What the Manti Te’o Story Tells Us About the Media

First published on al.com.  Link to it here.

As the sports world moves on (if that’s possible) from the Manti Te’o case, sports journalists still need to stop, take a breath, and reflect on what we have learned from this.

To be honest, journalists are poor practitioners of self-reflection.  We tend to move on to the next story, promising to do better next time and looking for an article to paste over our previous mistakes.  But we need to wrench the gut a little here.

Witness the eagerness to sweep everything under the rug based on Te’o’s interview with Jeremy Schaap.  Whatever you feel about Te’o, however, does not relate how the sports media handled the story.  Or, to paraphrase Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”

Much of the debate has centered on the reporting by Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated and Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN, the highest-profile of the many who reported this story.  Both admitted to noticing the red flags in September, when Te’o spoke of his “girlfriend’s” death and how it affected his play in the Irish’s big win against Michigan State.

So now, the debate is, to what extent should Thamel, Wojciechowski and others have double-checked on this.  Thamel pleaded a tight deadline in his defense.  Would SI have delayed the article for a few unconfirmed facts?  Based on this experience, the answer would be different now.  But back then?  We don’t know, because Thamel apparently did not ask.

One troubling aspect of all this is the extent to which everyone, Thamel and Wojciechowski included, seems to be engaging in shoulder-shrugging more than serious reflection.

For example, Peter King of SI tweeted, “And for those crucifying @SIPeteThamel, crucify me too. He’s tremendous. I back him unequivocally.”

King can be excused for rushing to support a colleague, which is understandable, but his statement represents a rhetorical “straw man” that distracts from the real issue.  No one is out to crucify Pete Thamel.  His article and reporting, like the others is another matter.

In journalism, we separate the product from the writer once it is written.  We put our heart and soul into what we write, then step back and let it be cut to pieces by editors, to improve it.  Let’s follow the same principle here.

Good reporting is good reporting because it informs and engages the reader with facts, many of which were not previously known.  It’s not good reporting because a good reporter writes it — although good reporters earn their reputation through their work.

The converse is true.  Pete Thamel and Gene Wojciechowski are not bad reporters.  But this was bad reporting.

So where do we go from here?  So many supporters seem to be throwing up their hands, as if such situations are inevitable.  ”What are we supposed to do?” they ask.  ”Demand to see the body?”

No, but neither are we supposed to give up and accept that factual errors are inevitable.  David Griner, writing for the Poynter Institute, uses the response from “This American Life” and Ira Glass, when a story about injuries and abuse at an Apple factory in Africa turned out to be false.

What we have seen instead falls far short, and we need to strive to be better than that.  Journalists are supposed to skeptical, not cynical.  We are supposed to have our B.S. meter fully engaged, regardless of the source.

And that is one factor here: The desire of all involved to believe the best about Te’o.  That was one of the most scathing indictments of Thamel, by Josh Levin of Slate.  Many more in the media are guilty of wanting to believe the best about Te’o, so that they unfairly dial down their B.S. meter.  The word for that is “bias.”  Would they have been so trusting toward an SEC football player?

My hope as we move on from this is that all sports journalists, from Sports Illustrated and ESPN down to the local weekly, will learn from this.  If a fact cannot be confirmed, stop and confirm.  As this story demonstrates (and it is not a once-in-a-lifetime disaster), it’s worth it.

Imagine if Thamel or Wojciechowski had asked their superiors for a delay to double-check a couple of red flags.  Imagine the article that would have resulted — a well-intentioned but naive college football player hoaxed by a fake girlfriend, culminating with her supposed death before a big game.  Imagine the heartache and missteps this would have saved Teo and his family.

What if one journalist had done his or her homework?

Talk about a hero.


Finebaum’s Fiscal Lift: What’s the Right Call for Paul?

First published by The War Eagle Reader. Link to it here.

When it comes to sports, few broadcasting markets are as hungry and crazed as Birmingham.  Thus, the changes that are on the horizon should bring as much attention as fiscal cliff negotiations.  Forget that: more attention.  I mean, here the negotiations will result in real change.

Probably the two biggest changes, which will interest all fans, involve sports talk show host Paul Finebaum and the ownership of 97.3 The Zone.

This blog will cover Part I: Finebaum.  As everyone who has been following him knows, his contract with Citadel Broadcasting (and its owner, Atlanta-based Cumulus Broadcasting), which owns WJOX, ends on Jan. 21, 2013.  Attempts to get out of the contract early (citing changes forced on him by Citadel before it was purchased by Cumulus) to pursue an offer by Cox Media Group and 97.3 the Zone, resulted only in a lawsuit that was settled over the summer.

So now, with the Jan. 21 deadline looming, can we expect a big change in Finebaum’s situation?  He agreed to talk to me about it, knowing his comments would appear on The War Eagle Reader website.  You might remember, after an article about him appeared in The New Yorker about a month ago, a listener asked if any media outlet existed that had not interviewed him.  “The War Eagle Reader,” he quipped.  Now he can cross that off the list.

Finebaum could not talk much about the pending change.  (We’ll come back to that in a few paragraphs.)  But one thing that he did confirm is that he is now being represented by Nick Khan, of the high-powered Creative Artists Agency.  Khan is typical CAA stock: One of his other new clients is Kirk Herbstreit (adding to a roster that already included Nancy Grace and Keith Olbermann).

Previously, Finebaum was represented by Russ Campbell, who is named in the courtroom papers unsealed and presented on the Birmingham Business Journal’s websiteCampbell is more of a sports agent; his clients include Gene Chizik and, until a couple of months ago, Bobby Petrino.  And Finebaum said he was reluctant to discuss the change, which was made in August. until now because of his respect and appreciation for Campbell, who represented Finebaum in his legal struggles with Citadel/Cumulus

“Russ has represented me for a while, and he is my friend,” Finebaum said. “I decided I needed an entertainment agent.”

Even so, with a new agent and possibly new opportunities, he was reluctant to discuss any pending changes.  It’s clear why.  In the June 1, 2012, issue of Talkersmagazine, John Dickey, COO of Cumulus, addressed the possibility that Finebaum would move to The Zone when his contract ended on Jan. 21.  ”He will never work for Cox in Birmingham,” Dickey said, bluntly.  Talk like that makes the situation beyond delicate.

The contract — you can link to it above — sheds more light on Finebaum’s situation.  First, according to the original contract, which was signed in January 2007, even if Finebaum were to end the contract amicably on Jan. 21, 2013, he would not be allowed to broadcast within a 50-mile radius of Birmingham for the next 90 days, because of a non-compete clause (Section 11[c]).

Then, in an addendum signed in November 2007, Citadel added a matching clause, which gives the company the right to “enter into an employment agreement with Employee for monetary terms which are substantially similar to the monetary terms of any bona fide offer which Employee has received.”

Cumulus has continued to move aggressively in the sports radio market.  Cumulus has dropped ESPN and picked up the new CBS Sports Radio network for many of its affiliates,including WJOX in Birmingham, as of Wednesday, Jan. 2.  So they might want to keep Finebaum in the package that now includes Jim Rome and Tim Brando.

Finally, if you read Finebaum’s contract, you realize that it is an employment contract.  Despite his show’s success and growing popularity, Finebaum holds no ownership interest in the program or any of its related projects (the website or podcasts, for example).

Thus, while I could not ask Finebaum about his priorities for a new contract, it would certainly make sense that at this point, given the show’s expanding popularity and nationwide footprint on Sirius XM, he would seek an arrangement that allowed some ownership stake of his program.  Or he could conceivably even create his own company to produce the program and syndicate it himself to individual stations or through a company such as Cox.

Or try this scenario (which a friend suggested, though it exists only in the imagination): Assume that the SEC decided to spurn ESPN’s mega-billions and create its own network along the lines of the Big Ten Network — the main difference being the quality of the football teams, of course.  Given Finebaum’s friendship with Mike Slive, SEC commissioner, and his stature within the SEC, a television version of Finebaum’s show, like “Mike & Mike” on ESPN2, would be a natural for the afternoons.

Finebaum’s show has remained an attractive property over the years, with much interest from prospective bidders.  It was when he jumped from Clear Channel to Citadel in 2007, and it remains so today.

 So as Jan. 21 approaches (with an extension of up to 45 days allowed), Finebaum’s listeners and those who hate can expect that the drama on the show might originate not from Legend and Tammy, but from Finebaum and his parent company.