scooping the competition was a factor. Phillip says she assumed when she told the district that they would not honor the embargo, they would let other media outlets know. The station's own policy considers an embargo broken if the news becomes public or another organization breaks the embargo.

After WMC led its 5 o'clock broadcast with the story, the department quickly sent out an e-mail announcing the embargo had been broken. At least one other TV station ran the story on its nightly news and The Commercial Appeal had the story in the next morning's edition.

When releasing information to the media, the district usually makes sure the board commissioners have a copy first. Information relating to presentations to the board is usually not given out in written form until after the presentation. But in this case the district made an exception.

"This report was so voluminous," says Crawford, "we felt the press could do a better job of covering it if they had a chance to read over it first." She says the last time information was given to media without the chance for anyone to explain it, some members of the press got the story wrong. "It's a public document; everyone knew it was coming. We were trying to keep the playing field level."

Phillip says that isn't good enough: "When there's a good reason to embargo information, I understand it. We couldn't boil down 1,000 pages in eight hours. We didn't try."


Record Deal

Rock label, Elvis piano sold to New York company.

By Bianca Phillips

Guitarist Robert A. Johnson sold his rock label, Memphis Music, to New York-based Blue Moon Records last week along with several items of Elvis Presley memorabilia, including a white Knabe grand piano, a 1966 Gibson electric guitar, a red shirt worn by Elvis in the movie Spinout, an RCA portable radio, and several other items.

The label and memorabilia sold for $1.3 million, with the piano fetching $685,000 alone. Mike Muzio, chairman of Blue Moon, said the company, which previously signed only dance and hip-hop acts, was primarily interested in acquiring the label for their rock acts. The memorabilia was included in the package.

Muzio said that by taking on small labels like Memphis Music the company will be able to catch platinum-selling artists who have been released from their major labels due to falling sales.

"The majors are releasing a lot of their artists right now because they don't have the economic strength to keep them on," he said. "A perfect example is Cheap Trick. 'I Want You To Want Me' sold over 12 million copies, but they were released from their label. We think this is a great opportunity to do a roll-up with a lot of these platinum artists out there and sign them under our independent label."

Johnson, a local rock musician who has played with the Rolling Stones, the Who, and ZZ Top, to name a few, owns the federal trademark on Memphis Music and will remain CEO of the label. He said a Memphis Music recording studio is in the works for the Memphis area, and he is currently working on projects with Cheap Trick, the Bar-Kays, and two movie soundtracks.

Johnson and his partner, Larry Moss, will also remain consultants for the Elvis piano and other memorabilia.

"Our main goal with the piano was to keep it in America, as the British did with John Lennon's piano," said Johnson. "Larry and I have had several offers from the Japanese over the years, but we feel this is a piece of American rock-and-roll history, and we wanted to be patriotic by keeping it here."

Muzio said plans for the piano and other memorabilia are not set in stone. There has been talk of a Hard Rock Cafe Elvis memorabilia tour, a Ray Charles/Billy Joel benefit album recorded on the piano, and an opportunity to use the piano to open the Grammy Awards show.


Helping the Neighbors

Refinery hands out grants to community groups.

By Bianca Phillips

The Williams Refinery in South Memphis recently awarded a total of $19,500 in grants to 10 organizations in the community, and $10,500 is still up for grabs.

According to Lisa Wheeler, community-affairs adviser for the oil-refining company at 543 West Mallory, Williams made a $30,000 commitment to helping organizations within the South Memphis community.

"These are our neighbors, and we're interested in working with them to develop a sustainable community. We see them as partners, and we want to see that we are impacting the residents near our fence line," she said.

The grant recipients include Carver High School, Riverview Elementary Accelerated School, Florida-Kansas Elementary School, the Mallory Heights Community Association, Warren United Methodist Church, the Kansas Career & Technology Center, A.B. Hill Elementary School, Riverview Middle School, the Cargill Citizen Involvement Committee, and Creative Life, a private Christian school.

An action panel awarded the grants based on which organization proposed the best uses for the money and had the greatest likelihood to make a difference upon completion.

Applications for the remaining money can be picked up at the refinery, and although there is no set deadline, Wheeler recommends turning applications in by February 1st. She said the money should be awarded some time before April.


Getting Taxed

Unskilled preparers can cause a heap of trouble for taxpayers.

By Janel Davis

It's tax time, and with it comes all the frustration and fear of new tax laws, mounds of tax forms, and impending deadlines. While some taxpayers are fortunate to have a personal tax preparer or accountant, many are left to either face the forms themselves or wade through the onslaught of advertisements for tax-preparation services. This is where things can get a little shaky.

Tax-preparation services begin popping up in malls and strip shopping centers around the beginning of the year. According to the Internal Revenue Service, these agencies, especially electronic or e-filers, often have not met the proper requirements to be registered agents with the IRS. Instead, the companies offer classes on the basics of tax law and preparation for the agents, many of whom have no professional financial or tax background.

To enroll with the agency, preparers must register through an application process that includes an FBI criminal-background check; a credit-history check; an IRS records check to ensure that all individual and business returns are filed, all payments are up to date, and there were no fraud and preparer penalties; and a prior history check for noncompliance in the IRS e-file programs. Although the application process is extensive, only the owners and principals of a business must apply. For companies with multiple locations or agents, many of them may not have gone through these checks.

While the IRS does not monitor the cost of tax-preparation fraud, the agency advises taxpayers to have at least a basic understanding of tax laws and filing-year changes before walking into any tax-preparation establishment. "Taxpayers should also watch out for preparers who charge their preparation fee based on the amount of your refund, because that's illegal," said Dan Boone with the IRS. "Also, watch out for agents promising big refunds without even seeing your financial documents first and for agents who say, 'This is a deduction that the IRS doesn't want you to know about' or 'This is a deduction that isn't for you, but the IRS wants you to take it anyway.'"

The IRS issues alerts to taxpayers warning them against the "Dirty Dozen" tax scams, which include one of the most popular, the Reparations Credit for African-Americans as a repayment for slavery. While most taxpayers are no longer misled by this scam, this credit is still being frequently reported by taxpayers in Mississippi, said Boone. The IRS can charge a $500 penalty for any taxpayer filing this claim. Other schemes include instructing employers not to withhold federal income tax or employment taxes from employees' wages, advertisements for "untax packages" sold on the Internet (where taxpayers pay a one-time fee to never pay taxes again), and so-called IRS agents who come to homes to collect for the agency. Usually, these scam artists have no identification, which can normally be checked with the agency.

"Quite a bit of fraud goes on with the Earned Income Credit," said Boone. "Many times we have people who sell or lend their children to other taxpayers for a larger credit amount. But the IRS has a special unit designed to find and check these discrepancies. These people are not getting away with it." When choosing a tax preparer, Boone advises taxpayers to choose preparers who have adequate credentials and are in business year-round to answer questions and correct any mistakes. What's more, they should consult the Better Business Bureau and state consumer-affairs division, ask about their background experience, and keep copies of W-2, 1099, and other forms, along with a completed return for their records.

Although some companies and agents participate in scams or are unprepared to complete returns, Boone reminds taxpayers that many of the available preparers are properly trained and registered and provide a service to many individuals who do not have a personal preparer.

"After the initial rush of easy returns, our preparers participate in secondary training necessary to complete more difficult returns," said Liberty Tax Services franchisee David Rikard. "The training focuses on specific parts of the tax law or individual forms, such as Schedule C, the Business Income and Loss schedule. As a member of a franchise, our preparers also have the experience of tax experts at the national location who are always readily available to answer questions our preparers are unable to answer."

Taxpayers who think they have been victims of tax preparers are advised to call their state's Internal Revenue Compliance Agent and report the fraud.

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