A scene from "Welcome to Shelbyville."
As many of our readers are aware, in late 2007, I wrote a five part series about the impact that the introduction of Somali refugees were having on Bedford County. The stories focused on how the refugees got here, their traditions and beliefs, and took an honest look at the many cultural clashes that were taking place between the locals and the newcomers.
The series provoked a huge controversy, along with much discussion and debate from members of our community.
Then, in August 2008, the Times-Gazette reported that a new union contract at the Shelbyville Tyson Foods facility replaced Labor Day as a paid holiday with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr.
That story put Shelbyville on the national stage, with the topic touching off coverage from the national news media, as well as massive attention on the issue from talk radio hosts, websites and blogs, some of which continues to this very day.
The controversy the stories created led a documentary crew to Shelbyville in late 2008 to shoot "Welcome to Shelbyville," which will air nationwide, May 24 on PBS at 9 p.m.. The film received financing from progressive migration advocates, and has been sponsored by the state department as overseas propaganda. The "propaganda" label comes from no less an authority than the New York Times.
I viewed the film twice in October of last year during its local premiere, and found the filmmaker's depiction of myself and the stories published by the T-G to be a monstrous distortion, with an incredible series of blatant omissions and dishonest misrepresentations that was obviously designed only to advance the political agenda of the filmmakers and the progressive organizations that funded and supported its production.
While the filmmakers certainly have a right to express their views, in the process, I feel they have engaged in a completely unfair character assassination of both myself, the Times-Gazette, not to mention how the entire city of Shelbyville is depicted.
They have told their story. Now, I shall tell mine.
The first time I met the director of Welcome to Shelbyville, Kim Snyder, was on the public square in the fall of 2008 and it was obvious from the start that the filmmakers was planning on telling the story of our situation to promote their own agenda. She was with Catalina Nino, who did public relations for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) at the time, and another woman whose name escapes me, but who was heavily involved in the production of the film.
We spoke about the situation here regarding the Somalis and they asked if I would appear in the film. I knew I had no choice but to take part in this, otherwise, they would tell whatever story they pleased without my participation.
Apparently, they intended to do that whether I was in the movie or not.
Then the discussion turned to what I was doing at that time, which was covering the new prosecution of Edward McGee, who raped and murdered two little girls in 1966. I explained the sad case and why it was still a topic of conversation over 40 years afterwards.
But the director's friend only had one question: "Was he black?"
She said this in such excited tones that I felt like I was disappointing her by informing them that everyone involved in the horrific murder case was white.
It was obvious to me, however, that the filmmakers already had a narrative in place for their project and appeared to be let down that there would be no "To Kill a Mockingbird" parallels to work with in Shelbyville.
But, despite my misgivings about their motives, I asked the editor at the time, John Philio, for permission to be interviewed for the film and it was granted.
So, one month later, I sat down with Snyder and her crew to tell the story of what had been going on in Shelbyville with the refugees and the series of stories we ran, and the impact. I went into extreme detail about the history of the Tyson indictment from 2001, and how the community felt about the issue of immigration, as well as going into great detail the more recent Labor Day/Eid al Fitr flap, which brought us national media attention and angered many in Shelbyville and across the country.
None of these important topics made it into the film. Not even a mention.
Instead, the filmmakers decided to use a clip of dialog in which I described some of the derogatory comments made by our readers on the T-G website that mentioned the alleged hygiene of the Somalis. I clearly stated that the T-G never published these stories and statements ourselves, and that they were made by our readers but for some reason, out of the three hours of footage they shot of me, this clip is featured at the start of the film and prominently on the Internet via YouTube.
A more likely source for the hygiene statements may be a story published by the Tennessean some three weeks after the Eid al Fitr matter in August 2008. Considering the variety of topics I spoke about during the interview, the fact that Snyder singled out this single statement that, when taken out of context, frames my reporting in a unfavorable light, one might come to the conclusion that telling an honest story wasn't her intention at all.
I tried to be as objective as I could when speaking about the topic of the Somalis and was interviewed for about 90 minutes during that first session, but the line of questioning from the director soon turned to subjects such as: "isn't it great that Barack Obama was elected," since the main interview was conducted the day after the 2008 election. Snyder kept asking the question about the election, trying to frame my answers around "this historic event" that she seemed quite excited and happy about.
I replied that many seemed to be focused more on the color of the new president's skin, rather than the content of his character, but then the director asked one very telling question.
Snyder then asked me how I felt working in Bedford County, which she said was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the KKK.
"Uh, I think you better check that....I think it was a Revolutionary War figure," I said. The county was named after Thomas Bedford
"Well, he was born near here, wasn't he?" she asked, inquiring about the neighboring Marshall County community of Chapel Hill. She appeared rather obsessed with making this link with me on camera, which she does with another participant in the first few minutes of the movie.
In fact, in an interview posted just two days ago, Snyder said that she would have like to have included more scenes focusing on Shelbyville's past racial issues such as "Beverly at a Civil War museum, some more in-depth references to the racial history in town -- particularly the burning of the town courthouse in the 1930s."
After the interview concluded, I told Snyder that I was becoming concerned that the entire story would not be told, or edited down to fit a particular agenda, but she assured me that she was approaching the topic objectively. However, at the time, I did not find her statements to be reassuring.
A few months later, the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they offered to act as a go between for an interview with the new Imam, and I walked into it it thinking I was going to get a good story.
Instead, the entire thing was a set up, an ambush interview, so that the local activists who appear in the film and members of the TIRRC (Welcoming Tennessee) could preach to the camera about diversity and unity, plus the Imam got to deliver a few well placed jabs at me for my reporting, which made it into the movie.
Snyder, Luci Taylor, and the other Welcoming Tennessee activists were trying to direct the questioning and it put me in a very uncomfortable position professionally. I had been instructed by my editor not to be seen promoting any point of view and they were constantly driving the whole story about the historic wrongs of the region, etc. The entire meeting was staged solely for the cameras.
I am seen in the film assuring the Imam that the story about Somalis being evicted (a major topic of the story that resulted from the meeting) would be in the next day's paper, which was totally cut out of the film. But creative editing makes it sounds like I'm talking about getting the Somali's point of view into the pages of the Times-Gazette for the first time.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost a year before this interview took place, I reported about the assistance the Somali Community Center of Nashville had been giving the local refugees, as well as sharing their stories about coming to America. The T-G also reported on the early Welcoming Tennessee efforts, as well as local events they sponsored.
Yet, in the film, Welcoming Tennessee is depicted as the primary catalyst in bringing about "a more welcoming community" in Shelbyville, with the claim that they arranged my 2009 meeting with the Imam to discuss my "negative" reporting for the first time.
I find that statement to be totally laughable due to the fact that the TIRRC came to city editor John Carney and myself, over a year prior with the previous Imam, asking for our help to "bridge the huge gap" between the refugees and the community.
The meeting with the activists was cordial, and they were polite, but there was a condescending tone and a presumption that some aspects of the 2007 Somali series were a problem that we somehow needed to correct. Among the participants in the meeting was David Lubell, then director of TIRRC and now executive director of Welcoming America, an Open Society Foundations grantee, which was established by investor and philanthropist George Soros.
In fact, after this meeting, I wrote in an opinion column:
The one good thing about our series of stories about the Somalis is that has gotten people to start talking about the many problems and obstacles that our new neighbors, and our community, are facing.
At least it got the attention of this advocacy group and hopefully, it will attract others who can give these folks the help they need to become more integrated with modern society.
It's just a shame it took nearly four years, a series of news articles and the raw and frequently harsh expression of the community's feelings to finally get the process started.
Does this sound like negative reporting?
Before I left the Imam's home, Snyder asked if they could come to the T-G offices the next morning to do some more shooting. I told her that I could not authorize that, also that it would be a very bad time because we had a paper to get out, our new computer network was being installed that very day and I had to write the story on the meeting with the Imam.
Yet, she and her crew showed up and were very insistent about getting footage of me around the office, even entering the printing press area without permission. At one point, publisher Hugh Jones became upset because he did not authorize them being in the building. I explained this to the director, but she seemed unconcerned.
Then, they asked for footage of me reading from the Time-Gazette archives upstairs. For example, Snyder gave direction for me to read aloud the first reports about the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. What this had to do with the topic of Somali refugees was beyond me, but it was becoming quite painfully apparent that her motives had nothing to do with telling the truth, but instead, was focused on filming material to bolster a predetermined narrative that results in a depiction of Shelbyville as a town full of racists.
Following these two encounters, I only agreed to speak to them briefly two other times over the first two thirds of 2009, but limited my contact with them - minding what I said and how I said it. I also got the very disturbing impression that they had been observing my movements without my knowledge. Snyder had somehow become aware of a very private, off-the-record meeting I had with a group of concerned citizens about the Somalis during that time period. How they learned about this private meeting, I do not know, but the people I met with flatly refused to have anything to do with the documentary after Synder contacted them.
The filmmakers finally tried to get me to participate in footage shot at the Walking Horse Celebration in August 2009, but I smelled another set up and I was right. Luci Taylor was taking three Somali women to the horse show (an extremely unlikely occurrence otherwise) and they wanted me to be there for it. Snyder even called me at home and begged me on a Sunday to come over and be in the footage, but I refused, rather rudely, I'm afraid. I would have no part in any more staged events.
When I finally saw the completed film last October, I was flabbergasted how dishonestly I was portrayed. I nearly leapt out of my seat when I saw how Snyder had blatantly distorted the visual depiction of my original 2007 award-winning series on the Somalis. The documentary used the headline from my Feb. 17, 2009 story entitled "Islamic subversion alleged by speaker," about a former FBI terrorism expert who came to speak to Bedford County EMA personnel.
The film is edited together in such a way to make it appear that that was part of the original 2007 series on the refugees, but we printed it some 14 months later. The 2009 story never mentions the Somali refugees at all. We got a lot of attention and Internet traffic on that story because far right-wing talk radio host Michael Savage spent about an hour discussing it.
I also must point out how the filmmakers have dishonestly depicted the timeline of all the events shown in the movie. A glaring example is the Community Unity Night that you see at the end of the film where all the people featured in the documentary get together at the Fly Arts Center. However, this event took place the day before I did my main interview with the filmmakers on Nov. 8, 2008. Yet, other events shown at the beginning of the film, such as a meeting of the Rotary Club at the American Legion, was shot the very same day as the Unity Night event. A close examination of the story linked above could also lead a reasonable person to assume that the Unity Event and the Rotary Club speech was organized solely for Snyder's cameras.
The day before the main interview, during the Rotary club event you see in the beginning of the film, I had also informed Snyder about the fact I had discovered a homeless man from East Africa sleeping on the public square, and I suggested that this was one of the important issues we were dealing with here with the refugees. She appeared totally uninterested in this aspect of the story and when I brought it up in the main interview later that week, Snyder suggested that being homeless in America was perhaps better than being homeless in the country they came from.
Of course, also completely missing from the documentary was the entire history of the Eid al Fitr controversy, as well as the town's history with Tyson Foods and an explanation of the 2001 federal indictment. These are vitally important issues to understand if one wishes to have a complete grasp of the strains and culture clashes that have taken place in Shelbyville over the past decade or so, as well as the feelings about illegal immigration, yet, the filmmakers omitted every single reference to these events from the documentary. It's as if someone made a film about Japanese interment during World War II and left out the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Instead, footage of my appearance on the 700 Club, (complete with an introduction from Pat Roberson) is shown in the film. That report has also turned up in the just published book "The Terrorist Next Door: How the Government is Deceiving You About the Islamist Threat by Erick Stakelbeck, who did the CBN report in 2009.
One of my co-workers said this past week that the fact I appear in both a right-wing book and a left-wing movie this month means I must be doing my job correctly.
Throughout all of this, The Times-Gazette has stood steadfastly by my reporting and I would like to express my deepest gratitude to publisher Hugh Jones and all the editors, fellow journalists here and the readers who have supported my efforts to tell the real story of what has been happening in Shelbyville with this complex and controversial issue.
I never imagined three and a half years ago that simply telling a story honestly could lead to being demonized on national television, in a film sponsored by our own government, no less.