A journalism discussion

The following items are related to the sports pages, but have more to do with my thoughts and experiences in journalism. They are my own opinion. I’m not holding myself out as an expert in journalism ethics or the law. But as someone who weighs in on a wide variety of topics when they touch the sports news, I offer them this morning.)

Part 1

A couple of items on the Saturday morning agenda. Both involve the field of journalism, and in fact are probably the two biggest stories in sports news here in Louisville, in one way or another.

The first appeared in The Courier-Journal for the first time this morning, though it has been the subject of discussion for a couple of days elsewhere. The Chicago Sun-Times reported several days ago that “rumors/sources” said that a $200,000 deal had been made to get a top recruit to commit to the University of Kentucky.

The report clearly labeled the allegation as a “rumor,” and included a quote from the player’s father strongly denying the allegation.

Despite those elements, it was, by any standard, shoddy reporting. Here’s the drill when you hear such a rumor. You start to dig and report. If you can gather enough facts to confirm the rumor, you report it. If you can’t, you don’t have a story. You do not, however, just throw the rumor out there. I know it happens. I know lots of places do it. Responsible outlets do not, and should not.

Instead, this bombshell allegation appeared low in a story on this particular recruit, mentioned in the manner of an afterthought. Later, under scrutiny, the paper removed the questionable section of the story from its web site.

That very well might have been the end of it, but UK’s legal representatives decided to fire off a late-night legal response to the paper and made copies available to the media. That left reputable news organizations in a quandary.

This paper, and others, did not print the allegations against the recruit and school because they were clearly labeled as rumor and were not backed up by any further reporting. They gave no basis for their wild claims except to say sources told them that these were the rumors.

Reputable news organizations do not report rumors, and to report on this was only giving what, to this point, was a sensational but largely unfounded allegation further reach. The two largest newspapers in Kentucky, this one included, printed nothing. (Even in today’s story, The Courier-Journal did not print the name of the recruit in question.)

But UK’s response made the whole thing legitimate news. Now the story isn’t some wild rumor out of Chicago, but it’s a major university threatening legal action against a Chicago newspaper, and all of the details of the case then come into play in telling the story of the lawsuit. It could be argued that UK was a party to widening the scope of this story, even if the school’s main intent was to vigorously defend itself.

Regardless, the story persisted. The Sun-Times followed up with a story repeating its $200,000 assertion, then added that sources from three separate universities had told the paper that the recruit’s father was asking for large sums of money for official visits.

Now, the recruit’s father has promised a lawsuit to come next week.

I’m not a legal expert, though in this business, you must know something about defamation and libel. The problem for the recruit is that he certainly would be classified as at least a limited public figure, and would have to prove, in addition to all the other things you have to prove in a defamation or libel suit (the publication of a false statement, negligence in doing so, and damage to the plaintiff), the much more difficult notion of actual malice.

(It’s less clear to me whether the father would qualify as a public figure of any kind. I would suspect not. And when you get down to it, he’s the one harmed the most in this story. If a suit ever happens, I’d expect that he would be the one to claim damages, and that he would be the plaintiff.)

The best defense against such accusations is, of course, the truth. And the fact that the Sun Times clearly reported this accusation as a rumor, shoddy though it may be, would set up an interesting question. Would the paper need to prove that a $200,000 deal was struck, or only that rumors that a $200,000 deal was struck were floating around? If it’s the latter, that’s an easy case.

All of this, of course, is a black eye for journalism. I remember a scene from an old movie titled, “The Paper.” The grizzled editor character of Robert Duvall barked at his metro editor: “You want the story? Go get the story!” The Sun-Times had a rumor, but they did not have the story.

I’ll be surprised if legal action goes forward on any front, however. I don’t think anyone (outside of maybe the Sun-Times) would benefit from the legal circus the would ensue. This would be no mere NCAA investigation. The very words “the defense calls William Wesley,” and the notion of teams of Chicago lawyers jumping into the world of college basketball recruiting with subpoena power would not be a welcome sight for many in the sport.

Part 2

Now a quick word about a story in the local media. My views, again, are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this paper or anyone else. I have watched the post-trial coverage since Karen Sypher was found guilty on charges of extortion, lying to the FBI and retaliation. I read her interview with The Courier-Journal this morning (and kudos to colleague Jason Riley for landing that one.)

It is right and appropriate for news organizations to report the reactions of defendants after their trials. Their thoughts are part of the story. Sypher’s claims that she thinks that she did not receive a fair trial are news, and should be reported.

But there’s another aspect to this. I have heard her continue to claim that she was raped. I got the newspaper this morning and it was the first line I saw on the front page, above the headline in a pull-quote.

Obviously, this is a personal opinion not shared by news decision-makers locally, but I believe it is an opinion worth hearing. No news outlet in this city would report her rape claim until she took it to police. It was seen as a potentially damaging charge against a public figure, one that could not be proven and had not been formally reported. It was only after she went to police that news outlets made public her claims.

Over the past year, that claim of rape has been roundly rejected by several layers of law enforcement and, now, by a federal jury. The Commonwealth’s Attorney found her claim void of credibility. And in his closing argument to jurors, defense attorney James Earhart said that if they believed Sypher was raped, they could not return a guilty verdict on extortion.

They returned a guilty verdict on extortion, which means they did not believe she was raped. But there’s more. They also found that her very action of reporting and talking publicly about the rape was retaliation against Pitino. In other words, her dissemination of the rape story was itself a crime.

These things have been tried in the courts and decided upon. And this is a special kind of case. Extortion and retaliation mean that the very claims being made are part of the crime.

In other words, it looks to me as if Sypher walked out of that courtroom and began to repeat the very behavior of
which she was found guilty a day before. (And, while as a sports columnist, it’s out of my jurisdiction, her comparison of herself to Rosa Parks is perhaps the most insulting comment I’ve read this year, and needs to be denounced publicly for the shamefully inappropriate, ridiculous statement it is.)

So, here’s what I’m getting at. Sypher has a right to say whatever she wants. The media has an obligation to report what she says in regard to her reaction to the verdict. But when it comes to this charge of rape that has been not only been rejected and dismissed in every conceivable form but has been judged in itself to constitute a crime, Sypher can talk about it all she wants, but the media no longer should feel obliged to report it. And in fact, you could powerfully argue that it would be more responsible not to.

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