The National Profile: Some Weird Resonance in the News, and an Appreciation of Terry Morrow

Knoxvillians of a certain age have been struggling to avoid a certain comparison, but maybe it's time to go ahead and get it out. Consider two brothers, successful businessmen, the more outgoing of whom has gubernatorial aspirations. Their once-local company grows so big it begins to get national attention. The colorful father who started them in the business has retired, mostly, but still enjoys the spotlight. A once-struggling city unaccustomed to private business of this magnitude is grateful for the economic boost, and for the family's generous philanthropy. The family changes the urban landscape with welcome new architecture.

Then a federal raid on the company's well-known headquarters building, and accusations of massive fraud—and grumblings of political motivations, because the raid is conducted under the auspices of an opposite party's administration—followed by an extremely long and complicated federal trial.

There are lots of differences between the Haslams' travel-center empire and the Butchers' banking empire, which collapsed 30 years ago—one of them being that the Butchers' banks were obviously doomed at the outset, and the brothers themselves were early on identified as chief culprits. At this writing, the Pilot Flying J story looks, maybe, as if it could turn out to be a limited middle-management problem, and that the company itself will continue to thrive. That's very different from the Butcher story.

But the record does leave a melancholy impression of the destiny of large businesses in Knoxville. It makes you wonder whether, whenever a Knoxville business grows beyond its rearing, fate will always prune it back.

The Pilot story brings up one odd memory of that other story. Knoxville was in the news a lot in 1983, mainly due to the Butcher scandal, and that fact, perhaps combined with the flurry of attention the city's big Butcher-financed fair had gotten the year before, had one surprisingly sanguine result. For the first time in memory, Knoxville was spoken of in the national news as a place that people had at least heard of. Back then, an older insurance man proudly pointed it out to me, and it was true: Newscasters didn't say "Knoxville, a city in Eastern Tennessee" anymore. Even the word "Tennessee" became unnecessary. In 1983, national reporters would just say, "in Knoxville today…" It was just "Knoxville," like Baltimore, or Chicago, or Atlanta. Can federal allegations raise a city's profile?

After some years of law-abiding newslessness, people forgot what Knoxville was. Last week, some of the same national news organizations that found the word "Knoxville" sufficient 30 years ago reported on the Pilot raid in "Knoxville, Tennessee."

I can't really write a personal appreciation of the News Sentinel's Terry Morrow. I didn't know him well, not even well enough to know he was sick. Contrary to some popular assumptions, we don't work together, as editorial staffs. I don't know most of the News Sentinel's writers personally, but I ran into Terry on a few occasions, and over the years we'd had three or four good conversations, all interesting. He was very good at what he did, and I was sometimes grateful for that in a way you wouldn't expect of someone who works for a rival publication.

Long ago I got some stern advice not to write too local, especially concerning national subjects, whether political or entertainment-related. The purpose of writing for Knoxville papers, I was told, was to generate clips. Good clips could get you work in big-city papers, and that's where the action is. If the clips are too local, they don't travel well.

There was a higher-minded version of that doctrine. To be taken seriously, reviewers should write about plays, movies, and television without bias. It didn't matter whether somebody local was in it; our responsibility was to the pure-minded consumer who did not, or should not, care.

The news media were different, I was told, from businesses running a restaurant or a law firm, in which serving the local customer is the highest goal. In the media, Knoxville's value was as a stepping stone to the big time. For a while, newspapers in many mid-market cities across America, especially their entertainment pages, were like little USA Todays, devoid of inside jokes or references to local curiosities.

I understood the concept. But somehow I was still interested in my neighbors and former neighbors and fellow University of Tennessee grads, and their distinctions in movies and TV shows and on record albums. Maybe it was corny or provincial of me, but I wanted to know why this character Johnny Knoxville, for example, named himself that.

Metro Pulse was an unabashedly local publication from the beginning, and in our early days, we tried to cover that Knoxvillians-in-Hollywood and Knoxvillians-on-Broadway beats, just because nobody else was doing it.

It wasn't easy. When I got a tip about a Knoxvillian getting a role in a TV show, I didn't have any way of knowing whether he was the only one, or one of 100. I wrote about Knoxvillians on cable TV shows without ever having seen them, because I didn't have cable TV. The idea that we were missing some interesting Knoxville connection to show business was a weekly low-grade anxiety. We'd get a clue about one thing or another, often not sure what to do with it. We never had a big enough staff to devote a reporter to that beat.

Then Terry came along, worked his way into that community, and made some great connections, and outpaced us on the show-biz beat. He got return calls from people who hadn't returned mine. He acknowledged that there was a great deal of interest among local people in the local aspects of entertainment, from Johnny Knoxville to Dolly to this week's game-show and reality-show participants.

He did what we were trying to do, better, and took that burden off our backs. He reported about the Knoxville connections of interesting celebrities. He wasn't afraid of seeming provincial, and maybe he made the city a little less so.