Thursday, August 10, 2006

Parachute Journalism

Two takes from the national media on Kroc Centers and Libertyland.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 10, 2006 at 4:00 AM

My friend and fellow columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson uses the term "parachute journalism" for when out-of-town reporters do their take on a story that may or may not be hot news, then leave.

Two stories in national newspapers last week focused on the past and future of the Mid-South Fairgrounds. First The New York Times did an overview of the Salvation Army and the Kroc Centers funded by McDonald's founder Ray Kroc and his wife. A $1.5 billion gift to the Salvation Army will fund recreation centers for low-income and middle-income residents in 30 to 40 cities. A $48-million Kroc Center gift was awarded to the Salvation Army in Memphis, provided that a suitable location can be found and private funding can supplement it. The top site contender is the fairgrounds.

The second story was in The Washington Post, about the closing of Libertyland amusement park.

Outside perspectives can add important context to a local story or trivialize it by falling back on cliches. The Times story, which did not specifically mention Memphis, reported that some leaders of the Salvation Army are troubled by the "commercial mindset" of the Kroc Centers and worry that they give the impression that the Salvation Army is "a flush charity that operates sleek recreation complexes rather than a frugal church that devotes itself to serving the needy."

The Post story, on the other hand, was a classic piece of parachute journalism, complete with the obligatory Elvis angle, in connection with the Zippin Pippin. The notion that Memphis lives and breathes a daily diet of Elvis, barbecue, and nostalgia is a staple of parachute journalism.

"The closure of the park left an unexpected void in Midtown Memphis," the story said. "Just about every Memphian has a Libertyland story, park supporters say."

Just about every Memphian has a story about eating too many hotdogs, getting overheated in July, and shopping at the Mall of Memphis, but what's the point? Libertyland had a 30-year run and outlived Nashville's Opryland amusement park. It was getting too expensive to operate, and there are other uses for the fairgrounds, of which it is but one piece.

The Midtown void was not unexpected. The fairgrounds used to boast a minor-league baseball park, a swimming pool, a robust annual fair and livestock show, and sold-out University of Memphis basketball games at the Mid-South Coliseum. All of that is in the past. But unsuspecting Post readers might think the city is in mourning for Libertyland.

In fact, a handful of supporters are in mourning for Libertyland. One of them is apparently Steve Mulroy, who leveraged his support into publicity that helped elect him to the Shelby County Commission last week. I voted for Mulroy, but it distresses me that he used his talents on this lost cause and that he used the cause as a springboard to elected office. I wonder how Commissioner Mulroy will handle appeals from special interests at budget-setting time.

The Post's story concluded with a tear-jerker from a 9-year-old Libertyland fan who reportedly said, "I wonder what Elvis would think about them taking this place down."

Sadly, we'll never know. Maybe someone will poll all the Elvis impersonators in town this month and draft an Elvis-impact statement and stall the redevelopment of the fairgrounds for another 10 years.

Memphis is trying to move ahead. That means finding new uses for key pieces of public property and making hard decisions without benefit of counsel from either Elvis or 9-year-olds. The serious issues at the fairgrounds include the location and components of the Kroc Center, the Salvation Army's role, the private sector's role, the kind of housing that might be developed, the aging football stadium and coliseum, the vast empty parking lots, the fate of Fairview Junior High School, and the relationship of the whole thing to Orange Mound, Cooper-Young, the Children's Museum of Memphis, and Christian Brothers University.

It's a complicated job that has nothing to do with Elvis. He's been dead nearly 30 years, and we're over it. Except during Elvis Week, of course.

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