Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

Monday, September 17, 2007

Replay of Jan 31 County Commission Meeting Takes up all of Morning Session

Richard Hailey

The Sunshine Act trial started its second week the same way it ended the first, with jurors watching video tape of the Commission in action. Today's tapes, however came from the infamous Jan 31st meeting, where much was done and little was said.

Publicly, that is.

As the video played, two things were clear. First, there was no discussion or debate about the merits of the candidates for a particular job. It was as if the discussion and debate had already taken place. In fact, early in the proceedings, Chairman Moore remarked that he saw nothing in the agenda to indicate any close votes. An unidentified voice, presumably one of the commissioners,responded, "Do you know something we don't?" Second, the recesses went on far longer than Chairman Moore anticipated. The 5 minute recess lasted for roughly 24 minutes, while the 2 minute recess went for 14.

Also intriguing was the fact that after the first recess, Commissioner Jordan changed her vote, switching from supporting Davis for the previous 6 votes to supporting Trammel.

Without deliberating, according to the theory advanced by County Law Director Owings.

The trial will continue this afternoon, finishing up the video, and then reviewing audio from some of the commissioners during the recesses. Any updates will be available here.

Posted by Rich
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How We Got Here; AKA Whose Fault Is It?

While driving in this morning, I was listening to Hallerin Hill, and a caller on his show opined that what we needed to do was throw all the bums out and start with a clean slate.

How soon they forget.

This whole mess started because the voters of Knoxville re-elected nine county commissioners that hey knew were term limited. The voters knew there was a good chance that the people they were voting for would be ruled ineligible to stand for their term, but they elected them anyway.

And now they want to throw the bums out.

My question: Who are the real bums in this scenario?

Posted by Rich
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Monday Morning at the Courthouse

Here I sit just outside the courtromm just about 30 minutes before the games begin. I've talked to the bailiff, and he doesn't think I'll have any trouble bringing my laptop into the court, so I may even be able to do some live blogging. If not,I'll still be able to take some good notes.

The plan for today is to go through the video for the Commission meeting on the 31st of January. One of the things I want to do is pull up the minutes for that meeting and compare them to what really happened.

It could be revealing. Or very boring.

My plan for today is to watch the trial as it happens, post a short piece over the lunch break, then a longer, more comprehensive piece when it's al over. Basically, I'll be trying to do what Jaime Satterfield does everyday. Once that is done, I'll post my opinion on the proceedings.

Or sleep, depending.

One of the nice thing about this laptop is I can squeeze almost 4 hours of life from this battery. Not too shabby. It still won't last the day unless I find an outlet for an hour. If nothing else, I'll go sit in my truck over lunch and charge it off of my inverter.

Why yes, I was a Boy Scout. Why do you ask?

Posted by Rich
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Friday, September 14, 2007

When You Have Questions, Go to the Source.

Yesterday was a very interesting day for me. I spent some time in the KNS newsroom, gathering reactions to our coverage of their coverage so far, and asking questions on a few subjects I was curious about. I wanted to know how folks at the paper felt about our coverage, and if we were giving them what they wanted, or what they thought the readers wanted. I also wanted to talk to Jamie Satterfield about what she thought about our commentaries, if she'd had the time to read any.

First, let's get a couple of specific issues out of the way.

1. In Russ McBee's second report, he focussed on the fact that the KNS reporter made a debate over the racial makeup of the jury the central fact of her story, while two TV crews who also made reports never mentioned the incident. From this, he inferred that the racial issue was fairlyminor and dispensed with quickly. While this is a logical assumption, it is an assumption, and in this case, an incorrect one. According to Jaime Satterfield, the discussion over the racial composition of the jury pool took place while the TV crews were covering the orientation sessions.

They weren't even in the room at the time.

2. In this post, I noted a change in the wording of a story that eliminated phrasing that Russ McBee had found objectionable, and I wondered if someone at the KNS was paying attention. The answer is no. The change was part of a routine rewrite, and had nothing to do with Russ or myself.

3. In this post, I wondered whether County Law Director John Owings actually used the phrase "back room stuff," or if that was Satterfield's own characterization. It was her own characterization, and she stands by it as an accurate description of the tactics of the County Commissioners that Owings is defending.

4. Don't attribute any of Jamie Satterfield's coverage decisions to editorial pressure from Jack McElroy, or Dave Keim. She made it very clear to me that she writes the story as she sees it

As I talked to folks in the newsroom, one thing became fairly clear; the whole idea of having somebody watch them work was a bit of a new sensation. I got the impression, mainly because I was told flat out, that there are some folks in the newsroom who don't think we as bloggers have an understanding of what it takes to really cover a story, and to be fair, they have a point. Bloggers are primarily commenter's on other people's stories;we don't often find ourselves in the position of going out and finding the story.One staffer told me that he would like to see at least one of us actually attend the trial and try and write up our own take on the day's events,just so we could get an idea of the challenges facing the reporter.

Since this was part of my plan all along, I agree wholeheartedly. Monday, I'll be in the courtroom for the day and then I'll post my take on the events prior to reading the KNS reports and commenting on them.

One of the other things we discussed is how to write a good story. Not only does the reporter have to condense the essentials of 8 hours of courtroom testimony into a few paragraphs, but she must do so in a way that captures the important facts while still engaging the reader. At times, the reporter must use non-neutral words,not to indicate a personal agenda, but to distill the tone of hours of conversation, interviews, or testimony into a single sentence.

And she has to do this after spending 8 hours in court and while meeting a deadline.

I'll let you know what it's like on Monday.

Posted by Rich
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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Opening Arguments

Jamie Satterfield's latest article is online here. I'm not going to get into the merits of the opening statements because a) I'm not a lawyer, and b) that's not what I'm here to do. But let's look closely at the article itself and see if there's any hidden messages for us.

Sure, they talked about the looming appointments.

Some of them may have discussed their preferences for those posts.

There might even have been lobbying going on.

But does any of that prove the Knox County Commission violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act in handling the process to replace term-limited officeholders?

The answer to that, Knox County Law Director John Owings told jurors Wednesday in Knox County Chancery Court, may well turn on a single word — deliberation.

“Conversations, discussions and lobbying among commissioners may not be deliberations,” Owings said during opening statements in a lawsuit alleging that commission violated the act, more commonly known as the sunshine law.

These opening paragraphs are very interesting for two reasons. First, they are constructed to irritate the reader,especially if the reader already feels like the KCC broke the law. Second, even though they are designed to irritate, they are not indicative of slanted coverage by the KNS.

Let me explain the seeming contradiction.

The first three paragraphs are taken directly from the heart of Knox County Law Director John Owings's defense of the KCC.

“Conversations, discussions and lobbying among commissioners may not be deliberations,” Owings said during opening statements in a lawsuit alleging that commission violated the act, more commonly known as the sunshine law.

By separating the three elements and giving them their own paragraphs, Satterfield plays up the fact that John Owings is arguing that the very actions that have most of the people up in arms don't actually constitute a violation of the law because they might not constitute "deliberations."

The answer to that, Knox County Law Director John Owings told jurors Wednesday in Knox County Chancery Court, may well turn on a single word — deliberation.

Anyone else reminded of Bill Clinton's evasions over the definition of "is?" Would that be an accidental reference?

So why don't I think this is bias?

Because it is an entirely appropriate response to the defense laid out by Owings in his opening statement. He is arguing over the definition of a single word, and basing the defense of his clients on that argument. As it says later in the article:
That back-hall stuff — if it went on at all — was politics, Owings said.

“There may be a lot of politics in this case,” Owings said. “Sometimes politics are unpleasant, but this case is not about politics. At the close of this trial, you’ll be asked to decide if the plaintiffs have proven by a preponderance of the evidence whether Knox County Commission deliberated — key word — in private.”

Satterfield's opening is factually accurate, and a fair representation of Owings's argument.

Now, having said that, let's look closely at the section quoted just above.
That back-hall stuff — if it went on at all — was politics, Owings said.

She's paraphrasing Owings, not quoting. Did he actually use the emotionally loaded phrase "back-hall stuff?" If so, the county is paying him way too much money. If he didn't, then we have Satterfield interjecting her own personal opinions into the article.

By the way, I just want to point out that I don't think any reporter could stand up to the level of scrutiny we're putting Jamie Satterfield through without showing a few cracks in their game. Between us, Russ and I are putting every word she writes under a microscope, and quite probably reading way more into them than she meant to put there. That doesn't mean that we're making stuff up; It just means that every writer is passionate about what they write, and injects a little bit of themselves into every word. Otherwise they wouldn't put themselves through the pain of facing the blank page every day.

Posted by Rich
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KNS Reacting to Blog Coverage?

This is interesting. Compare this story, to this one filed a few hours later.

Large portions of the text are the same, but some of the language Russ McBee reacted to negatively was removed, most notably the characterization of Law Director John Owings as "beleagered."

It appears that someone at the KNS is listening.

Posted by Rich
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Attention to Detail, and Hasty Conclusions

Russ McBee analyzes another KNS article on the early stages of the trial, and notes some interesting wording.
Owings and Stackhouse are representing County Commission in the suit. The News Sentinel article includes three sentences which paraphrase (but never directly quote) their remarks. Those three sentences use the verbs "complained" (twice) and "fretted" to characterize arguments made by Owings and Stackhouse. However, when quoting the paper's attorney, Richard Hollow, the article uses the neutral verb "said" (twice). Chancellor Daryl Fansler, who's hearing the case, is quoted using the word "said" (twice) and "noted" (twice).

These may seem like minor quibbles, but how we say something is at least as important as what we say, and a good wordsmith will take advantage of that, choosing words that create reactions deeper than what a surface reading would reveal. However, the act of writing is as much art as it is science, and many of the word choices we make are made at that same deeper level. To note these choices and immediately infer a conscious intent is unwarranted without additional information.

You could argue that it is clear that the KNS has a stake in the outcome of the trial, and that lends credence to the idea that the coloration of the story is intentional. However, you also have to take into account that the publisher of the paper went out of his way to invite additional scrutiny,an act which argues against an intentional attempt to "shape the story."

Given the facts of the story, that County Commissioners have already said they discussed the appointment process in private, it is not too hard to imagine that the reporter has already formed an opinion on the case, and allowing that opinion to color her coverage. But it's too much of a stretch to get from there to inferring that the KNS is intentionally altering their coverage.

Russ's observations are spot-on; I'm not as sure about his conclusions.

Posted by Rich
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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Pre Trial Motions and Jury Selection

My blogging cohort Russ McBee has fired the first salvo over the KNS's coverage of the trial.
First of all, the opening paragraph makes it sound like these motions are some kind of shady maneuver, when in fact, they're entirely legal and appropriate. Prejudicial and irrelevant material has to be kept out of the trial if the jury is expected to measure only the facts relevant to the case. These motions aren't about "keeping the jury in the dark" at all; that phrase implies there is some sort of attempt to deceive the jury. Rather, they're about filtering out the noise.

That's not entirely accurate. To be sure, that's the criteria the judge should be using when evaluating the motions, but a good lawyer will try to get as much damaging information excluded as possible, relevance be damned. While McBee offers examples of things that should be (and were) excluded, the lawyers for the commissioners had a lot of things they moved for exclusion that were clearly relevant to the trial. As an example, commissioners wanted to have their own public statements about the process kept from the jurors.

Yes it is entirely legal to try and get relevant material excluded if it damages your case. It's also sound strategy. But it is also about "keeping the jury in the dark." It is the lawyer's job to create a story for the jury, one that is most beneficial for his client. It is the judge's job to ensure that the lawyer builds that story following the requirements of the law. If the lawyer finds a legal way to suppress a damning fact, he will do so, regardless of how relevant to the case it may be. In fact, the higher the relevance, the harder he will work to suppress it.

Therefore it is entirely appropriate for the KNS to point out that the lawyers for the commissioners were trying to keep relevant information from the jury.

I'm much less comfortable with the rape analogy chosen by Jamie Satterfield. It evokes an emotional subtext that runs counter to its context. While on the surface the analogy supports the process of suppressing information, the idea of hiding information from jurors deliberating over a repeat rapist sparks revulsion on a gut level, and that emotional response will certainly prejudice the reader against the practice.

Now, for your edification and delight, here's a link to the actual Sunshine Act.

See you in court!

Posted by Rich
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Monday, September 10, 2007

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who will watch the Watchmen?

That is the question Knoxville News Sentinel Publisher Jack McElroy asked his people when considering how to cover the lawsuit going to trial this week between the KNS and the Knox County Commission
I believed then and believe as strongly now that the lawsuit was an appropriate -- indeed, necessary -- extension of our watchdog role.
However, it has opened us to accusations of biased coverage. After all, we are a party to the lawsuit on which we are reporting.
That dilemma will become more problematic this week as the suit goes to trial.

So, what is the answer to this question in journalistic ethics?


Scary, isn't it?

Actually Jack McElroy asked Michael Silence to put out a call to local bloggers to monitor the KNS coverage of the suit. Three bloggers, myself, Russ McBee, and David Oatney responded to the call, and we'll be providing coverage of the whole she-bang.

I've read a couple of questions and comments already, and I thought I would answer them by sharing my planned approach.

One person mentioned that we had been selected by the Sentinel. As far as I know, the three who are blogging are the only three who responded to Michael's call out. We selected ourselves.

Another questioned whether we'd be covering the court case, or just the Sentinel's coverage of the case. Since I can't see a way to evaluate the KNS's coverage without actually covering the court proceedings, I plan on doing both as much as practical. Being self employed will help, as I will be able to schedule time to sit in on the proceedings. Also, the last time I visited the newsroom, Jack invited me to "go anywhere, and watch anything." I plan on applying that invitation to this story as well, at least, as much as he will let me.

I'm also planning on talking to the other side in the fight, the Knoxville County Commission. Right now, they've been cast as power hungry despots who will do anything to hold on to power. I'm pretty certain that they don't see it that way, but I haven't seen much overage from their point of view.

Jamie Satterfield is the one who will be getting paid to cover the story, and I'm sure I'll be talking with her as well. My plan is to cover as much of the trial as possible, and compare my reactions with those published in the Sentinel. And if there are any major discrepancies, I'll try to track down the causes.

A lot of times, journalism takes on an adversarial role; it's not too different from the justice system in that regard. This is something I see as unfortunate, since when you're engaged in a tactical struggle, a lot of times the truth takes a back seat to winning the fight. I'm going to keep this in mind as I write and try to avoid getting into an adversarial situation. Especially since Jamie is meaner than I am and might hurt me.

I see my role in this as shining a light on the process of reporting a story, not as trying to catch people doing what they shouldn't.

Speaking of sining a light, let's get my biases out of the way right up front. I support the KNS suit. I think the appointment process was co-ordinated outside of the public eye, and that makes it a clear violation of the Sunshine Law.

It's a good thing I'm not on the jury, right?

While I support the suit, I'll be the first to admit I'm almost totally ignorant of the actual requirements of the Sunshine Law, a deficit I will be rectifying during the coming weeks. I'll be passing that information along to you along with my notes about the trial process and the editorial process at the KNS.

So, for the next little while, be prepared for lots of coverage of the KNS and the Knox County government. It should be a fun ride.

Posted by Rich
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