Old, and Still in the Way
Looking back on 15 years of getting all up in Knoxville’s business
Old, and Still in the Way
"What if Jack Neely is full of crap?” a friend recently postulated, staring down a table of MP staffers over the rim of his PBR. We were sitting on the porch of the Longbranch, and after the birds stopped singing and all the traffic on Cumberland Avenue skidded to a stop, he unblinkingly continued. “What if he’s just been making ‘Secret History’ up all these years? Maybe it’s so ‘secret’ because it never really happened.”
It was clear by the tone of his voice that he was selling us a challenge, not a doubt. Neely’s no fraud. He spends way too much time digging through microfilm and stumbling around in graveyards to be making his columns up. But there was a larger, considerably more fascinating question underlying our beer-emboldened friend’s inquiry. What if “Secret History” was a scam? What if this column, that for years has been cobbling together scraps of yellowing paper and nubby tombstones and crumbling buildings into some kind of cohesive master narrative, was just Neely’s way of making Knoxville feel special?
History gives us a story, an identity, an ownership of the environments that define us and that we, in turn, define. If Neely’s dictations of that story were false, or jazzed up because the truth was too tedious or wretched or embarrassing to tell, would we still be the same city we were before? Or would we be relegated to the ranks of those loose, baggy municipal monsters that just sort of lumber around aimlessly, as uncertain of where they’re going as they are of where they’ve been?
Of course, we’re just picking on “Secret History.” Any other slice of local journalism, be it an evening news-segment on WBIR or a headline in the News Sentinel , factors into the way Knoxville’s identity is formed, how it perceives itself. That’s why local media outlets bear such great responsibility: With every story they choose to tell, or not tell, and with each word and image selected to convey those stories, they’re articulating this city’s identity, its pitfalls, its possibilities. They’re writing the story as they go along, and for better or worse, that’s the story we live by, or at least live within.
Metro Pulse has always taken that responsibility seriously. When we say “Knoxville’s Weekly Voice,” we’re not talking about our own voices (although those certainly come through, too, sometimes accompanied by our fists); we’re talking about your voice as it continually narrates the story of this city. And while we can’t lay claim to perfect pitch, we do the best we can to keep on top of the questions and ideas and critiques that we overhear on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s two people conversing while they’re walking down the street or a local resident speaking out at a City Council meeting.
Maybe most of all, we pride ourselves on seeking out and listening to the disenfranchised, underrepresented voices that so often get lost in the shuffle, or are simply ignored. It’s easy to forget that there is more to the Great Knoxvillian Novel than what surrounds us everyday. Ours is a story of unusual depth and complexity, and it would take many more newspapers than one city can support to tell it in its entirety, or at least an approximation thereof.
There will always be chapters that defy words, mysteries that can’t be accurately scripted, facets of the city that cannot be organized, categorized or packaged. In those instances, the best we can do is dig for the story’s facts without compromising its ambiguity, which is a truth in and of itself. Shades of gray are rarely welcome within the confines of black-and-white journalism, but to leave them out is an injustice, and an inaccuracy.
If we have one obligation here at MP , it’s to the truth—shades of gray and all. And reading through the story excerpts that we’ve included in this 15th anniversary issue, the paper’s devotion to that truth, and its willingness to pursue it by whatever unorthodox means necessary, is clear. Each one gets in the face of issues that matter and, through a potent cocktail of brilliant writing and keen reportage, manages to drag readers, sometimes kicking and screaming, along for the ride It’s a tradition we plan to keep up.
Over the years, every story that appeared in the pages of this publication has, not unlike Neely’s cobbled-together chunks of local history, contributed to something much too substantial to recognize on a weekly basis. It’s a big picture you only see when you look back over the years: the collective impact of all those words and pictures, all those painstakingly assembled facts, all the decisions that went into journalistically building a bridge between the city we are and the city we want to be.
Moreover, it’s a narrative that’s continually evolving. The Knoxville of today is a different city from the Knoxville of 15 years ago, when MP was founded. Older plotlines fade into the distance, only to be replaced by an endless stream of new ones. Each new twist of plot brings with it a new challenge, almost as though the city is daring us to keep up—which is exactly the way we like it.
Today we’d like to extend the city’s dare to you, because, after all, we are and always have been in this story together. In the very first issue of MP , dated Aug. 19, 1991, then-publisher/editor Rand Pearson ended his editorial with the following sentence: “No publication can survive without the involvement of its audience; we want you to help us grow with this great city.” Fifteen years later, we owe our audience a big thanks.