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When a puff piece goes poof
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SAVANNAH'S A PLACE where people don't like to talk badly about others. At least to their faces.

In most towns, publications like ours are expected to help keep the local daily paper honest, but in my experience Savannah readers are different.

They generally don't appreciate it when we bash other local media; that's why we rarely do it despite the many, many temptations to do so.

There are exceptions to every rule, however.

One such exception is the lengthy puff piece about the life and times of City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney that dominated this past Sunday's edition of the Savannah Morning News.

I have good friends who work in various capacities at the Morning News, and I take no personal pleasure in pointing out their employer's missteps. But I can't let this one go, and I've heard from many people within that organization who agree with me.

"From Raleigh to Savannah: City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney" is an article that ended up being very controversial despite the total and complete absence of actual controversy in the piece itself.

In a sense that lack of controversy is the controversy.

To be clear -- and as I've written before -- I don't consider Small-Toney to be the central villain of this or any other episode, or even a particular villain at all.

In our system, Americans are free to better themselves by finding the best employment terms possible.

It's not Small-Toney's fault that City Council ended up throwing her crazy money, more money than her predecessor who had 15 years on the job, and more money than some city managers in much larger metropolitan areas.

None of us would have turned down that kind of cash if we were in her position in this economy, and we all know it.

And it's not Small-Toney's fault that the Mayor and City Council royally botched the hiring process and, as things spiraled out of their control, were then largely responsible for needlessly dividing the city along racial lines.

The issue is with the paper's decision to print the piece at all, and the particulars of it.

There's plenty of precedent for writing personality profiles about notable people, and regardless of your opinion on Small-Toney, she is clearly notable.

But this piece, written by a freelancer who owns her own marketing consulting firm (there's a lengthy pitch for her company at the end of the article) seemed to cross the line from run-of-the-mill personality profile to something perilously close to paid advertising disguised as a front-page story.

Advertising for the writer's consulting business, no doubt. But advertising for the city manager as well?!

A harsh question, but I'm far from the only one asking it, as evidenced by the comments to the story online. Some of the words there include "nauseating," "paid spin," "garbage," and "propaganda."

Also, the glaringly obvious fact that the paper chose a freelancer to conduct the interview -- rather than city reporter Lesley Conn, who has spearheaded the paper's incisive coverage of the issue -- makes my own editor's antennae perk up, and not in a good way.

(Indeed, it's quite possible that the city manager simply refused to talk to Conn, given the tenor of much of her past reporting, which would make the decision to run the freelance-authored profile even more egregious.)

In the puff piece we did learn some genuinely interesting things about Small-Toney, such as the influence of athletics and music on her early life, her success as class president, and her long and devoted marriage to Leroy Toney, a former serviceman who's now a CAT bus operator.

But such a story more properly belonged in the features section, not as front-page news.

To make the front page, the piece ideally should have included an attempt to seriously broach the many attendant controversies around Small-Toney's ascension -- commemorative wine glasses etched with her name, costly renovations to her office, departmental uproar, controversial hirings, firings, and lawsuits, etc.

But there was no real attempt, other than a pithy reference to racial issues which included this line from Small-Toney:

"It was very disheartening to think that here in Savannah there would be individuals that would see my race as opposed to seeing my abilities, skills, preparation and those things that equipped me to lead."

(One local wag says, tongue partially in cheek, that she is referring to Mayor Johnson, who repeatedly brought up the issue of race, usually out of the blue, whenever the hiring process threatened to escape his control).

You could respond to me and the other critics by saying that the Morning News and other local publications, such as Savannah Magazine and The South Magazine, have for years published long, fawning profiles of local movers and shakers -- largely white movers and shakers -- and no one makes a peep.

In fact, Savannahians seem to love lining up to be the subject of those long, fawning profiles, no matter how many times the same people have had virtually the same long, fawning profiles written about them previously.

And you might have a point.

Let's face it: You would definitely have a point.

But consider the context: There will be a new mayor and council this November. After the missteps surrounding Small-Toney's hiring -- some of her own making, many not -- her continuation in the job is subject to the next council and isn't necessarily a sure thing.

The Morning News to its credit has up to this point covered the simmering city manager story in an aggressive and dutiful, if occasionally overly sensationalist, manner.

At times I felt the paper's reporting seemed a bit too eager to throw red meat to the very readers that it knew would be most enraged by anything this mayor, city council and city manager said or did.

There have been times when I felt that mountains had been made out of molehills.

But overall I have to say that the Morning News has done its job and done it well in covering the events, politics, and ramifications surrounding this issue.

However, that a few weeks before campaign season begins they would stop on a dime and publish a puff piece about the city manager as sappy as this one, and have the gall to present it as front-page news rather than what it is -- a campaign ad -- is a discredit to the organization and to the fine journalists working within it.

I cannot imagine that very many people at the paper are happy with the decision to publish it.