Matters of Law and Matters of Conscience

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

It seems that as soon as the first part of Sports Illustrated’s series on the Oklahoma State football program was released, the criticism began.

And quickly following the criticism were the SI defenders. In defending SI, they assured everyone that the articles were well-vetted and legally in the clear.

In today’s media climate, the SI approach to defending its series, much like the series itself, reflects a dated approach.

As many have pointed out, the article itself is fast food — a tired menu served repeatedly.  The “gotcha” articles on NCAA violations have been criticized for ignoring the larger systemic problems while distracting everyone’s attention with hard-to-prove allegations.

SI can make much of its legal vetting and discussions.  But I wonder if, early in the planning process, anyone at the decision-making level sighed and said, “Do we really have to do another of these?  Do they perform a public service in 2013?”

As such, the articles seem to be causing more of a yawn than SI could have anticipated.  Given the struggles facing SI and other magazines, it might not have been the best strategy.

But just as outmoded is SI’s “it’s legal!” strategy.  Maybe back in the day of fewer media outlets, that might have worked.  Considering the multiple outlets fans can choose from today, SI might be again miscalculating.

Perhaps Thayer Evans once again actually did keep just to this side of legal and nonactionable behavior.  Good for him.

But Evans’ approach to ethics has been clear from his actions in the past.  There, it is obvious that his goal is professional success, and anyone involved — sources or subjects — is a means to that end.  And that approach might cost SI more readers than the results would generate.

From his embellished reporting of Texas recruit Jamarkus McFarland to his encouragement of the breaking of federal privacy law in his reporting of Cam Newton at Florida (saved only by Florida’s lack of interest in prosecuting the case) to the cultural bigotry that he and Pete Thamel showed in their reporting on Tyrann Mathieu, Evans has portrayed few of the tenets of ethical journalism.

And in this situation, Evans has practiced his specialty of carpet-bomb interviews.  He approaches a slew of sources with no warning, neglects to say he is conducting an interview (though I always warn anyone that when you are talking to a journalist, you are being interviewed), and slaps the results together with zero concern for the interview subject.

(Disclosure: I am a faculty member at Auburn University.  I will claim my concern is based on ethics, not content.  But that is for the reader to judge.)

Today, when a writer’s past is transparent, regardless of his own ethics, Evans’ record is there to judge.  So that when sources claim that he deceived, or did not fully disclose, or misquoted, readers have a lot of evidence at their disposal.

For some reason, Thayer Evans is a sports journalism Lane Kiffin, falling upward after consistent ethical fumbles.  Apparently SI likes him because he “gets the story;” I almost expect his SI editors to be wearing green eyeshades in smoke-filled rooms.  A former SI staffer had his own theories as to why Evans and Pete Thamel were hired, along with concerns.

And maybe they paired him with George Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize winner, to add a respectable veneer to his reporting tactics.  Like expecting a clean dog to scare the fleas off its mangy companion.

The Oklahoma State series might not result in any successful lawsuits.  But the journalism being practiced and endorsed — in both its ethics and its perspective — belongs to another age.  Its statute of limitations has long run out.

To my students and other journalism students, a reminder: The subjects you interview and write about are human beings, not objects.

And you are a human being as well.  Act like one.