that fact was a compliment to their mentor, the rate of turnover at
and with it an increasing reliance upon interns, suggested something as
unspecified as it was troublesome was at play.
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
quotes Rick as having said, “couldn’t trash Webster enough.”
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
“travel, legal expenses or PR” costs would either be “returned to the
that I can discern” or to a victim advocacy program.
I’m not keeping any of the money.”
were to be no media appearances, lawsuits initiated by Austin Rick nor
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.
allegations were news to me but, predicting the hysteria to follow, my
section response (since deleted by that publication but available here) began with the analysis “Sticking to what is
added “I have known Kirt Webster professionally since the inception of
PR. I had never heard Austin Rick’s name
before reading Steve Cavendish’s article.
have been telling my #MeToo truths for years… as well as writing the
others… so I am not about blaming victims.”
signed statement elicited immediate anonymous posts:
Harris's comment ignores the power
imbalance in the Austin Rick/Kirt Webster relationship. Despite her
she is clearly blaming the victim.”
reading of my sourced remarks would suggest mine is not a history of
power imbalances (though belated reading of those sourced remarks has
more difficult as online media have removed comments sections from
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
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]
insisted that we had already met. I
chalked it up to my perhaps having responded to news releases Farnum
Zach’s name was certainly familiar to me- but Farnum seemed unusually
without attempting to improve my recall.
spent considerable time that afternoon in the company of both young men
seemed to be an otherwise most congenial atmosphere.
months later, nearly six months before the demise of Webster PR, Zach, contact list in hand, left his employer
and opened 117
with the demise of Webster PR, Zach sent me a media invitation to the
National Association of Talent Directors (NATD)
dinner and awards ceremony on
November 14, 2017.
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
change of subject when Zach joined us.
wasn't Ruth's congratulating Zach on the formation of 117 Entertainment Group,
the subtext, that turned the conversation in a different direction as I
do a lot of listening, as is probably the best course of action when
(though the chorus of Kris Kristofferson's
To Best the Devil
came to mind, proving, I suppose, among other things, that there is no
thing as an original thought).”
unreported until now, was Zach’s launching into a critique that left me
as to why he invited me to the event. Farnum was clearly agitated by
perceived as my prior defense of Kirt Webster.
had no idea to that point that Zach’s relationship with Kirt had been
nor why Farnum thought there was something to be gained by raising his
and trying to embarrass me in front of Ruth whom I had not seen nor
spoken with for some
prior to that evening.
there was a story here and I began to find it in parallel story lines
what brought me, and, several decades later, Zach, to Nashville.
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
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.)
with two counts of sexual extortion, the indictment that followed
Republican state senator threatened to hurt Farnum or harm Zach’s
the teenager didn’t comply. Senator
Nick Kettle was subsequently acquitted.
attempt at anonymity was short-lived.
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
his “friend” and alleged abuser in the November 4th Rhode Island
state senate election.
2018 a former girlfriend’s accusations resulted in Nicholas Kettle’s
charges of extortion and video voyeurism, but ultimately Kettle was not
starting Hart Street Entertainment, Zach joined Webster PR
some point, it is not clear when, as neither Zach Farnum and Jesse Knutson will
respond to requests for comment, either individually or collectively,
became acquainted. ("Friends" and nothing more,
any event, following the demise of Webster PR, it was clear that then-WTVF-TV
entertainment reporter Jesse Knutson relied on anonymous sources for
recurring Webster postmortem.
the wake of the dissolution of Webster PR, Knutson indicated that he
on” the PR News
website, learning that Webster was one of two winners in the same
be awarded the organization’s Publicist of the Year honors at a luncheon at the
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.)
tweeted news of the award the following day, and in the aftermath of the
fury that followed, PR News rescinded
Knutson used his personal Twitter account to announce Kirt
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
report, as I did exclusively, that Webster could not have been present
the permission of Sarah Trahern and, by extension, that of the CMA
whose pleasure Trahern serves.
date I have awaited evidence that anyone who found Webster’s backstage
problematic expressed those concerns to Trahern and/or the CMA Board.
forward to January 13, 2020. Jesse
Knutson’s news director, Sandra Holmes Boonstra, issued a memo, on station letterhead,
to the “NewsChannel 5 Staff re: Jesse Knutson.”
advised the reporter’s colleagues that “Jesse Knutson is leaving
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
career in the music industry. Jesse’s
last day will be March 9th.
We wish him all the best!”
internal memo, sketchy on specific details about Knutson’s plans,
be in response to unspecified actions that precipitated it.
would Knutson leave a plumb job- indeed make a major career change-
without having first landed a new job in an industry (presumably with a
and importance commensurate to his visibility in the glamor industry
was leaving) to which he was coming to with no executive experience?
in February 2018, when the Country Radio Broadcasters’ Bill 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
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.
politely thanked me for my getting in touch and that was the last I
him until I reached out again in response to information I received,
appeared other (multimedia) journalists were receiving, specifically
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
between reporters and their sources is supposed to be, by journalistic
definition, sacrosanct. Were it to
found otherwise, it would be grounds for dismissal from any
Sandy Boonstra and Jesse Knutson not agree?)
reached out to other publicists, hoping to receive contact information
Austin Rick and any insight into the Sandy Boonstra memo, before
Jesse Knutson and Zach Farnum, requesting confirmation that Jesse was
117 Entertainment Group.
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.
copying Sandy Boonstra, eventually emailed me indicating he was “Sorry
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
Jesse indicated “I saw you
posted on your website about this. I was confused why you reached out
Farnum asking for confirmation if I joined 117 Entertainment? You had
background on why you would believe that. Did someone tell you that?
weird that you would reach out to him and not any of the other places
have actually applied for jobs or am inquiring about positions.
not applied for a job at 117
Entertainment nor been extended an official offer from 117. So the
you have been given is false, and I’d appreciate it if you remove it so
potential employers don’t think I’m unavailable.”
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-
meantime, some of the issues
that would later emerge re: the confidentiality of Venmo transactions
general became apparent to me when I (and certain other members of
print and broadcast media) received a mailing with no return address
referencing what is, or what was designed to appear to be, Zach
account. (Farnum declines to confirm
he has a Venmo account. A
of Zach’s, whose name I am withholding upon request, confirms that the
information I received re: a Venmo transaction between the two occurred
date specified, further elaborating on the nature of the transaction
that I am not disclosing so as to further protect the source's
not found anyone to speak for
the record as to which news organizations received the same information
but if those organizations included Scripps’
Nashville CBS affiliate certain
conclusions might be drawn as to why that station did not further
explore and share with its local news viewers the information I am
and, by extension, WTVF,
Global “an industry leader in risk management and compliance”
promising clients to “protect their people, reputation and bottom
Sandy Boonstra’s refusal
to respond to me, I contacted Navex, a report was taken and, Navex
the matter was promptly closed at WTVF’s request. (How convenient!)
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.
may have scared off WTVF’s
competitors from reporting what follows was not only the same inability
people to speak for the record, as I have encountered, but also what
known as a gentlemen’s agreement not to air
another news organization's dirty laundry.
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
erratic retaliation? Dropping me from
his media contact list/news releases email blasts while
making multiple attempts to partner with me via Alignable.
purported Venmo (actual or
doctored) exchanges from Zach Farnum to Jesse Knutson et al were as
Director, Crew, Director, Screenwriter,
Theatre Director, Musician whose
name I am withholding) paid
January 19, 2018
Farnum paid Jesse Knutson
May 20, 2018
Farnum paid Jesse Knutson
August 28, 2018
Farnum paid Kalie Shorr
of a man with his palms
Farnum paid Jesse Knutson
by a photocopy of a ticket
with the words “Admit one.”
Farnum paid Jesse Knutson
Farnum paid Devon Eisenbarger
Farnum paid Jesse Knutson
Farnum paid Kalie Shorr
Shorr paid Zach Farnum
have that one cousin
Farnum paid (former employee
whose name I am withholding)
Farnum paid Jesse Knutson
to reach Devon Eisenbarger
and Kalie Shorr, for the purpose of verifying the transactions to which
information provided suggest they were parties, have been unsuccessful.
I received no response
from Austin Rick after attempting to contact him on October 6, 2020 at and unsuccessfully seeking his contact information.
the person(s) responsible for
leaking the (purported) Venmo account referenced above the same
who compiled and/or doctored the screeenshots?
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.
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 feet 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...