The Tennessean Refuses to Report Both Sides of the UT Lawsuit

There are two sides to every story.

At The Tennessean, a large Nashville-based newspaper that regularly covers University of Tennessee athletics, it appears that this fact has been forgotten.

On February 9, 2016, The Tennessean published the first report about the now ubiquitous lawsuit that alleges culture problems at UT. Since that day, the paper has been the sole provider of new information concerning the story and they predominantly report only the plaintiff’s side of the case.

I initially expressed concerns about their seemingly one-sided coverage last week and as I’ve continued to observe their reporting, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the paper is presenting a shamelessly biased account.

What finally prompted the public criticism you’re reading now was a Tennessean article published Monday titled “Butch Jones meets with media, does not address lawsuit.” It discusses the fact that during Jones’ press conference, which was intended solely to address the Vols’ upcoming spring football practices, he did not comment on the lawsuit that the school is currently facing. The article reads:

“Butch Jones spoke to reporters Monday to preview the start of spring practice but did not directly address the Title IX sexual assault lawsuit that centers around his program and the suit’s allegations against him.”

Jones talked and answered questions for nearly 30 minutes, and roughly 28 of those minutes were spent discussing his football team in detail. He only spoke about the lawsuit accusations once when he was prompted by Tennessean reporter Matt Slovin, who asked if Jones stood by his previously released statement in which he denied all allegations made against him. Not surprisingly, Jones indicated that he stood by his statement and asked for only football-related questions going forward. The resulting article that is referenced above, contained just one sentence and 26 words actually pertaining to Tennessee football.

It seems that Slovin and The Tennessean believe that in the middle of a press conference meant to address only spring football, Jones should have stopped and given a diatribe defending himself against allegations made in the lawsuit. If this sounds stupid to you, that’s because it is. Frankly, the article is indefensible click-bait that serves as nothing more than a glaring confirmation that The Tennessean has editorial biases that it refuses to actually address.

Many people have voiced their distaste for the paper’s tendentious coverage. The backlash has apparently been so overwhelming that the director of news at The Tennessean, Maria De Varenne, penned a lukewarm defense of the publication last Friday, in which she scolded Vol fans for their “vulgar reactions” to the paper’s reporting and stated that “What matters is the importance of the story, and covering it in a thoughtful, fair manner.”

I have to say, the irony of that sentence is so thick that I’m choking on it, because The Tennessean has been anything but fair. Out of 28 articles written since February 9th about the suit that I could find sifting through The Tennessean’s archive, only six centered on any kind of statement or defense made against allegations by UT coaches, administrators, or players. The remaining 22 articles were either developments about the suit, editorials criticizing the school, or profiles vilifying UT.

To De Varenne’s credit, her piece provided the only scant insight into the paper’s underlying agenda that’s been given thus far, saying “Through our coverage and our editorials we want to prompt changes to ensure that reports of sexual assault are handled properly by universities.”

That’s a noble cause that deserves attention on a national level, but, rather than providing meaningful candor about their already obvious intentions, The Tennessean has chosen instead to repeatedly disparage the University of Tennessee using the narrative of the lawsuit. Then, to fittingly top things off, they have refused to allow the reporters writing those stories to speak on the matter. I and others have requested and been denied interviews or comments from the journalists covering the suit.

In fact, a request made to The Tennessean for comment on this article was declined.

The editorial angle of the paper becomes even clearer when taking a closer look at the reporter leading the coverage of the litigation. Anita Wadhwani, who to date has been an author on 16 articles about the case, is an investigative reporter who has covered “diversity, religion, healthcare and social issues,” according to The Tennessean’s website. Matt Slovin, who was mentioned above, currently serves as the paper’s UT sports beat writer and while he has reported on the case a great deal, he has contributed to just 10 articles on the subject to Wadhwani’s 16. If the paper is truly attempting to be fair, why do they have an investigative reporter spearheading coverage of a lawsuit that focuses heavily on Tennessee’s football team, and not simply a sports journalist like most other media outlets?

To be clear, it’s completely fine if The Tennessean wants to work with the plaintiff’s lawyers and advocate for them. They have the right to investigate, uncover, and criticize anything about the University of Tennessee that they disagree with, but, they shouldn’t shroud their advocacy behind straight-forward reporting. The paper and its staff need to stop insulting their readers’ intelligence by unnecessarily hiding their slant. They would be better off transparently starting the dialogue they’re purportedly trying to create, rather than taking shots at Tennessee in a misguided attempt to get their editorial point across.