The special election on January 25th will decide whether Robert Spence gets the Democratic Party nomination to represent Midtown in the state Senate. The issues being raised by an attack ad on Spence will linger long after this week.
Spence, a former city attorney, is running against state representative Beverly Marrero. But he's also being opposed unofficially by Richard Fields, who, like Spence, is an attorney, a former political candidate, and an on-again off-again City Hall insider and confidant of Mayor Willie Herenton.
On January 12th, Fields sent out 10,000 copies of a letter attacking Spence. A shorter version of the letter was published as paid advertising in this newspaper last week. Spence countered with a letter of his own, accusing Fields of "unmitigated lies" and "unstable behavior." Both letters are ricocheting around via e-mail and in the Internet blogosphere, embellished with mostly-anonymous third-party commentary and more accusations of sexual, marital, professional, and ethical misconduct.
To recap, it's an old-fashioned political story, a new-media story, a media-law story, and a nasty public clash of strong personalities all in one. While it's not exactly taking place in a vacuum, you could say it's taking place in a test tube, because there are no other races on the ballot that day. A single-digit-percentage turnout would not be surprising. And the mudslinging could be a taste of things to come in the city election in October.
Fields fired the first shot. In 2006, he wrote an open letter giving his views of judicial candidates in an upcoming election. Because judicial candidates are often unknown to the general public, attorney recommendations sometimes carry some weight in races where turnout is low. On January 12th, he took it up a notch, taking dead aim at Spence for "faulty advice and his personal pursuit of wealth to the detriment" of citizens. He endorsed Marrero by default. Fields says he did it because "the information needed to be known by voters and it's all documented."
Spence, whose first career was in pharmacy, has been an attorney for over 20 years. His educational and professional credentials outstrip Marrero's, just as former senator Steve Cohen's resume was more impressive than Jake Ford's. Spence was city attorney under Herenton from 1997 to 2004, when he resigned to return to full-time private practice. A father of school-age children and a Midtown resident, he ran unsuccessfully for the Memphis City Schools Board of Education in 2004.
He thought about buying his own newspaper ad but decided instead to respond to Fields with a letter of his own, sending out 23,000 copies by snail mail and posting it online. "My letter says it all," he said in an interview Tuesday. Asked about specific examples of "lies," he said "the litigation [Fields] cites."
It's important to separate some accusations from the accuser. Well before Fields weighed in, Spence invited scrutiny from reporters and City Council members by mixing high-profile city work (the building of FedExForum and its parking garage) with private clients, including the Tennessee Lottery and former county mayoral aide Tom Jones. A search of www.memphisflyer.com, for example, will produce stories about Spence and his private practice, his law partner Allan Wade, and the garage. Then as now, Spence noted that his predecessors did outside work and that Herenton was not opposed to it. (His successor, Sara Hall, did no private work and said representing the city was "more than a full-time job.")
But that was before Tennessee Waltz shed fresh light on consulting, conflicts of interest, and ethics reform. Spence, whose firm has seven lawyers, said he will review their accounts for possible conflicts if he is elected. One of his clients is the Riverfront Development Corporation, where he makes $25,000 to $40,000 a year as general counsel and his wife is a full-time employee. He did not work for the RDC while he was city attorney and making about $120,000 a year. The Senate job pays about $30,000 a year.
Barry Sussman, editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project at Harvard and a former Washington Post editor for Watergate coverage, said a newspaper is liable for defamatory material that appears in its ads or letters to the editor. Sussman, who is not a lawyer, said when he started a journalism Web site he at first edited reader comments but stopped after he was told that would make the site liable. He now removes some comments altogether but doesn't do any editing, even for spelling or punctuation.
Thaddeus Matthews is a Memphis minister and car repo man with no journalism training. The comments he writes and posts on his blog (thaddeusmatthews.com) often run roughshod over the rules of grammar, spelling, civility, and good taste.
Richard Thompson is a poet, English teacher, and veteran print journalist who says he was fired last year by The Commercial Appeal (editor Chris Peck says he resigned). His blog (mediaverse-memphis.blogspot.com) is as carefully spell-checked, sourced, and edited as many mainstream newspapers.
The burly Matthews, 49, and the soft-spoken Thompson, 34, have this in common: They're on the outside looking in but they both have a nose for news and some dedicated readers. They're willing to put in long hours at their computers for little or no money. They're part of the growing legion of Internet-savvy citizen journalists that was a focus of the National Conference for Media Reform that brought 3,500 activists to Memphis last week. And there are indications that they're having some success.
Matthews -- coincidentally, he says -- started his blog a few weeks before Operation Tennessee Waltz broke in May 2005. His menu of gossip, rumor, misinformation, name-calling, and scoops about corruption and "poli-trick-ans" has won him a readership he estimates at 800 or more, including several journalists and public officials, among them U.S. attorney David Kustoff.
Thompson's specialty is reporters and the media, a surefire way to capture the attention of people attuned to anyone who might be stealing their bacon. Both Matthews and Thompson are black in a majority-black city whose print and, to a lesser extent, broadcast media are dominated by white editors, owners, and reporters. For whatever reasons, the CA and Peck took careful note of the media reformers here last week.
Matthews is a Memphis native who broke into radio in 1985 at now-defunct WXSS. "I purchased my time and sold my own ads," he says. At other stations, he played gospel and blues and hosted talk shows. He is associate minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Whitehaven and preaches regularly, although he says he is not paid.
"Express Yourself," a show he was involved with at the local ABC-TV affiliate, was about to go off the air in 2005 when a friend introduced Matthews to blogging.
"It's a forum to put my thoughts out there," says Matthews, a dreadful speller whose fans don't seem to mind. "I probably need a proofreader, but most of the stuff I write is off the top of my head." He does interviews and goes to trials and newsy events because "to do this you have to be out there and part of what is going on. I spend a lot of time I should be spending in the repo business doing reporting." He doesn't make money off the blog and has no plans to seriously try, because "people think they can pay you and change your views, and I don't think you would make enough money to worry about it."
Thompson is a Montgomery, Alabama, native who came to the CA in 1999 as a business reporter and was sent to cover DeSoto County in 2003. He started blogging "because I wasn't getting the opportunity to write in the manner I wanted to write." That included his thoughts about the CA, and that eventually led to his departure. He writes, reads papers, and watches television news six hours a day. His blog is impressively thorough, and borrowings are carefully sourced. "He asked really good questions," said ABC-24 news director Jim Turpin, whom Thompson recently interviewed. Thompson hopes to develop a premium service for subscribers that will make money in six months.
"Thaddeus has made a name for himself and can no longer be ignored," he says of his online colleague. "But our real separation comes in terms of focus. It's not my job to report news or influence public policy. As a trade publication, Mediaverse-Memphis focuses more on internal discussions that shape how news is presented."
Married to a Jazzercise instructor, Thompson teaches English and is earning a master's at the University of Memphis. "It's fair to say," he says, "I'm making less than I was."
1) Go to some football games at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Buy a ticket at the gate. Don't use your parking pass. Haggle with the guys on East Parkway instead. Sit with the ordinary fans at a Conference USA game. Use the public bathrooms at least twice even if you don't have to go. Buy something to eat and drink but don't send someone else to get it. Walk all the way around the stadium from the inside and the outside.
2) Go to a special game that draws a bigger crowd. Sit in a skybox. Eat the food. Talk to the other people. Visit the locker room and the press box. Say hi to the poor, suffering reporters in their terribly cramped quarters and see if you can honestly generate one ounce of sympathy for them. Talk to the coach of the visiting team. If you are not a football fan and never go to games, that's fine, but of course you don't advertise that. Uh, right?
3) Watch a game on television, which is where most of the revenue comes from. Notice how the cameras are focused on the players and the field, not the empty seats, locker rooms, concessions, or bathrooms.
4) Go to a high school football playoff game at the field on Central Avenue in the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Stand in line for 20 minutes with 100 other people while a single ticket-seller in a cage behind a window collects your $6 and a single ticket-taker lets you through the single four-foot-wide gate that is open. Watch most of the first quarter through the fence behind the end zone while standing in this line. Imagine you rode three hours from Brentwood on a bus. Then ask yourself what the hell is wrong with this picture.
5) If you're not going to football games, watch Trading Spaces on television. A designer and some carpenters with more creativity and energy than money ($1,000) turn an ordinary room in an ordinary house into a cool room. The owners cry when they see it. Usually they're glad, sometimes they're mortified, but either way, they get a makeover on the cheap.
6) Get the University of Memphis and promoter Fred Jones to choose half a dozen architects and designers to play Trading Spaces with the skyboxes. Give them each $10,000 and free publicity. Then get the U of M to hire half a dozen caterers to compete for the title of Best Caterer for the skyboxes. Give them each $1,000 and free publicity. Total outlay: $66,000.
7) Spend $1 million to buy up blighted property near the stadium. It's a start. Hire a landscape architecture firm to demolish the old cattle stalls outside the stadium and replace them with something that looks nice. Now. Remember, it's just a start. Then tear down the Coliseum, which has nothing to do with the stadium. This will take a little longer, but it's worth it. Tell anyone who complains that they can have a free ticket to The Pyramid.
8) Instead of trashing it, try the adjectives "historic" and "different" on for size when describing the stadium and its graceful curves. At 41 years old, it's younger than Soldier Field, the Big House in Ann Arbor, the Coliseum in L.A., the Rose Bowl, and thousands of perfectly good buildings and houses in Memphis. Think trash into treasure. Make sarcastic remarks about "cookie-cutter" stadiums built on the cheap. Then ask why this stadium isn't just fine for eight or nine games a year against the likes of Chattanooga and Tulsa and Central Florida.
9) Imitate AutoZone Park and have too many concessions and staff people at games instead of too few.
10) After you do this, invite Memphians to come to the "New and Improved Liberty Bowl Game" and see the results for themselves and decide whether they really need a new stadium in the same location as the old one. Give everyone a free hot dog and a Coke to make them feel good. It worked for Boss Crump.