The Tennessee Lookout at three
How we cover state government for the benefit of readers
The Tennessee Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)
With those words, I opened my first column for the Tennessee Lookout on May 6, 2020, the day this outlet launched.
At the time, I expanded on the need for coverage of how the political sausage is made, and I said our team of reporters would be fair, accurate and tough.
And we are proud of what we accomplished in the last three years. In February, we were voted to become the first digital member of the Tennessee Press Association. We’ve won awards. We’ve got a first-rate team of Capitol Hill reporters — Sam Stockard and Adam Friedman. And, Anita Wadhwani continues to break stories that amplify voices that otherwise would go unheard.
But since 2020, the political environment in relation to media, and how media operates, has continued to evolve — or perhaps, to devolve.
After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, he launched a war on the media and freedom of the press, consistently characterizing media as “the enemy of the people” and calling outlets publishing true, but unfavorable news about him, purveyors of “fake news.”
Trump fertilized the seeds of distrust sown by, in fact, some media outlets including Fox News, which told viewers that only Fox will provide “fair and balanced” news.
We know that is not the truth. Fox spread lies about election fraud and backed the Trump team’s lies that the 2020 election was “stolen.” The outlet was sued by Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine company that was blamed by Fox for the alleged and untrue fraud, settling the suit by agreeing to pay Dominion nearly $800 million in penalties.
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But the damage done by Trump and Fox remains. The proverbial horse is out of the barn, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t rein it in and return it to its stall.
Right-wing politicians at all levels of government have taken up the Trump message that the media is not to be trusted, and this is incredibly damaging for civic discourse: Who is one to trust?
And it’s made our job at the Lookout more difficult, because it is not enough to report quantifiable facts for some readers to believe a story is true. Occasionally, even a lawmaker will venture to call a reporter an “activist” for simply quoting the lawmaker’s own words.
Many of you have been reading us for years, but others may be new to reading the Lookout, so it is a good time to review what the Lookout does and how we approach our work.
- What we mean when we say we are nonpartisan. The Tennessee Lookout does not support nor do we endorse politicians or parties. We do not publish commentary pieces from candidates or elected officials, except in the very rare instance of a public official speaking to a measure that aids or affects all Tennesseans. To wit, we published a column by Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Portland, and a pharmacist by trade, on the COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic.
- We are questioned occasionally about why we cover Republican officials more than we cover Democratic ones, and the answer is simple: the Tennessee General Assembly, one of our primary focus areas, is dominated by a supermajority of Republican lawmakers. To cover the legislature, we will necessarily be writing largely about Republican lawmakers and Republican-backed legislation. That’s not to say we don’t cover Democratic officials when they are newsworthy. In 2021, when then-Sen. Katrina Robinson was facing charges of wire fraud, we deployed a reporter to Memphis for the three-week trial. But in many cases across the state, even at the local levels, Democrats are the “loyal opposition,” serving as a foil to the majority.
- Just the facts. We do our utmost to cover both Democrats and Republicans fairly. What we refuse to do is give air to “alternative facts” — lies — bogus “science,” or unproven claims about election or voter fraud, no matter who propagates them or how high-ranking the official may be. These issues, many of which were amplified by Trump and his supporters, were the cause of the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection and potentially the deaths of thousands during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the latter case, many Americans were misled about the effects of life-saving vaccines and urged to avail themselves of unproven junk science. In the last few years, one party has been guilty of pursuing these claims — Republican — and holding members of the party accountable for untruths does not constitute partisanship.
- The difference between news stories and commentary pieces. A news story is a gathering of facts and information, written by either one of our three full-time reporters or one of our regular freelance writers. A commentary piece contains the opinion of the writer and is always labeled “commentary” at the top of the piece. We think commentary from Tennesseans serves an important purpose, giving our readers the opportunity to be exposed to views they may not otherwise be exposed to, and we think offering work by both experts and writers who otherwise would have no outlet to express their voice is vital to discourse.
- We make mistakes — but we correct them. We do our best to be accurate, but sometimes, a mistake slips through. When that happens, we correct it immediately. If the mistake is more than a typographical error, we will post at the top of the story an editor’s remark that the story has been updated and will include the relevant correction.
We enter our fourth year with exciting plans for the coming year and our commitment firm to offering you stories you will not find in other outlets. We are proud to share our content with newspapers across the state, offering state-level coverage to readers who otherwise wouldn’t find out how the legislature is operating.
I write for our entire staff when I say we are passionate about telling the stories that fly under the radar and affect Tennesseans, whether it’s about children sleeping on the floors of Department of Children’s Services office building — a story Wadhwani broke in August 2021 — or about issues of government overreach.
I reiterate the message with which I closed my May 6, 2020 column: We’re fair and tough, and we look forward to (continuing) serving you.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.