911: Who you gonna call?

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Hardly a day passes that doesn’t hand me another OK, Boomer reminder. I try to fend them off by repeating that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sometimes I even believe it.

But I don’t say it as much as I did before I heard about artificial intelligence and deep fakes – way back before vulture capitalists swallowed up the healthcare industry, and before we started electing people who hate government to run it.

If we worried about things like whether an ambulance would show up when we called it, I don’t recall it.

I’m not sure when privatizing became a word, but I do recall followers of Ronald Reagan quoting the guy who said his goal was to shrink government down until it was small enough to be drowned in a bathtub. Now the grandchildren of those guys are running things in Tennessee.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that government was – and still is – exactly as diligent as it is forced to be. Another is that the news media are tasked with the job of sounding the alarm when it’s not.

Thomas Jefferson said that if he were forced to choose between government with no newspapers or newspapers without government, he’d go with newspapers. Thomas Paine’s pamphlets spurred us to break free from English rule and declare our independence. Newspapers and telegraph dispatches kept both sides informed of the bloody cost of the Civil War. The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage rooted out a corrupt commander-in-chief.

But even as the definition of media has changed to include new kinds of communication, the ranks of the big, heroic news media have been thinned by the venture capitalists who have swallowed them up, and the result is organisms that used to see themselves as conduits for truth and fair play are now being evaluated for their ability to cash flow. Times are tough and ranks are thin.

That’s why I’m grateful to the News Sentinel, which has done a fine job of keeping us informed about the crisis that has been brewed by Knox County’s ambulance service. They’ve made us aware of the danger and forced us to ask the painful question – if we call an ambulance, will it come?

Investigative reporter Tyler Whetstone has done a stellar job of alerting the people who depend on this service (that would be us) that attention must be paid. For his efforts, he was cussed by a political mouthpiece – a badge of honor.

But the problem of institutional memory is real, and although it happened less than 18 years ago, the lessons of an event dubbed Black Wednesday seem to be fading away. If you need a refresher, the story of corruption in Knox County blew up so bigly that The New York Times came to town to document the political shenanigans.

The bottom line was that county officeholders ignored the results of a referendum vote on term limits some years before and were relying on a state attorney general’s “opinion” (which they had to know was weak sauce) to hang on to their elected positions.

When the court finally ruled that they had to leave, they took charge of the replacement process and installed their relatives, spouses and cronies in their places. The chief beneficiary of the shenanigans was the Sheriff’s Office, which saw former deputies appointed up and down the board.

A couple of lawsuits – one filed by a former commissioner who wasn’t part of the cabal, the other by the News-Sentinel (which had a dash in its name in those days) – ended up rooting out all the replacement commissioners and charging the commission chair with civil perjury, which triggered his expulsion. The new replacement commissioners were subjected to magnifying-glass scrutiny and were constantly reminded of the Sunshine Law, which prohibited two or more commissioners from privately discussing commission business.

For a good long time, the commission was scrupulous to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, but thanks to term limits, those positions have turned over several times in the years since ‘07, and I was a gobsmacked last year to see the six women commissioners vote as a bloc to elect one of their number (and a Democrat, at that) as commission chair. I was glad to see the historic event, but had a hard time believing that they hadn’t been privately discussing their strategy, which is not allowed, although the newly-elected commissioners who had not been sworn in wouldn’t have violated the technical letter of the law by talking about it amongst themselves.

But still.

I asked around, and it didn’t seem to be an issue for anyone but me, so I never raised the question publicly.

That’s why I was disappointed to read a News Sentinel story reporting that the women who serve on commission each accepted $500 contributions from ambulance provider AMR, which was in deep trouble over poor response times and which has been in all kinds of financial trouble and is owned by venture capitalists. This week, five of the six women voted to approve the AMR contract. (It passed 7-4).

One of them denounced the suggestion that they could be compromised by a pittance like a $500 political contribution (which they all reported, as they were required to do).

I couldn’t help but be reminded of a classic quote from old political kingpin Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, longtime Speaker of the California State Assembly: “If you can’t drink a lobbyist’s whiskey, take his money, sleep with his women and still vote against him in the morning, you don’t belong in politics.”

Not a perfect fit for this situation, but uncomfortably close.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.


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