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Email Records: Mayor's Office Thought The Tennessean's Stadium Deal Coverage Was Unfavorable
TJ Ducklo “worried the tone of some of the coverage ” was “beginning to adopt the framing of the vocal echo-chamber of folks who are reflexively negative, often in bad faith.”
Getting public records from the Nashville Mayor’s office is like pulling teeth from a fidgety toddler.
In May, I published a thorough analysis of The Tennessean’s coverage of the Titans stadium deal. In that piece, I argue that, overall, Tennessee’s paper of record failed to properly scrutinize the deal, ask critical questions of public officials, or seek out independent experts to evaluate claims from the Titans and the Mayor’s Office about the benefits of the deal.
Since then, I have attempted to obtain emails from Nashville Metro in an effort to better understand the information flow between the Mayor’s office and The Tennessean that might have contributed to the favorable framing of the coverage.
But it appears that the Mayor’s office is either incompetent at fulfilling such requests or purposefully obstructing them.
My first request sought email communications between the Mayor’s office and The Tennessean beat writers who covered the stadium deal between October 1, 2022 (when the deal was announced) to April 27, 2023. At the end of May, I was informed by Mike Jameson, the Mayor’s Director of Legislative Affairs, that there were no records responsive to my request.
How could it be that no one from the Mayor’s office had any email communications with the main beat writers on the Titans stadium deal?
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Jameson followed up that he asked the Mayor’s now former Chief Communications Officer TJ Ducklo to search and discovered one(!) email in which Ducklo was giving a statement on the Venue Solutions Group (VSG) report that was quoted in this story. Jameson then throws a Metro IT staff member under the bus for missing that email:
“Why that email was not included within the search results obtained by the Metro IT Department is unclear to me. The Metro IT staff member who provided the search results is A.J. Fakes who can be contacted at AJ.Fakes@nashville.gov.”
I then submitted a new request, this time widening the date range to between January 1, 2022 and April 27, 2023 and seeking communications to and from everyone on The Tennessean staff, including editors and leadership.
I received a lot more records in response to this request, but I can’t help wondering if many are still missing. Several questions from reporters go completely unanswered, although it’s possible that Ducklo called them or texted them a response.
Additionally, this response included records that should have been included in response to my first request. This time, for instance, I received emails and attachments from Ducklo to beat reporter Cassandra Stephenson from October 17, 2022, October 24, 2022, November 1, 2022, and November 21, 2022 — all within the date range of my original request. Why were these omitted the first time?
This is not the only time I have had issues obtaining records from the Mayor’s office. I once received a set of email communications that were non-germane and fell outside of the date range of my request. The Mayor’s office appears to be wholly unprepared to deal with substantive requests — especially when they are not able to claim “deliberative process privilege” and completely block records the public should be able to see.
I believe I am still missing several important email communications from this time period, but I will lay out some of what I received.
Here are links to the full records. Fair warning: The Mayor’s office included several long, irrelevant email chains from citizens angry over construction noise that take up a lot of the emails included below:
TJ Ducklo Complains about The Tennessean’s Coverage
On November 29, 2022, TJ Ducklo emailed Tennessean City Editor Elizabeth (Liz) Schubauer and reporter Cassandra Stephenson to complain about “[i]mportant missing context from today’s story.” Here was the story.
One of Ducklo’s complaints was that the $362 million to return the stadium to “good condition” didn’t account for what the team was entitled to under its lease obligations. Of course, neither VSG nor Ducklo know what is actually required under the team’s lease obligations, because that was never studied.
Schubauer then responds:
TJ responds that he is “worried the tone of some of the coverage ” is “beginning to adopt the framing of the vocal echo-chamber of folks who are reflexively negative, often in bad faith.” Ducklo also accepts Schubauer’s request to grab coffee.
They agree to meet at 8:30am at The Graduate on Friday morning (December 2, 2022).
The Finance Department’s Revenue and Stadium Improvement Estimates
Stephenson’s November 28 article at issue in the email exchange above comes from a Metro finance department report that Ducklo sent her on November 21, 2022 (Exhibit A.pdf). The report contained slides with estimates on projected annual revenue from the new stadium as well as estimated capacity to fund basic stadium improvements and renovations.
No Comment on Beacon Center Poll
On September 1, 2022, former Tennessean reporter Adam Friedman published an article about a Beacon Center poll, which found that 61% of voters opposed state funding for the Titans stadium. The day before, Friedman emailed Ducklo for comment but was ignored.
Stephenson Questions Ducklo on Scope of VSG Report
On November 3, 2022, Stephenson asks Ducklo an important question: why didn’t VSG conduct a part of the study scope outlined in their original agreement (Task 2b)?
VSG’s Task 2b was supposed to look at other “improvement projects” at “comparable facilities” besides Hard Rock Stadium in Miami - including the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Cleveland Browns stadiums.
It appears Stephenson got an answer from VSG Managing Partner Russ Simons, who told her that comparing Nissan to Hard Rock Stadium was “sufficient” and avoided incurring additional costs to review other stadiums.
That’s about all of the interesting tidbits I pulled from these records, but if anyone spots anything else, please feel free to comment below.