editorial (2006-38)

Save It for the Editorial Page

The News Sentinel ’s coverage of the Wests crosses the line

Save It for the Editorial Page

Calling dailies out on their BS is a fine tradition of alt-weeklies nationwide. But nine times out of 10, when the News Sentinel covers a story in a way that we consider unfair or inaccurate, we here at Metro Pulse sit on our hands. Pointing fingers isn’t productive; focusing our energy on the production of journalism that’s fair and accurate is. They do their job, and we do ours.

Sometimes, though, we feel obligated to let them know that somebody is holding their reportage to a standard, and that there are some things we just shouldn’t put up with. That no reader should put up with, either.

From the get-go, the News Sentinel ’s coverage of the case involving Market Square entrepreneurs Scott and Bernadette West has been a case study in sensational and sometimes blatantly inaccurate journalism. Granted, it’s not an easy story to cover, and the News Sentinel deserves a pat on the back for slogging after new developments day after day and producing an unending stream of West-centric headlines. On the flipside, quantity is no reflection of quality.

Over the past couple months, the News Sentinel has managed to drag its readership along on a roller-coaster ride of bi-polar reportage: over-the-top stories that make Scott and Bernadette West out to be the saviors of downtown, a preposterous overgeneralization—followed by depictions of them as “convicted dope peddlers” to whom the judicial system is pandering. At times, the stories have been narrated by grandstanding politicians with a penchant for memorable one-liners, like “Drug dealers are just terrorists preying on our children.” But superfluous theatrics have no place in serious journalism, where a source is worth only as much as its agenda.

Every single word a reporter chooses to employ serves a purpose, and those purposes should be as precise and unbiased as possible. Unfortunately, the News Sentinel coverage has proved deficient on both fronts on multiple occasions. As the story unfolded, reporters played fast and loose with descriptors of the Wests that assumed guilt, even though the parties technically only pleaded guilty a few days ago. And save editorializing—(“razzle-dazzle [the judge] with letters,” “Market Square cheerleader,” “staggering amount of dope and money,” “ill-gotten gains,” etc.)—for the editorial page. If there’s a story to tell, tell it, one fact at a time. Connect the dots, but let the readers judge for themselves the shape those connections create.

Two articles in particular come to mind as being especially egregious. The first, “West’s Brother Makes Deal,” was published on Aug. 25. It led in with statements, paraphrased and attributed to Scott West’s brother and sister-in-law two paragraphs later, claiming that the Wests’ businesses on the square wouldn’t have been viable without drug money: “The businesses many credit with the rebirth of Market Square would not only have gone belly up without drug money. They wouldn’t exist.” Such statements, if not immediately and properly attributed, are misleading and unfair on several levels. One, the Wests’ businesses, while valuable, are far from being solely responsible for the Square’s still-growing vitality. Two, the Wests’ storefront venues, especially Preservation Pub and Earth to Old City, are popular businesses with legitimate receipts.

And then there was the Sept. 14 front-page story, “Are the Wests Getting Special Treatment?” When there’s not a story to tell, you don’t go out and fabricate one. The comparisons made between Bernadette West and Richard Hillard, owner of the Clinton Highway bar Coyote Joe’s, were both extrapolated and unjustified. After Hillard’s business underwent a change in ownership, his beer license was temporarily revoked until the permit was reapplied for under the new ownership. Bernadette West’s beer permit has not yet been revoked because, even though she has pleaded guilty, she has not yet been convicted. And to imply that by allowing the Wests’ businesses to remain open, they’re receiving special treatment, is ludicrous; if anything, the situation is to the benefit of the federal government, in whose best interest it is to get as much money out of the Market Square properties as possible. And the properties are worth more with their businesses open than closed.

To reiterate a point made earlier, this hasn’t been an easy story to cover. But when the media is faced with complicated scenarios, it mustn’t lose sight of fundamental reporting principles.

At Metro Pulse , our game plan for coverage going into this was to report the hard news, to the best of our ability as a weekly rather than daily paper, like hard news should be reported: squarely, with no frills or soap-opera voiceovers to confuse the issues. Everything else goes straight to the editorial page.

It’s not that we don’t have mixed feelings about the situation—several of us here in the office do. (We also feel obligated to disclose that Cardinal Enterprises, owned by Metro Pulse publisher Brian Conley, has a mortgage on two of the Wests’ Market Square properties, including the WesTrent Building and 36 Market Square, in the amount of $101,000. But as reporters we don’t hold that mortgage, and we received no direction as to how the story should be reported.)

Fair, accurate journalism is the only journalism that should ever have the privilege to enter the public sphere, and in this case, the News Sentinel has clearly abused that privilege. And it’s the editor, as much as the reporter, who should be held accountable for allowing such abuses to take place.