If you're one of the two or three regular followers of this blobber, you're probably aware that I like to take shots at the content of Nashville's newspaper of note, The Tennessean. It has been a fun hobby of mine to tease them with fake mottos (such as, "New photos of Taylor Swift daily!") whenever I provide a link to a story found within the morning paper. All in good fun, and I'm sure no one at The Tennessean gives a flip about me or my opinions. (If they DO have a problem with me, I'd be honored by their concern. Apparently, they don't care enough about my opinions to instruct their delivery carrier to put my paper on my driveway in the mornings, instead of in the ditch puddle next to it... Or perhaps that explains why my paper is often submerged.)
But as much as I like to rag The Tennessean, I love my morning newspaper. There's something comforting about it. I grew up in a household that always prized the daily paper, and it's been a habit of mine to subscribe to the local newspaper wherever I've lived. My daily constitutional often depends on having a newspaper in hand when I go for the porcelain throne with my morning coffee. I'm afraid I might end up hopelessly constipated without a paper to read. But I digress...
Recently, investigative reporters at The Tennessean have confirmed my belief that local news gatherers are vital to the democracy of our nation, despite the continual nationwide decline in newspaper circulation.
Over the summer, reporters from my local paper began investigating the activities of a certain state representative who was accused of having sexually harassed multiple lobbyists, interns, and staff members at the Legislative Plaza. They found that the complaints registered by these women were often ignored, and that many of the affected women feared their future job opportunities would be harmed if they came forward with allegations against the representative in question. An investigation by The Tennessean forced leaders of the General Assembly to address Rep. Jeremy Durham's behavior, and as a result he was recently ousted from the state legislature. But that's only the tip of an iceberg that the investigation has exposed.
Taking a cue from a former member of Rep. Durham's staff, an investigation into how the state representative handled his campaign funds has revealed a gaping hole in the requirements we place upon our elected officials. Durham has been suspected of having misappropriated campaign donations for personal use, including investments made in a business that has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPCL). According to this article, auditors have discovered a $191,000 discrepancy in Durham's campaign accounts. Some of that money was apparently invested in a business called "The Tennessee Freedom Coalition", which is run by Andy Miller, a tea party money man and Republican campaign donor. The SPCL considers The Tennessee Freedom Coalition to be a hate group "responsible for cultivating a toxic climate of anti-Muslim bigotry in the state of Tennessee."
It turns out that Durham and five other state officials (four Republicans and one Democrat) were part of an educational trip financed by Miller. The politicians were treated to airfare and hotel accommodations in London, Brussels, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, where they were introduced to locals who could detail the problems those cities have had with their local Muslim populations. Those same elected representatives then returned to Nashville and either sponsored or voted on several matters related to Muslim refugee issues for the state of Tennessee. Guess which way they voted...
When pressed to explain the details of his all-expenses paid trip to Europe, (now former) State Representative Joe Carr (R-Lascassas) snapped, "I don't give a rat's ass!" to the reporter's question. Another junket member, State Senator Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) told the reporter over the phone, "I told you already. I don't have any problems with it. Hurry up and finish, because you're getting on my nerves, now."
The reason I point out this ongoing investigation is twofold. First, it's yet another example of why Tennessee has the worst state legislature in America. Not only are our elected officials often ethically challenged, but our laws requiring detailed disclosure of campaign finances and potentially questionable benefits received in return for "investments" are obviously in need of further examination. The second reason I bring this matter up is to underscore just how important it is for communities to have local reporters willing to spend the time necessary to dig into situations that might otherwise go unnoticed by the public.
Newspapers are folding and local news offices are closing their doors all over America, as more and more of our news content is concentrated in the hands of four or five major media conglomerates. Even under the best of conditions, those media empires are unlikely to have the resources (or financial motivations) necessary to delve into local issues worthy of our attention. Without local news reporters doing the legwork of old fashioned investigative reporting, we might never be made aware of situations like the one unfolding at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville.
Hats off to the reporters from The Tennessean who managed to expose the sexual harassment case against our ousted state representative, and for the ongoing investigation into our state's lack of transparency for those elected officials who trade personal favors for legislative actions.