Slime Journalism

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Another mayoral race is approaching. Again, the voices of the same old circle of a rich and powerful few are readily heard, but not directly of course. Instead, they continue to sit on their high perch overlooking the surrogates who speak for them. All they need do is tend to their payrolls.

Last Thursday the Chattanooga Times-Free Press printed Allan McCallie's unsubstantiated allegation that another candidate via a "push poll" was maligning his candidate of choice, Ms. Ann Coulter. Of course, the Times-Free Press omitted the simple fact that Mr. McCallie is an attorney and trustee of the RiverCity Company.

In what was presented ostensibly as a straight news article, Mr. McCallie claimed a polling firm whose name he could not remember contacted him.
Questions seeking his reaction to generic candidate scenarios, in
particular, a candidate who is an atheist, a candidate who keeps her maiden name after marriage, and a candidate who profits from a non-profit agency supposedly offended McCallie. It was clear from Mr. McCallie's own statement, however, that he took offense only by surmising that those questions related to his candidate, Ms. Coulter, also paid (until recently) by the RiverCity Company.

For good measure the Times-Free Press then ran a Sunday editorial, "Slime Tactics in the Mayor's Race," complaining about "the noxious weeds and deadly blights of push polls and nasty rumor campaigns." The editorial condescends by defining to its presumably uneducated readers the term, "push poll," calling it "a sleazy new-age hybrid" between a "typical" public opinion poll and a rumor campaign. The piece was chock-full of incendiary language including "slanderous attacks," "insidious," "instigators who operate in the shadows to suggest lies," "parasites whose toxic work often remains undisputed," "sleazy innuendo, "planting false information," "specious assumptions," "nasty rumors," "underhanded," and "stealthy
political poison."

Such language meets the journalistic standards of Michael Savage, perhaps, but is hardly worthy of an editorial page still bearing the name of the formerly well-respected Chattanooga Times. Vicious characterizations are not the editorial's most troubling parts, however.

These are its really disturbing aspects:
The editorial restates as fact the claims of a biased source without even referencing the source, much less the financial conflicts of interests and biases of the source. In hypocritical fashion, the editor then repeatedly attempts through his own innuendo to link the alleged push poll to his real target, highly regarded City Councilman and mayoral candidate, Ron Littlefield. The editor disguises his own borderline slander with the c.y.a. phrases, "clearly seemed to seek a way to attack," "seemed to be the target of," "seemed designed to," and "surely may."

The editor fails to disclose that he owes his own job to a prominent Coulter financial backer, Ruth Holmberg. The editor misinforms its readers about what a push poll really is. (Push polls are conducted in the final days of a campaign. Push polls are not designed to survey a sample, but to reach many thousands of targeted voters. Push polls give the name of the candidate being subjected to the negative attack, no surmising required.)

During an election season there are any number of polls conducted for any variety of perfectly legitimate reasons. Some test issues. Some test opposition candidate strengths and weaknesses. Some test a candidate's own strengths and weaknesses. Some measure name recognition, positive and negative. Some track the horserace. Some serve more than one of those purposes in the same survey. Some are conducted by campaigns. Some are conducted independently, sometimes even using a current election to gather information for use in an altogether different election. Times-Free Press
statements as to who conducted a particular poll or why it was conducted are pure speculation at best and a blatant smear at worse.

By way of full disclosure, I know Ron Littlefield. Ron Littlefield is a
friend of twenty-five years.

I worked as a volunteer in Ron's first race (a city-wide campaign unseating an entrenched incumbent Public Works Commissioner in the previous form of government), but have not been involved in local politics for many years since, until now. When I read that Times-Free Press editorial, I decided that I could not sit idly by while representatives of the power structure shamelessly attempt to tar Ron, a good man, an honest man, an honorable man, with terms like "slime" and "sleaze."

First, I called the Times editorial page number to express my concerns. I quickly realized I was not speaking with a dispassionate editor who had simply expressed a strongly held political opinion. Instead, the editor made very clear to me that he had an agenda, and that his agenda was personal. I asked him, "If you're going to attack Ron, why don't you do it directly, instead using innuendo?" The Times editor responded, "Don't worry we will!" He was also condescending to me as well, explaining, "This is politics!" At least he didn't confuse "this" with journalism.

I have much more to say about the revolving door between the RiverCity Company and the office of mayor. I have many issues to address regarding the financial conflicts of interest through which a tangled web of privileged insiders gain at taxpayers', electric power ratepayers', rent payers', and private property owners' expense. I also intend to point out every instance in which the Times-Free Press fails to disclosed those conflicts in its reporting on the mayoral campaign. Furthermore, I promise to state facts, not innuendo.

For now, however, on the issue at hand I can say without hesitation, without reservation, and without equivocation that Ron Littlefield would never, not ever, authorize, sanction, or in any way approve of a push poll being conducted on his behalf. I can also say without using c.y.a. language that the Chattanooga Times-Free Press editorial was erroneous, malicious, and intentionally misleading to its readers.

Thanks to the, the voices of people other than a rich and powerful few can be still heard. Thank God our community does not have to depend on a single publication, namely the Times-Free Press and the "slime" journalism of at least one editor there.

Frank Wrinn

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