Vices and Virtues
A recent news story out of Tennessee took me back to the early years of my journalism career, which began in the late 1970s at the Nashville Banner, a scrappy little paper that published in the afternoon. The Banner had many faults — not long before I was hired, it had exposed its own managing editor for accepting gratuities for ensuring the publication of news items about a local charity and its fundraising activities. Somewhat remarkably, the gentleman in question hadn’t been fired. He retained enough regard with management that he’d simply been relegated to an office in the basement of the building, where he roamed the halls like a ghost, regularly passing along tips from his sources, which were considerable, to the news operation upstairs.
The Banner had its virtues, however. Chief among them was that it actually knew and understood its community and state, a strength that eroded at many papers in the ensuing decades as newspapers came to be staffed by careerists who considered themselves “professionals” and became more intent on winning journalism awards and moving on to bigger papers than in telling readers what was going on in their communities. I, obviously, moved on as well but never forgot that the ultimate strength of a publication was how well it knew and represented its community — virtues as well as vices. A consultant in Nashville once told me newspaper readers in town fully understood the biases of the Banner and its morning competitor, the Tennessean — and weren’t much troubled by them, feeling well-served by having two distinct points of view looking at the news while reporting on it accurately.
Among the many things I got to cover in those early days were bits and pieces of the scandals that surrounded the administration of Gov. Ray Blanton, a former U.S. congressman. In winning the governor’s office in 1974, Blanton had positioned himself as a man of the people, cobbling together traditional Democratic constituencies to beat Lamar Alexander, his Republican opponent. Once in office, Blanton was not without virtue — he recruited foreign investment to Tennessee, modernized the state’s pension system and established a Department of Tourism, supposedly the first one in the country. The economy prospered, with unemployment dropping by nearly half. Blanton pushed programs favorable to blacks, women and senior citizens.
Blanton was also a drinker, a womanizer and possibly one of the most corrupt public officials (outside of Chicago) in the country’s recent history. I covered part of his trial on charges that he and two aides in the governor’s office took payoffs for obtaining liquor licenses for 12 friends, including a campaign contributor named Jack Ham. Blanton was convicted, but there were plenty of additional wrinkles in the case. Right before Blanton was sentenced (he served 22 months in federal prison), someone kidnapped Ham’s teenaged stepdaughter and her boyfriend, chained them to a tree in the woods and had her write a ransom note to the effect of “this is punishment for being a squealer.” The girl and her boyfriend escaped; the kidnapper was never identified, I believe.
Meanwhile, Blanton’s brother was pleading guilty to a bid-rigging scheme involving $12 million in state road contracts. Several other Blanton administration officials were convicted, variously, for extortion and deals involving state sales of surplus cars.
Even more egregious, Blanton was implicated, though never indicted, in a scheme — coordinated out of the governor’s office by Blanton’s legal counsel, T. Edward Sisk — to sell pardons and paroles. Yep, if you were connected to the right people, you could get a relative out of the penitentiary for around $10K or so. Ultimately, Blanton pardoned more than 50 inmates in the last year of his administration, including 20 murderers. Most notably, Blanton commuted the sentence of Roger Humphreys, son of his patronage chief in Washington County. Humphreys had been serving 40 years for killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend — he reloaded a derringer eight times to fire 16 bullets into them. The corruption went even deeper and uglier.
What prompted my recollection of all this was the recent story out of Chattanooga that the Blanton administration — including, presumably, Blanton himself — had paid a hitman to murder a crooked Chattanooga businessman who’d been involved in the pardons-and-paroles scheme. The businessman had testified before a grand jury that Blanton was involved. Four other witnesses also were either murdered or committed suicide.
The revelation regarding the murder was anti-climactic: Pretty much everybody connected with the various scandals is now dead, including Blanton, who ended up selling cars in west Tennessee and died of liver disease in 1996.
The relevance of all this to the present is this: In the waning days of Blanton’s administration, as rumors circulated that he was about to pardon even more inmates, the Republican and Democratic leadership of the Tennessee Legislature got together — I repeat, cooperated — to remove Blanton from office. Alexander, who’d won the 1978 campaign for governor (Blanton had not sought re-election), was sworn into office three days early in what the state’s lieutenant governor at the time called a “ceremonial impeachment.”
Florida is fortunate to have escaped that level of corruption, at least over the 30 years I’ve been involved in journalism here. Worrisome, however, are a couple questions: Have the media become so partisan, and so diminished, that they could not collectively report — effectively — on some similar level of corruption if it emerged? Or would partisan news outlets defend a Blanton to the death? And are our political parties so divided that they could not join together and take the kind of action that the Tennessee leaders took if it were warranted? Or would one side find a way to minimize and ignore Blanton-level wrongdoing.
It’s not just a question for Florida. The past is not always prologue to the present, but it frequently generates food for thought.
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's August issue.
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