Roy Exum summed it up nicely in his ‘Post Election Thoughts.’ “In all the years I have read a newspaper I can’t recall such a public lashing as the Free Press editorialist gave Greg Vital on election eve.”
Greg Glover and Oscar Brock echoed Exum’s sentiments on this week’s edition of Tennessee Insider when, chuckling in disbelief, they agreed that Gardenhire could thank the Times Free Press for his apparent narrow escape Thursday night.
In an editorial entitled ‘Greg Vital’s Vile Tactics Disgust,’ novice Free Press editor Drew Johnson went to press with a savage personal attack on Greg Vital that by the author’s own admission was heavy on ‘allegations’ and light on anything resembling ‘proof.’
Disgusting as this personal attack was, it was only the last in a series of smears that appears to have been well-coordinated by the Times Free Press, Todd Gardenhire, and his supporters in both political parties.
Not convinced? Consider these simple facts.
The pretense for the editorial was a complaint against Greg Vital – filed by Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Paul Smith – of voter fraud. The fact that the allegations in the complaint had been categorically denied by election commission officials before the ink was dry on Mr. Johnson’s hit piece didn’t stop him from going ahead with it. In the days that followed, even Democrat Wilburn C. Markham, who worked the polling station where the fraud was alleged to have occurred, categorically denied that Smith’s allegations had taken place.
During this primary, Greg Vital knocked on over 700 doors in the 10th Senate District and created 42 new middle class jobs, pushing his total to almost 900. Todd Gardenhire made robo calls. Do the voters really even know Todd Gardenhire? He didn’t even have a campaign website.
Had Vital, like Gardenhire, been a seasoned political pro and a self-professed student of Lee Atwater, he wouldn’t have wasted time, sweat and money actually campaigning. Instead he’d have had high-profile surrogates and supporters harass, pressure, and cajole rookie reporters and inexperienced editors at the Times Free Press into attacking his political opponent for him.
If you think the Times Free Press attack campaign against Vital didn’t swing the election, consider the fact that Gardenhire, a supposed GOP stalwart, lost Bradley County, the most conservative in Tennessee, but won Hamilton.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press purports ‘To Give the News Impartially, Without Fear or Favor.’ Those of us who’ve witnessed just the opposite couldn’t disagree more. But what’s truly disheartening is to see a once-promising editor become a political hit-man. Readers should think twice about putting their trust in a newspaper that seems to have lost any sense of journalistic integrity.
* * *
I just finished reading Eric Wilbank’s opinion piece as well as Ken Meyer’s piece, both of whom wrote about the District 10 Senate race. Let me first say that I, too, congratulate Todd Gardenhire on his win, and, coming from one who loves political strategy, it was an artfully run campaign. And, while I was a supporter of Greg Vital, I do not begrudge Todd’s victory, I have wished him well and offered my support as a Republican to him as he runs against a truly radical Democrat.
My thoughts on all of this are directed towards last Wednesday’s editorial in the Chattanooga Times/Free Press, called “Greg Vital’s Vile Tactics Disgust” by Drew Johnson. I realize that when one is writing an editorial the rules of journalism are different, or at least they must be since, except for the part about Vital’s college degree being brought up again, the rest of it was, at best, hearsay and accusations from unnamed sources.
Here in the Chattanoogan.com we read a letter from a Mr. Wilbourne C. Markham Sr., who works at the Election Commission, along with Charlotte Mullis Morgan and Steve Gaston, in which he says “The extreme picture of fraud painted by Young Democratic Party President Colby Knecht and supported by Mr. Smith is so off the mark it is absurd.” Mr. Markham, a Democrat, also points out that bringing folks to the polls and trying to influence them along the way is not illegal.
Mr. Johnson said the following in his editorial:
“Colby Knecht, president of the Hamilton County Young Democrats, and Paul Smith, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, allege that workers for Vital’s campaign packed black residents into vans, drove them to polling locations and then encouraged them to vote for Vital during early voting.
"The website Nooga.com published a picture, taken by Knecht, of an empty white van emblazoned with Vital campaign signs outside a polling location. Smith, in a phone interview, claims that the photo was taken after the van’s driver led a group of black voters inside, asked them to pick Republican primary ballots and urged them to vote for Vital.
"On top ofthe more serious voter tampering and fraud charges, the van was parked within 100 feet of the voting precinct, another violation of voting laws since the van was adorned with campaign signs.
"The Vital campaign denied the Democrats’ allegations of campaign workers escorting voters into polling places and attempting to influence their vote.
"Smith’s response? 'Vital couldn’t remember if he graduated from college, so I’m not surprised he can’t remember his involvement in this, either.'
'Not a bad point, actually.”
Did Mr. Johnson ever think that maybe Mr. Knecht or Mr. Smith may be exaggerating what was happening at the polling station? Should he have called Charlotte Mullis Morgan and asked her what was going on? Could he have considered the potential inflammatory nature of using the term “packing black voters into vans”, and the horrible picture that would conjure in the readers’ imaginations? Did anyone other than two political operatives for the Democratic Party confirm that the “campaign workers escorting the voters into polling places and attempting to influence their vote” actually happened? According to Democrat Mr. Wilbourne C. Markham Sr.:
“The only, and I stress only, incident involved a black woman who said it was 'her daughter' who was influencing her to take a Republican ballot - a ballot she received since it was the one she finally requested. This was after I told her daughter to cease and to leave. She did and never returned.”
But this quote doesn’t exactly support the case against Mr. Vital and his campaign of being a “loathsome embarrassment” does it? So who do we the reader trust, the word of Mr. Markham who has sworn to protect the rights of voters and preserve the fairness and integrity of our elections or the word of two Democratic operatives, and ,more importantly, who should Mr. Johnson have talked to before writing his editorial?
To the question of the van being parked in front of the polling station, if it occurred, if it can be proven the picture was taken during a time when voting was occurring, if the van’s ownership and driver can be linked to the Vital Campaign, if if if if if, then, yes, that was wrong and, yes, it was at best a screw up and deserves a fine of some sort. I am probably old fashioned, but maybe I would have even called the election commission and asked for the security tapes to be reviewed before I jumped on such an evidently “absurd” story.
But beyond all of this, here is the real zinger in the editorial, the crushing blow:
“A Republican state lawmaker from outside the Chattanooga area told this page that when Vital was considering running for the 10th District state Senate seat, he used his personal wealth to intimidate other would-be candidates from entering the race.
According to the legislator, Vital told both Gardenhire and Vince Dean, who represents East Ridge in the state house and was considering running for the open Senate seat, “I’ve got more money than God, so don’t bother running.”
This callous and arrogant threat to buy the election appears to be the one thing that Vital has not changed his story on. According to state campaign finance records, h ehas poured $125,000 of his own money into his campaign.”
Who was the Republican lawmaker who told Mr. Johnson that Mr. Vital was using his personal wealth to intimidate? When did printing what to my eyes seems to be at least third-hand information become the way of the News Free Press? Mr. Johnson stated in the comments section on the News Free Press website the following:
“Allow me to use my editor's prerogative to correct one point that several commenters have made. I spoke with neither Vince Dean or Todd Gardenhire about this piece or the "more money than God quote." It was told to me by several state lawmakers and GOP leaders, and confirmed by the one quoted in the piece. I haven't spoken with Vince Dean in years, so I want readers to know that he was in no way a source for the passage that referenced him.”
So the Editorial Page writer didn’t actually talk to Vince Dean or Todd Gardenhire? Did the writer consider who the “several state lawmakers and GOP leaders” may or may not have been supporting in the election?
Did Mr. Johnson fail to read Andy Sher’s article in the Chattanooga Times News Free Press called, “Todd Gardenhire Matches Vital in Latest Spending”, where Andy says Gardenhire loaned his campaign $57,000.00. It would seem to me that neither one of these guys are middle class. In fact, it sounds like if one was trying to “buy the election” so was the other.
To sum this all up I don’t know Mr. Johnson, I have enjoyed most of his editorials since the News Free Press hired him. I have heard that he is a principled and decent young man who is actually striving to make a difference. But this editorial, written the way it was, and printed when it was, based largely on accusations, and with statements about one candidate without comparisons of the other, went beyond not being fair, it was wrong. I do not know what the rules of the editorial page are, but I never remember reading anything like this in the past, and I am afraid that this editorial has tarnished the name of the Grey Lady of Chattanooga.
None of us are perfect, especially myself. I, too, have listened to what I thought was eyewitness accounts of something, wrote about it, and then later found it was third-hand information. In that instant I discovered just how important it was to get information from more than one source, to verify, to talk to the supposed wrongdoer. Which is why, after I did find out I was wrong, I apologized in writing to the person I had offended. Thus coming from someone who is far from perfect himself I would ask Mr. Johnson to consider making an apology to Mr. Vital and to the readers of the News Free Press Editorial Page.
At this point it is too late to take back. The election is over and it would appear 40 votes separate Mr. Gardenhire and Mr. Vital out of 16,000. I believe Mr. Johnson did make a difference.