In its June 10 edition, The Tennessee Journal, the influential statewide weekly on politics and government, has some interesting analysis about the fate of daily newspapers published in the major urban centers of Tennessee. The Journal then relates this state of affairs to newspaper-unfriendly legislation passed or pending in the General Assembly.
As the Journal states, “Thirty years ago, the state’s four biggest cities all had two major daily newspapers. In 1983 the Memphis Press-Scimitar folded, and in 1991 the Knoxville Journal ceased daily publication. The Nashville Banner went out of business in 1998, and The Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press merged into a single publication in 1999.”
The weekday circulation figures of those newspapers since 1971 tell an interesting tale of decline:
Circulation figures for those major state newspapers with Sunday editions are as follows:
The Journal attributes the decline in daily newspaper readership to several factors — including a shift from local management and control to corporate administration; the inroads of electronic and digital communications media; the financially dictated decision by major urban dailies to shrink their circulation areas; and even competition from “alternativwe weeklies like the Memphis Flyer and Nashville Scene.”
The dwindling influence of dailies has resulted, says the Journal, in legislative challenges to Sunshine laws and efforts to shift obligatory legal notices from newspapers to Internet sites
Other legislative responses from the recently concluded 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly included:
•SB 1168/HB1774, a bill, tabled for now,that would have given local governments authority to keep the wraps on economic development information “of a sensitive nature.” The bill was pushed by the city of Memphis and the Memphis/Shelby County Chamber of Commerce in tandem with the formation of EDGE (Economic Development Growth Engine).
•SB1665/HB1539, a bill to prohibit publication of records of 911 emergency calls without the consent of the recorded party. This bill is scheduled for House action in the next legislative session.
SB1951/HB1875, imposing charges on preparation of public records for citizen inspection.. The bill is pending.
•SB822/HB424, establishing the confidentiality of law enforcement or government records regarding home burglar alarm systems, enacted into law.
•SB1844/HB1154, authorizing governmental entities facing litigation to petition the court to bar plaintiffs from obtaining records th rough the open records process. The bill did not advance.<.p>
•And several bills that, as mentioned, would shift public-notice responsibility from newspapers to the Internet or direct mail.
Among the more dismaying aspects of city and county budget deliberations in this austerity year has been the last-minute impulse on both the City Council and the Shelby County Commission to sacrifice such meager amenities as their own snack and travel funds.
We’re talking about modest $25,000-or-so annual outlays — chump change, equivalent to maybe a day’s worth of revenue lost from the sacrifice of sales tax revenue to one of those giant carpetbagging industries we entice away from some luckless locality elsewhere by throwing millions in public money at them and promising them, via the PILOT program (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes), that they won’t have to pay any taxes while they’re here.
Luckily, there was just enough self-regard left on both the Council and the Commission to defeat the mock-heroic hair-shirt proposals this year — by a single vote, in each case.
Consider the implications of sacrificing, say, the modest little sandwich-and-coke lunches provided for the County Commission on the every-other-Wednesday committee days, usually all-day affairs with minimal break time.
Having lunch together in the commission’s break room is one of the few occasions the members of that body have to remind themselves, away from the inevitable contention of the day’s disagreements, that they belong to a single unitary whole, Shelby County, and to rise above partisanship and other divisions.
For a brief moment before getting back to work, commissioners can discharge tension and animosity by discussing the day’s weather, the Weiner case, or whatever else floats t heir boat. Having been there once or twice, at the invitation of a member, I can attest to the fact that small talk is what they do at these little conclaves, not business.
Things might be otherwise if the members were forced to go out of the building and have their lunch — no doubt, in small partisan groups — in some private place away from public scrutiny, from whence, after this unnecessary extra hour or so, inconvenient to the public in attendance back at the county building, to return to the day’s agenda.
The same reasoning applies to the modest spreads provided for City Council members on similar occasions.
The Council did succeed Tuesday night in paring away a third of its travel budget — leaving in place all of $20,000 for the 13 members of that body to indulge in fact-finding expeditions elsewhere or travel to professional conferences or what-have-you. The average executive at one of our local PILOT-fed corporations might spend that much in two weeks’ worth of airport-hopping.
The point cannot be made often enough: Most members of both the Council and the Commission have already made substantial sacrifices in time, money, and energy just to be serving on those bodies. They should not feel compelled to make a show of denying themselves simple amenities, especially when these bare-bones amenities are of the sort that are routine in every other walk of life.
See also John Branston's "The Best and Worst of Budget Week."
Case in point: The proposal of city Fire Chief Alvin Benson to liquidate 111 jobs by taking out of service 7 fire engines, 6 ladder trucks, and one rescue truck over the next three years, followed by a proposal from City Council member Kemp Conrad that was downright Stakhanovite (look it up, folks) — namely, to do all this in a single year’s time!
The members of the Memphis Firefighters Association have reacted swiftly to this alarm, suggesting it threatens public safety — prompting Benson to say he felt “insulted” and Conrad to condemn the Association’s “scare tactics.”
But surely there are citizens at large who are concerned, too. What happens to the discontinued fire vehicles? Will they be sold as surplus? Can we really do without them? And so forth.
Both Benson and Conrad have tried to be reassuring. As to the equipment, Conrad suggested that some of the outmoded equipment — like a 1947-vintage fire truck with wooden ladders that lumbered up to a recent emergency — might indeed be sold off, while up-to-date vehicles could be even more effective if held in a ready reserve.
The idea of downsizing the Fire Department was seriously floated in the same week of a disclosure by Amos Maki of the CA that the city’s new Police Director, Toney Armstrong, had begun a purge of his command ranks, retiring and demoting and reassigning officers who held high positions under his predecessor, Larry Godwin. Calling himself a “monster killer,” Armstrong was quoted as threatening (literally, it almost seemed) to cut off the heads of any holdover monsters who spoke out of turn.
Especially in the fire-sale atmosphere alluded to above, this kind of thing could finally dissipate the aura of contentment still lingering from the Pax Romana reign of Godwin, who, after several years of cutting into the local crime rate, has moved on to Nashville to be assistant Commissioner of Public Safety. (Come back, Shane!)
Add to the above the announcement, only two weeks after the Obama-at-BTW love-fest, that the austerity wave had forced the layoff of 92 teachers by Memphis City Schools, and you have a truly seismic crisis going on in the public sector.
Over at the county commission, things are no better. A little bit of a row developed during budget deliberations on Wednesday when Commissioner Terry Roland, a Millington store-owner from the Republican Party’s populist wing, proposed that, instead of cutting out working stiffs, the county might save some money by making 5-percent reductions in the pay of $100,000-and-over members of the county administration.
Harvey Kennedy, CAO for county mayor Mark Luttrell, would note that only about 10 members of the administration were in that category.
Veteran Democrat Walter Bailey, a lawyer, would have none of the idea, in any case. “Political pandering… irrational …just popping out with figures arbitrarily …with no studies…irrational, picking-it-out-of-the air 5 percent.” were some of the bouquets he threw Roland’s way.
Understandably, Roland was displeased (though, arguably, as one who has pioneered in top-of-the-voice invective on the commission, he was being paid back in like coin). Without mentioning Bailey by name (as Bailey had not called out his name, either), Roland fulminated about “somebody that sits back there and hollers about every little thing” when “we’re talking about cutting people that make from $29- to $35-thousand…cause all of us aren’t big paid attorneys, you know what I’m saying.”
Barely pausing for breath, Roland continued, “Anybody that’s ever been in business, which I gather my friend has not, knows that you have to tighten your belt wherever you can.” And as long as employees making meager salaries were being targeted, “you ought to be willing to back it up with a cut yourself.”
And in fairness: Applying Roland’s proposal to Kennedy’s modestly estimated roster, a 5 percent cut in ranking employees’ salaries would net only somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. That might not equate to the more serious reductions arising from 130 or so employee layoffs Luttrell has discussed, but it would pretty well offset the need for some serious proposed reductions in library services — yet another quality-of-life area. Not as heavy-duty as police and fire services, but these things add up. Just ask the kindly folks who rank cities at Forbes Magazine.
The one thing that seems to be totally off the table, both for the City Council and for the County Commission, is the concept of a tax increase, one stout enough to preserve some of the amenities and life-supports that now inhabit the chopping block.
There have been some moves in that direction over on the city side. Councilman Ed Ford has proposed some ingenious fee hikes, and councilmen Shea Flinn and Harold Collins have made bold, along with Mayor A C Wharton, to discuss this or that tax increase (or, in Collins’ case, restoration of a property tax cut enacted in 2008 in tandem with the Council’s ill-fated decision — later held unconstitutional by the courts — to blow off most of its annual maintenance-of-effort payment to MCS.
That’s where much of the current argument started, ironically enough — over an ill-considered economy that turned out to provide only transitory relief.
Idea! What was it Toney Armstrong said he could do? Cut off the heads of monsters? Give him both budgets and a cleaver and tell him to have a go at it. Might as well.
As previously reported in this space, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen was well aware a month ago that he was likely to have a Democratic primary opponent in 2012. And he made it clear, in an interview with the Flyer in his Washington office on May 4, that he knew the identity of his challenger, though he chose not to divulge it at that time.
On Tuesday, Tomeka Hart, Memphis Urban League director and member of the Memphis City Schools board, confirmed to the Flyer that she would be running for the 9th District seat, though, as she noted, she had not yet filed.
Back on May 4, Cohen attributed his information to a private “grapevine” and said of his then unnamed opponent that “she really has some abilities and has a future." But he cautioned both her and her supporters, "If she runs against me, she's going to find out that she's misread the situation entirely."
Comparing the new challenge to the racially focused appeals of primary foes Nikki Tinker (2008) and former mayor Willie Herenton (2010), both 4-to-1 losers, the congressman said, "They claim it's different, but it isn't. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it's a duck."
Since acknowledging her candidacy, Hart has disclaimed any interest in using race as a platform, but Cohen remains certain that her support group conceives of her race in the spirit of the 1991 “People’s Convention” that first designated Herenton, then a recently retired MCS superintendent, as a consensus black candidate for Memphis mayor.
“So they’ll come up with this ‘surprise.’ It’s all a programed thing. It’s all ready, it’s ordained how it’s going to happen, and It’s going to happen. I’ve seen it, know it. I’ve got grapevine that tells me stuff. And it just doesn’t make any sense.”
Cohen said that the purpose of the 1991 People’s Convention had been “to find a unified, singular candidate to run against a conservative mayor,” then incumbent Dick Hackett, who, said Cohen, “was a person whose base was in the conservative white community, most of whose patronage was in the conservative white community, as was most of his politics and his emphasis.
“He was not responsive to the African American community in a major way. So it wasn’t his priority. Nor did he ever get much support from the African American community, as distinguished from my situation, where I’ve always gotten a large, large African-American vote and have always had the interests of African Americans at the forefront of my political agenda and have always responded with such and voted for such and rewarded such.”
Expressing confidence in his support among African Americans, Cohen said, "It'd be different if I was, you know, if I voted like Marsha Blackburn,” referring to the conservative Republican congresswoman in the adjoining 7th congressional district.
Pointing out that both Tinker and Herenton had topped out at 21 percent of the primary vote in their races against him, Cohen said that figure represented a “core group…that will never accept me because of my race or would feel like voting on some ethnocentric similarity.”
Professing something like empathy for his prospective opponent, Cohen said that for her to make the race would “not be a wise thing” and was attributable to “these people who are pushing her, the lack of knowledge that they have of the situation.”
He likened her circumstances to his own at an equivalent age and career stage.
“You know, I thought of running for county mayor in 1978. I was 31 years old. I went to visit [FedEx founder] Fred Smith. I told him I was going to be like he was. At a very young age he made Federal Express, and I was going to be county mayor. I’d gotten a lot of attention, publicity in Memphis from being vice president of the state Constitutional Convention in 1977. I’d campaigned for the articles in ’78 and I’d made the rounds, made the speeches, and I’d had some newspaper stories and thought I was really well known and would have a shot at county mayor.
“And I guess reality set in, and I was fortunate enough at that time to not run for county mayor. I’d have been slaughtered by [eventual winner] Bill Morris and John Ford Canale. I might have finished after [3rd place finisher, councilman] Ed McBrayer. Probably would. Instead, I wisely chose to run for county commissioner and learned something about county government…I learned something about politics."Cohen went on from there to be state senator, sponsoring and passing legislation like his 16-year effort that resulted in the current state lottery. "I had some opportunities along the line to learn something about the system and values that prepared me to come here.”
Cohen summed it all up as a clear object lesson for his opponent: “So I was fortunate. But some people see themselves, and they think all of a sudden that they’re a rock star. There are very few overnight sensations. In politics, you not only have to be somebody yourself. It depends on who you’ve got to run against on a given day.”
As of now, that given day, August 2, 2012, would seem to include a Democratic primary contest between Cohen and Tomeka Hart, as well as a test of the 9th District congressman’s reasoning about the race, presented here.
(Note: This is an amended and corrected version of the account in this week's Flyer print edition, in which — through some brain fog on the author's part — the word "Senate" was inadvertently substituted for the correct word "House" in the last two paragraphs./jb)