By Rosetta Miller Perry
Nothing undermines the mission of media organizations more than fake controversies. It makes readers skeptical and distrusting, and in turn makes it harder to get the public’s attention focused on legitimate issues and major problems. The Nashville Scene recently decided to “expose” what they thought was wrongdoing on the part of Howard Jones, one of the candidates for State Senator from District 19, in the upcoming election. On a Scene blog post one of their contributors claims Jones has been guilty of violating school policy.
“Would-be state senator Howard Jones has been blasting mass emails asking for donations to his fellow Metro Nashville Public Schools employees in violation of school policy” is the direct statement. The post later claims employees of four MNPS schools have confirmed getting e-mails, and also have said they know about teachers at other schools getting them too, even though they are not signed up for e-mail blasts. It adds the emails from Jones’ campaign was at the bottom and that that they received them because they have opted in either at the candidate’s website, on social media networks, or are a friend of the campaign. It also makes certain readers know that Jones is both a prominent and well respected Baptist minister and assistant principal.
But despite raising the specter of improper or unethical conduct, the writer obviously didn’t bother to fully check out their allegation. Because Metropolitan Attorney Joshua C. Lee, in response to an inquiry from Jones’ campaign, directly refutes the contention he committed any violations of school policy or is guilty of unethical or illegal behavior. The Tribune is sharing this information because it shows how sloppy and uninformed the Scene was in making this charge.
Response from Metropolitan Attorney:
“First, I’m assuming that this AP (Jones) is not using his position as AP to try to coerce subordinates to donate to his campaign. None of the information you have sent indicates that would be the case. Based on your emails, it also appears that the AP is not using MNPS resources (time, his own MNPS email address, computers, etc). With that said, the general overarching principal is that a government employee cannot use their government position for private gain. MNPS email addresses (along with any other government employee email addresses) are public record and can be obtained by any Tennessee resident.
It appears that the question is whether an MNPS (or Metro) employee can email other government employees seeking a campaign donation. Assuming all the above is true, the answer to the question is yes. There is no prohibition on an MNPS (or Metro) employee asking other government employees, during personal time without using government resources, for campaign donations.
There would be concerns if the employee was using their position inappropriately – such as promising some MNPS action in exchange for donations.”
Let me know if you want to discuss further.
Joshua C. Lee
Metropolitan Attorney, Department of Law, P.O. Box 196300, Nashville, Tennessee 37219
Now all the Scene and this writer had to do was make a similar phone call to Lee, or any other attorney or person knowledgeable regarding this area of the law and get a similar opinion prior to posting this story. Instead they opted for the appearance of scandal and improper conduct. The notion that a senate candidate and NMPS employee, to say nothing of a minister, would engage in unlawful conduct is the kind of charge that sticks in voters’ minds. Just the allegation is enough to make people feel a candidate is unworthy to hold office, whether it is true or not. it is also the kind of charge that should NEVER be made unless both the reporter and the publication are 100 percent certain of its accuracy, and have exhausted all efforts to validate it.
Here the Scene didn’t even do bare bones investigation to determine whether Jones had truly done anything wrong. They were content with the notion he must be guilty because this supposedly LOOKS bad, and because some teachers may have complained. Setting aside the fact anyone getting emails who doesn’t want them will most likely be irritated, that is far from illegal or unethical conduct. It certainly isn’t worth a news story. Most importantly, you don’t make charges about someone’s character without more evidence and legal support than the Scene had in this story.
Nowhere is there any verification or validation of that charge by an attorney, a legal spokesperson in the MNPS office, or even just a random lawyer casually asked for an opinion. The story doesn’t say might have violated the law or could possibly have made a mistake in judgment. It says Jones has done something “in violation of school policy.” That is a direct charge, one that should have been backed up by a lot more than a handful of unnamed teachers’ complaints and claims about people they know.
The Tribune is not casting aspersions on anyone’s character, nor attacking a fellow publication without cause. We are simply asking why this was written without someone doing the minimum amount of fact checking prior to its release. It says they did attempt to talk to Jones, and he did not respond. But if they went that far, why didn’t they just also ask for a legal opinion from someone in either MNPS or the city at large? It’s not like that is something impossible or difficult. But you wouldn’t have a story if you find out Jones didn’t do anything wrong, which brings us back to the central issue.
Rigorous investigative reporting is a necessity in today’s environment, and the Tribune fully supports it. What we don’t support is the creation of fake controversy just to get attention.