Stan Voit: Duty to inform trumped worry over Forge vote

May. 19, 2013 @ 12:01 AM

We in the news business forget sometimes that readers don’t really understand or appreciate what goes into producing stories and deciding where they go in the paper.

Lots of folks think they know, and judging from calls and emails and Internet comments, many people figure we make decisions based on personal opinions and political ideology.

It’s not true. It’s hard not to let your own opinions affect a story or influence whether it is printed and where it goes in the paper, but the best editors and reporters try hard to do what is right.

Here is an example of what went on in our newsroom when a story in the works got out in the community before the story was finished — a story that some didn’t want to see published when we were ready to publish it.

On Wednesday, May 8, I got a call asking if I knew that applications had been filed with the state for distilleries to be built in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge. Not only had I not heard that, I doubted it could be true. The law, as I understood it, concerned distilleries in Chattanooga and Gatlinburg. No, the caller said, it allows them in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge as well. “I’m telling you what’s going on,” he said, irritated that I doubted his tale.

When he hung up I called the Nashville and Knoxville offices of ABC seeking information. The bureaucracy was not kind to me that day. I got nowhere. So when Jeff Farrell came in on Thursday, I briefed him and handed it over to him. He is dogged in pursuit of a story he thinks is hard to get. He could find a truffle before a trained pig could.

By noon Friday he had enough information to know that elements of the caller’s story were true. The people the caller said had applied had not applied, but his contention that distilleries could go in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge was true and two applications had been filed — one in Sevierville, one in Pigeon Forge where an election would be held the following Tuesday. Jeff had his hands on quite a story, one I bet not too many people in this community knew about.

I won’t say how, but word mistakenly leaked out that we were pursuing this story, and it leaked to someone involved in the Pigeon Forge election who had a strong interest in who would win. So while Jeff was digging out the details, I began to get calls asking us not to run the story, at least before the election.

Why would a story about distilleries matter to the city election? The distilleries were approved by a state law passed by the Legislature. LBTD was approved locally. Those who called feared some voters would link distilleries to liquor by the drink, and thus stir up the anti-liquor crowd enough to affect the outcome on Tuesday, May 14.

In other words, the callers said, the story would re-elect Randal Robinson to the City Commission. With that we reached the crux of their argument. Another four years with Robinson on the City Commission was anathema to those in Pigeon Forge who saw him as against everything they wanted and pushed for. Our story would influence the election, they argued, and should run after May 14, not before.

To that I asked every caller this: If running the story before the Pigeon Forge election would influence the outcome, wouldn’t NOT running the story also influence it? I never got a good answer to that.

Calls were made to our publisher, Jana Thomasson. She backed us up. The guy who called me could easily have called the Knoxville media, who could be tracking down the story as well. She did ask to read it before we let it go to press, a reasonable request. She found nothing sinister or wrong with it.

After rejecting calls to hold the story, and getting backing for that from our publisher, we had to decide what day to run it. This led to a lively discussion in the newsroom, and everybody weighed in. In the end we opted to get it in the Saturday paper since Jeff would have it finished Friday evening. We promised callers we would make clear the distinction between liquor by the drink and distilleries.

The story was published Saturday. Not a ripple of discontent was expressed to us or in social media. Readers are smart; they understood the meaning. Election day the pro-business slate of candidates won, and Robinson was defeated. And we served our purpose: informing readers of developments in the community and not allowing the paper to be used to favor either side in an election.

The repercussions of the clumsily written distillery law will be felt for some time. Our readers learned about it as soon as we tracked it down and confirmed it.

We did our job in getting the story right while listening to concerns expressed by people with a vested interest in the election. In the end, this paper will choose to inform, not withhold. That’s what you expect.

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to Twitter: @stanvoit.