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KIRT WEBSTER, THE DEMISE OF WEBSTER PR:  AN UNPRECEDENTED INVESTIGATION, SEX SCANDAL & UPDATE
Copyright 2021
Stacy's Music Row Report  All Rights Reserved

The Status of Austin Rick's Book,  Venmo Prostitution?, A Leaked WTVF-TV Internal Memo, A Veiled Threat...

As Music Row notes the fourth anniversary of one the most surprising events in the history of Nashville’s country-music industry, the sudden but swift demise of Webster PR, I thought it was high time to investigate what has happened in the aftermath of allegations that, if true, were rooted in newly-disclosed events of nearly a decade before.

Prior public skirmishes, notably with Tamara Saviano and later The Grascals, seemed buried in public memory by the time Kirt Webster shuttered a company that, ironically, boasted a roster of artists that were the envy of Webster’s competitors.  A number of Nashville-based independent publicists and record label publicists, past and present, learned their craft while in Kirt Webster’s employ.

While that fact was a compliment to their mentor, the rate of turnover at Webster PR, and with it an increasing reliance upon interns, suggested something as unspecified as it was troublesome was at play.

The pieces of the puzzle seemed to be connecting at the point Austin Rick came forward with allegations that otherwise blowtorched Webster’s suddenly-stigmatized roster of A-listers, established artists and up-and-comers with guilt-by-association not seen since Joe McCarthy’s heyday.  As they severed ties with warp speed, under the weight of Austin Rick’s scathing accusations, what had become Webster’s house of cards collapsed.

By June, 2018, Austin Rick announced plans for a book titled Surviving Possession: Inside Kirt Webster’s Twisted Toy Chest.  Rick was quoted as having referenced legal representatives and, subsequently, “my former legal team” that, Sterling Whitaker quotes Rick as having said, “couldn’t trash Webster enough.”

By Whitaker’s account Rick says “I didn’t understand why [they] hated him so viscerally.  Lawyers, high-profile managers and assistants spoke with me for 30 minutes at a time about how much they wanted to see [Webster] destroyed.”

Whitaker quoted Rick as having held on to “text messages” supporting the narrative, adding, of his team “Eventually I fired them.”

Whitaker indicated that Rick replaced his legal team with Nashville litigator Alex Little.  Little no longer represents Rick.

Informed that the statute of limitations ruled out criminal proceedings against Webster, Rick announced plans for a civil suit.  He also spoke of broadcast media appearances that were to supplement the print coverage that was underway.

Rick established a social media presence and a GoFundMe campaign that raised $9,420 before its end.  In advance of the campaign, Rick was quoted as having said that money raised that wasn’t used for “travel, legal expenses or PR” costs would either be “returned to the donors that I can discern” or to a victim advocacy program.  I’m not keeping any of the money.”

There were to be no media appearances, lawsuits initiated by Austin Rick nor Kirt Webster, no book and no following the GoFundMe money.   Rather, as fast as he emerged as an unknown who managed to topple Nashville’s most prominent country music publicity firm, Rick went social media AWOL. 

In search of why and with no one else among Webster’s alleged 21 victims speaking for the record, I confirmed with Nashville police spokesperson Kris Mumford, during Detective Chuck Fleming’s investigation of Rick’s complaint, that the award-winning detective found no reason to contact Webster.  (Though retired since January 31, 2018, during his career with Nashville’s police department, Fleming won the department’s “Investigator of the Month” honors several times.)

Actually, my search for the truth began with Steve Cavendish’s  October 31, 2017 Nashville Scene article detailing Rick’s allegations against Webster.

The allegations were news to me but, predicting the hysteria to follow, my comments section response (since deleted by that publication but available here) began with the analysis “Sticking to what is presumably verifiable… ”

I added “I have known Kirt Webster professionally since the inception of Webster PR.  I had never heard Austin Rick’s name before reading Steve Cavendish’s article.

“I have been telling my #MeToo truths for years… as well as writing the stories of others… so I am not about blaming victims.”

My signed statement elicited immediate anonymous posts:  Stacy Harris's comment ignores the power imbalance in the Austin Rick/Kirt Webster relationship. Despite her disclaimer, she is clearly blaming the victim.”

Any reading of my sourced remarks would suggest mine is not a history of ignoring power imbalances (though belated reading of those sourced remarks has been made more difficult as online media have removed comments sections from their articles, driving reader reaction to social media in which I do not participate).  In fact, just the opposite is true, which explains why the allegation and suggestion that I am a liar went unsigned as was another accusation that I was on Webster’s payroll.  (“…seriously lady how much did that PR guy pay you write this.”) [sic]

In February, 2017 Kirt Webster introduced me to one of his firm’s publicists, Zach Farnum at a Webster PR-sponsored media luncheon; a “soft opening” for The Diner on Third Avenue South in Nashville.

Zach insisted that we had already met.  I chalked it up to my perhaps having responded to news releases Farnum sent- Zach’s name was certainly familiar to me- but Farnum seemed unusually insistent without attempting to improve my recall.

I spent considerable time that afternoon in the company of both young men in what seemed to be an otherwise most congenial atmosphere.

Three months later, nearly six months before the demise of Webster PR,  Zach, contact list in hand, left his employer and opened 117 Entertainment Group.

Coinciding with the demise of Webster PR, Zach sent me a media invitation to the annual National Association of Talent Directors (NATD) dinner and awards ceremony on November 14, 2017.

As I later wrote in my coverage of the event, “One of the first familiar faces I saw was that of Ruth Elkins.  As Ruth and I talked for awhile I was ill-prepared for the change of subject when Zach joined us.  

"It wasn't Ruth's congratulating Zach on the formation of 117 Entertainment Group, but rather the subtext, that turned the conversation in a different direction as I tried to do a lot of listening, as is probably the best course of action when blindsided (though the chorus of Kris Kristofferson's To Best the Devil came to mind, proving, I suppose, among other things, that there is no such thing as an original thought).”

Left unreported until now, was Zach’s launching into a critique that left me puzzled as to why he invited me to the event. Farnum was clearly agitated by what he perceived as my prior defense of Kirt Webster.

I had no idea to that point that Zach’s relationship with Kirt had been acrimonious, nor why Farnum thought there was something to be gained by raising his voice and trying to embarrass me in front of Ruth whom I had not seen nor spoken with for some time prior to that evening.

Clearly, there was a story here and I began to find it in parallel story lines detailing what brought me, and, several decades later, Zach, to Nashville. 

A political junkie with a University of Maryland degree, I turned down an opportunity for a (pre-Monica Lewinsky) White House internship to come to Nashville.  Zach served 15 months as a Rhode Island state senate page (February 2011- May 2012), ultimately filing charges against a legislator.   (In 1968, when I applied for a congressional page appointment, it would be five more years before the first female page was chosen.)

Charged with two counts of sexual extortion, the indictment that followed indicated the Republican state senator threatened to hurt Farnum or harm Zach’s reputation if the teenager didn’t comply. Senator Nick Kettle was subsequently acquitted.

Farnum’s attempt at anonymity was short-lived.

The following year Zach was in Nashville and in 2014, while a Trevecca Nazarene University student, Farnum, an independent, ran an ultimately unsuccessful race, from Music City, to unseat his “friend” and alleged abuser in the November 4th Rhode Island District 21 state senate election. 

(In 2018 a former girlfriend’s accusations resulted in Nicholas Kettle’s arrest on charges of extortion and video voyeurism, but ultimately Kettle was not incarcerated).

After starting Hart Street Entertainment, Zach joined Webster PR in 2016.

At some point, it is not clear when, as neither Zach Farnum and Jesse Knutson will respond to requests for comment, either individually or collectively, the two became acquainted.   ("Friends" and nothing more,  Farnum insists.)

In any event, following the demise of Webster PR, it was clear that then-WTVF-TV entertainment reporter Jesse Knutson relied on anonymous sources for his recurring Webster postmortem.

In the wake of the dissolution of Webster PR, Knutson indicated that he “happened on” the PR News website, learning that Webster was one of two winners in the same category to be awarded the organization’s Publicist of the Year honors at a luncheon at the prestigious National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on December 5, 2017.  (Full disclosure: I am a former [sponsored] NPC member, though it’s been many years since I declined to renew the always prestigious, but now, at $668, pricey, annual membership.)

Knutson tweeted news of the award the following day, and the in the aftermath of the fury that followed, PR News rescinded Webster’s award.

Subsequently, Knutson used his personal Twitter account to announce Kirt Webster’s backstage presence at the 2019 Country Music Association Awards.  Webster explained that he was Janie Fricke’s guest, but the salient point is that if the innuendo was to be properly pursued, news outlets parroting Knutson’s discovery had an obligation to report, as I did exclusively, that Webster could not have been present without the permission of Sarah Trahern and, by extension, that of the CMA Board at whose pleasure Trahern serves.

To date I have awaited evidence that anyone who found Webster’s backstage presence problematic expressed those concerns to Trahern and/or the CMA Board.

Fast forward to January 13, 2020.  Jesse Knutson’s news director, Sandra Boonstra, issued a memo, on station letterhead, to the “NewsChannel 5 Staff re: Jesse Knutson.”

Boonstra advised the reporter’s colleagues that “Jesse Knutson is leaving NewsChannel 5.  Jesse has done a remarkable job covering the music industry in Nashville.  He owned it!  No one could surpass his passion for the entertainment beat.  So much so, that Jesse has decided to leave broadcasting to pursue a career in the music industry.  Jesse’s last day will be March 9th.  We wish him all the best!”

The internal memo, sketchy on specific details about Knutson’s plans, appeared to be in response to unspecified actions that precipitated it.   

Why would Knutson leave a plumb job- indeed make a major career change- apparently without having first landed a new job in an industry (presumably with a title and importance commensurate to his visibility in the glamor industry that he was leaving) to which he was coming to with no executive experience?  

Back in February 2018, when the Country Radio BroadcastersBill Mayne famously revoked Jesse’s Country Radio Seminar credentials (not long before CRS gave Mayne the boot) I gave Jesse a courtesy call, offering my support.  I too, had tangled with Mayne, for good reason, having had a long history with the CRB (its late founder, the legendary Biff Collie was my mentor and later business associate).

Further, I informed/reminded Jesse of my tenure as the “Doyenne of Music Row,” having written extensively about what was coming to be known as the #MeToo movement long before it had a name and was of interest to Knutson as it informed his reporting about Music Row in the post-Webster PR era.‎ 

Knutson politely thanked me for my getting in touch and that was the last I heard from him until I reached out again in response to information I received, and it appeared other (multimedia) journalists were receiving, specifically the Sandy Boonstra memo and screenshots of a Venmo account confirming a relationship between Zach Farnum and Jesse Knutson.  (The nature of that relationship, beyond anything personal hinted at in the screenshots, is important to the extent the professional relationship between reporters and their sources is supposed to be, by journalistic definition, sacrosanct.   Were it to be found otherwise, it would be grounds for dismissal from any news-gathering operation.   

(Would Sandy Boonstra and Jesse Knutson not agree?)

As the only media critic among those who were rumored to have been on the receiving end of some, all, or more of the communications that were coming to my attention, the responsibility fell to me to make some sense of it.

I reached out to other publicists, hoping to receive contact information for Austin Rick and any insight into the Sandy Boonstra memo, before contacting Jesse Knutson and Zach Farnum, requesting confirmation that Jesse was joining the 117 Entertainment Group. 

Zach’s response was to answer a question with a question.  It would be the most uninformative but civil response I would be receiving from him in the days that followed.

Jesse, copying Sandy Boonstra, eventually emailed me indicating he was “Sorry for not responding, but we don’t generally discuss internal memos.”  (This was my first confirmation that the memo was legitimate as a request to Boonstra for same received no response.)

Knutson added “Regarding this situation though, that memo is posted on all of my social media pages, so it shouldn’t be hard to find.  Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, it’s on all of them very publicly.”

Further, Jesse indicated “I saw you posted on your website about this. I was confused why you reached out to Zach Farnum asking for confirmation if I joined 117 Entertainment? You had no background on why you would believe that. Did someone tell you that? Seems weird that you would reach out to him and not any of the other places where I have actually applied for jobs or am inquiring about positions.

“I have not applied for a job at 117 Entertainment nor been extended an official offer from 117. So the information you have been given is false, and I’d appreciate it if you remove it so any potential employers don’t think I’m unavailable.”

His concerns addressed, apparently Knutson joined CMS Nashville as the company’s Senior Manager of Brand Partnerships where, according to Jesse’s Linked In page, he remained for eight months (March 2020- August 2020).

In the meantime, some of the issues that would later emerge re: the confidentiality of Venmo transactions in general became apparent to me when I (and certain other members of Nashville’s print and broadcast media) received a mailing with no return address referencing what is, or what was designed to appear to be, Zach Farnum’s Venmo account.  (Farnum declines to confirm whether he has a Venmo account.  A former employee of Zach’s, whose name I am withholding upon request, confirms that the information I received re: a Venmo transaction between the two occurred on the date specified, further elaborating on the nature of the transaction that I am not disclosing so as to further protect the source's identity.)

I have not found anyone to speak for the record as to which news organizations received the same information I did, but if those organizations included ScrippsNashville CBS affiliate certain conclusions might be drawn as to why that station did not further analyze, explore and share with its local news viewers the information I am about to report.

(Scripps and, by extension, WTVF, employs Navex Global “an industry leader in risk management and compliance” promising clients to “protect their people, reputation and bottom line.”)

Following Sandy Boonstra’s refusal to respond to me, I contacted Navex, a report was taken and, Navex informed me, the matter was promptly closed at WTVF’s request.  (How convenient!)

This unilateral action, an apparent exercise in wishful thinking, does not reflect either Scripps’ mantra (“Give light and the people will find their own way”) nor its journalism ethics guidelines, made available with a link hidden (predictably) at the bottom of WTVF’s home page.

What may have scared off WTVF’s competitors from reporting what follows was not only the same inability for people to speak for the record, as I have encountered, but also what was once known as a gentlemen’s agreement not to air another news organization's dirty laundry.

Further, who wants to endure the veiled threats of legal action and bodily harm of the nature I have experienced, forcing me to file a police report and increase my personal security?

Zach’s erratic retaliation?  Dropping me from his media contact list/news releases email blasts while making multiple attempts to partner with me via Alignable.

The purported Venmo (actual or doctored) exchanges from Zach Farnum to Jesse Knutson et al were as follows:

 

December 26, 2017

(Assistant Director, Crew, Director, Screenwriter, Theatre Director, Musician whose name I am withholding) paid Zach Farnum

Sex

 
January 19, 2018

Zach Farnum paid Jesse Knutson

Sex  (1 heart)

 
May 20, 2018

Zach Farnum paid Jesse Knutson

Sex  (heart)

 
August 28, 2018

Zach Farnum paid Kalie Shorr

Caricature of a man with his palms facing upward

 

Sep 9, 2018

Zach Farnum paid Jesse Knutson

(followed by a photocopy of a ticket with the words “Admit one.”

 

April 20, 2019

Zach Farnum paid Jesse Knutson

For the rusty trombone

 

May 7, 2019

Zach Farnum paid Devon Eisenbarger

Spooning


May 10, 2019

Zach Farnum paid Jesse Knutson

Bang Bang

 

June 16, 2019

Zach Farnum paid Kalie Shorr

Hat

 

June 17, 2019

Kalie Shorr paid Zach Farnum

we all have that one cousin

 

June 30, 2019

Zach Farnum paid (former employee whose name I am withholding)

Sonic

 

July 28, 2019

Zach Farnum paid Jesse Knutson

Poke her


Attempts to reach Devon Eisenbarger and Kalie Shorr, for the purpose of verifying the transactions to which the information provided suggest they were parties, have been unsuccessful.

Similarly, I received no response from Austin Rick after attempting to contact him on October 6, 2020 at https://www.gofundme.com/f/exposekirtwebster and unsuccessfully seeking his contact information.

 Is/are the person(s) responsible for leaking the (purported) Venmo account referenced above the same person/persons who compiled and/or doctored the screeenshots?

What motivation would there be for doing one, the other, or both?

If the leaked information is factual, it raises serious questions about the interactions between broadcast journalists and the publicists with whom they work, publicists and the artists with whom they work and perhaps even unlawful activity.

If the latter is the case, theoretically there could be a charge of patronizing prostitution, defined as “Soliciting or hiring another person to engage in sexual activity or going to a brothel or house of prostitution sexual activity.”

The penalty for conviction on this Class B misdemeanor is the same as that for someone convicted of prostitution: up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500.

Should Jesse Knutson's career change, as he and his former employer have characterized it, be taken at face value?  For instance, though Knutson reported that if "Officials with the Metro Nashville Police Department found that had the offense been reported before the statute of limitations expired, Kirt Webster would have been arrested and charged with forcible sodomy,"  Kris Mumford told me, in a conversation on October 15, 2020 that, while she doesn't know if Detective Fleming spoke with Kirt Webster or not, Knutson's statement (as memorialized by the transcript on the WTVF website) was "overreach." 

What does another Webster accuser, Cody Andersen have to add?  (I've been unable to reach Andersen for comment.)

As I have written, "One would be hard-pressed to find a cultural issue of national (and international) importance so full of 'local color' that seems, in the absence of any discernible local action taken, to have reached the point of desperation to keep the salacious allegations afloat. 

"When a growing number are willing to name names and to prosecute, why does the local focus continue to be on either anonymous sources, or those who will speak for the record, but only in generalities? 

"A responsible press would hold Kirt Webster's feed to the fire... if circumstances warrant and to be equally quick to apologize to him if the accusations against him do not form the basis for evidence to be used to hold him accountable. 

"Anyone who successfully provides, or otherwise perpetuates, a false narrative ought to be hounded until they can answer the question 'How do I get my good name back?' to the satisfaction of the falsely accused.

"Contrary to what anonymous posters choose to believe 'despite' my disclaimer, I stand by it.

"We are entitled to our own opinions- and mine should be limited to those I have expressed- but we are not entitled to our own facts...

"Austin Rick's own documentation includes his statement of January 6, 2018 advising those interested to 'watch the national headlines this coming week for more insight into my recent endeavors- that's all I can say for the time being. 

"'I'm also gearing up to take part in a cable television production regarding the evil Kirt Webster has visited on so many.  This wouldn't be a little 'blip' per se, but rather a feature.

"'I may also have legal news to share with you so please stay tuned.' 

"Is it not fair to ask... Where are the 'national headlines' to which Rick refers?

"Austin... knows, or should know, that, when circumstances warrant, I have a track record of several decades of biting the hand that purports to feed me.

"What is the name of the TV production company that is working with Austin?  Has a network green-lighted the feature?

"If so, is there an actual, or even a projected, appearance and what is the air date?  (If this is more than a pipe dream, could Rick have blown his chances by not allowing  the production company/network to break the news?)

"And how long will it take before Austin has 'legal news to share?'

"Time-barred against filing criminal charges, Rick's only legal option remains a civil suit, assuming, unlike the criminal charges he did not file, the civil court statute of limitations has not yet expired.  Does Rick's 'legal news' refer to Austin exercising what remaining (civil) legal option(s) he may have, or does he know of a prospective plaintiff's criminal complaint about to be filed?"

It would also be useful to hear further from Kirt Webster.  Kirt's take is that "There is a lot of information and many truths about this story that have not come out and soon they will."

Then again, none of the above have found it in their best interests to move the needle...


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