Nashville • In 1954, a man called the city desk of The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily morning newspaper, to say he planned to take his own life by jumping from the Shelby Avenue Bridge. If the paper wanted the story, he said, they should send a reporter.
At the scene, a young journalist named John Seigenthaler spent 40 minutes talking with the man, who was sitting astride a gas pipe that ran beneath the bridge’s railing. When the man turned to look at the water below, Mr. Seigenthaler, one leg anchored in the bridge’s grillwork, reached down, grabbed him by the collar and held on till nearby police officers could haul him to safety. Today the historic bridge, which spans the Cumberland River, is known as the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge in honor of the journalist who risked his life to save another’s — and got a front-page byline in the process.
Mr. Seigenthaler was a journalist with The Tennessean for 43 years. As the paper’s editor, he led its principled coverage of civil rights in spite of vocal white opposition. Nashville was the first major city in the South to desegregate public facilities, and The Tennessean’s fierce support of civil rights is often credited with contributing to the city’s relatively peaceful integration. “If it wasn’t for the newspaper, Nashville could’ve been a nasty, awful place,” said the former Tennessean columnist Dwight Lewis.
Mr. Seigenthaler died in 2014, and The Tennessean, like every other local newspaper in the country, is a shadow of its former self — smaller, thinner, slighter, diminished in every measurable way. Even before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the economy and took advertising revenue with it, The Tennessean had already endured round after round of layoffs as its parent company, Gannett, struggled. Its decline accelerated last year when Gannett merged with GateHouse Media, a company known for “the ransacking of local journalism,” as Boston Magazine put it.
A staggering 7,800 journalists lost their jobs in 2019, according to Business Insider. Once the pandemic hit, another 36,000 media-company employees got the pink slip. And all these disasters came on top of continuing losses that collectively cost American newsrooms half their journalists between 2008 and 2019.
I remind you of all this — the decades-old history of a newspaper known for advancing progressive causes and the recent history of a media company in thrall to corporate investors — to provide some context for an appalling advertisement that ran in The Tennessean on June 21.
The full-page, full-color ad featured images of Donald Trump, Pope Francis and burning American flags, as well as a long, incoherent, biblically illiterate warning that “Islam is going to detonate a nuclear device in Nashville, Tennessee” and thereby launch a “Third World War.”
Public outcry began early and spread swiftly. Especially given the recent history of vandalism and violent threats against Muslims in Middle Tennessee, “A huge target was placed on our community,” said Sabina Mohyuddin, executive director of the American Muslim Advisory Council, a Nashville-based advocacy group. Public calls to unsubscribe from the paper flew around Twitter.
By midday the ad was “ordered to be pulled from future editions” of the paper, according to The Tennessean, and an investigation launched into how this white supremacist screed made it into print in the first place. The paper fired the sales manager who had approved the ad and donated $14,000 — the value of the ad — to the American Muslim Advisory Council. The nonprofit will also receive $50,000 in advertising credit.
Tennessean editor Michael A. Anastasi called the ad “inconsistent with everything The Tennessean as an institution stands and has stood for and with the journalism we have produced.”
Mr. Anastasi wasn’t referencing merely his newspaper’s storied history. In the same print edition of the paper that carried the unforgivable ad, The Tennessean published articles on the “violence interrupters” of Gideon’s Army, a grass-roots organization that works as a successful alternative to police intervention; Nashville’s Juneteenth protest; an interview with the mother of Ashanti Posey, an African-American teenager shot to death in April; and two op-ed columns on racism and policing.
The issue also included a number of wire reports about hate crimes legislation in Georgia, the removal of Confederate statues in North Carolina, NASCAR’s decision to prohibit the display of Confederate flags, and worries by civil rights leaders that the 2020 census is undercounting minority populations.
You can argue that The Tennessean is now so short of journalists it can’t possibly cover the full range of challenges facing this city, and you would be right. You can argue that the statewide focus of Gannett’s “USA Today Network — Tennessee” is just a fancy way of ignoring smaller-city news, and you would be right about that, too. But you can’t argue that the journalists who actually cover this town are indifferent to the plights of the communities they cover. Tennessean reporters were as appalled by that ad as everyone else.
As the “first rough draft of history,” journalism will always be prone to mistakes, no matter how assiduously reporters and editors try to prevent them. But canceling your newspaper subscription because of one ad, no matter how hideous — or because of one deeply offensive headline, or one flagrantly dangerous op-ed — will not cure journalism of what ails it.
The only thing canceling your subscription to a newspaper will do is hasten the death of journalism itself. It will leave your community with even fewer full-time reporters to tell you what local leaders were up to while you weren’t paying attention. It will leave you with a far poorer understanding of the place where you live.
When tornadoes tore through this town in the middle of the night, Tennessean reporters were out in the dark, getting the story, and for weeks they followed up on where to find help — and how to offer help — in the aftermath. When the pandemic hit, they wrote about how Nashville’s tourist center was out of control. When violence broke out after George Floyd’s death, they were right in the middle of it, never mind that they’ve all been furloughed for a week of every month.
The Tennessean will never again have the power to turn an entire city toward the cause of moral justice, it’s true, but these journalists are nevertheless heroes, as the calamities of this year have proven beyond any fretful, tweet-fueled doubt. They might not have the chance to save a suicidal man from a local bridge, but they are all heroes anyway. Every last one of them.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing New York Times opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”