The Source of Problems

Former Mississippi head coach Houston Nutt ignited a firestorm Wednesday when he announced a lawsuit against his former employer, Ole Miss –along with head coach Hugh Freeze and Athletics Director Ross Bjork.

The lawsuit also creates an embarrassment for several leading college football journalists.  Nutt cited articles they wrote, claiming that Freeze, Bjork and Kyle Campbell (associate athletics director for communications) had served as anonymous sources for reports and tweets that defamed Nutt.

The lawsuit claims that Freeze, Bjork and Campbell spread misinformation that the NCAA case against Ole Miss significantly focused on violations during Nutt’s tenure.

A simple Web or Twitter search identifies the journalists involved. It must be stressed that these are allegations, part of a lawsuit advancing Nutt’s legal interests, which at this stage of the case is a weak form of confirmation.

The journalists whose words were cited (though they were not identified in the lawsuit) include Pat Forde of Yahoo, Chris Low of ESPN, Neil McCready of the RebelGrove.com site and David Brandt, AP sports writer for Mississippi. McCready has already ridiculed Nutt’s allegations on Twitter.

These allegations are pretty damning, because according to my ethical standards (and I’m assuming theirs), they should never have allowed Freeze, Bjork or Campbell, or their representatives, anonymity to pass along such information.

If you haven’t noticed, anonymous sources have been a hot topic of debate, with President Trump tweet-blasting the practice.

In politics and in college football, the principles for anonymous sourcing are the same.  To identify the main issue in this case, read this from the SPJ Code of Ethics, which is followed by many journalists:

“Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm.”

Following that standard, Freeze, Bjork or Campbell would not be granted anonymity, because their motives were clearly self-preservation, not a disclosure of truth that would put them at serious risk.

As part of the process, a reporter is expected to identify the anonymous source to a superior. That not only safeguards the reporter’s credibility, but it would also provide the outside perspective of asking, “Why are we not demanding that the Ole Miss coach/AD go on the record?”

Another factor is at play here: Eventually the allegations would be publicized, and at that point the information of who was mentioned, Freeze or Nutt, would be clearly identified.

The Houston-to-Hugh ratio would not be kept locked up for perpetuity; it would be disclosed. The reliability of the anonymous source’s information could be clearly judged.

From that perspective, Nutt’s case would best be pleaded in a press conference, not a court case.

You can tell that I am giving these journalists the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they would not allow themselves to be manipulated in that way.

As the case progresses, we might get a clearer picture of what actually happened. We might not. It puts the journalists in an awkward situation, perhaps undeservedly in terms of protecting their credibility.

For all journalists, however, it serves as a good reminder: Save the anonymity for sources who need it and deserve it — not for powerful, well-known folks seeking to save their own hides.

UPDATE: Ultimately, none of the journalists named denied on any public forum that I was aware of. Thus, we can conclude that they, indeed, allowed themselves to be manipulated by high-level sources to grant them anonymity — a regrettable ethical decision.

No Defense for the First Amendment

The news media of Alabama — particularly the Alabama Media Group/al.com — shamed itself by not defending the First Amendment against its assault by a Shelby County judge.

Granted, the case is as bizarre as the behavior of the blogger involved.  But First Amendment cases are a matter of principle, regardless of the individual whose rights are attacked.  It is not up to the courts — nor the news media — to determine who deserves First Amendment protection.  Freedom of the press is a right of the people, not the news media.

When acting Shelby County Circuit Judge Claud Neilson issued an injunction preventing Legal Schnauzer blogger Roger Shuler from writing about an alleged affair between a former governor’s son and a Republican lobbyist, that was unconstitutional and the state’s news media should have responded quickly.

The injunction was issued before Oct. 3, when Shuler said he was served with the order, and he was arrested on Wednesday, Oct. 23, for violating it.  The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote about it on Friday, Oct. 25.

But where were the “leading” news sites of Alabama when all this was going on?  Absent and silent.  The RCFP (a respected media rights watchdog group) reported it, and other bloggers expressed outrage, but a Google News search for four days after the RCFP report turned up nothing else.

Finally, on Tuesday, Oct. 29, the Alabama Media Group posted a story about the case.  It was well reported and included the constitutional controversy, but that was as far as it went.  No editorial opposition or further comment.  AMG, which includes three of the biggest and most distinguished newspapers in the state — the Birmingham NewsMobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times — has allowed this story to die along with Shuler’s First Amendment rights.

(Note: Daily visits to the al.com search page for “Shuler” produced nothing until the Oct. 29 article.  A more recent search referred to an article under “Clay, AL community news” on Oct. 28, and one under “Pelham local impact” on Oct. 25.  However, both articles share the heading used by the Oct. 29 article, and a link to those pages does not show an article on the day in question, so I am taking that for a glitch.)

Other state newspapers do not fare well, either.  Neither the Montgomery Advertiser nor the Tuscaloosa News have reported or commented on this.  Even the Shelby County Reporter, a lively community newspaper that covers Neilson’s court, did not post an article until Oct. 29.

This silence by the state’s newspapers is deplorable and sets a poor example for the next generation of journalists.  The political motivations of Judge Neilson’s actions — granting an unconstitutional prior restraint to Bob Riley Jr., the former governor’s son — are apparent.

In a state like Alabama, where political dirty tricks and insider networks poison state politics, it’s even more scary.  When shady state political leaders see something like this happening, with no legal or media response, you wonder if they consider this another trick to add to the bag in dealing with critics and opponents.

People argue that Shuler’s actions in flaunting a judge’s order deserve arrest and imprisonment, but that misses the point.  The restraining order that created this circus should not have been issued, period.

The traditional recourse for someone like Riley Jr. is to sue Shuler for libel.  If Shuler is the journalistic disaster he claims, Riley can sue him and add financial bankruptcy to the ethical bankruptcy he alleges concerning Shuler.

That is the correct remedy, not issuing restraining orders before things are written.  Such judicial overreach creates a “chilling effect” on public debate that certainly is convenient for state politicians, but defies decades of Supreme Court precedent.  You blew it, Judge Neilson.

And until the state’s newspapers step forward and do their part to defend the First Amendment that protects their right to publish, they are just as complicit by their silence.

In an Internet age, where the speed of news transmission and the breadth of news contributors have both exploded, all journalists must hold on to such enduring foundational treasures against all threats.  It is our duty.

No Defense for the First Amendment

The news media of Alabama — particularly the Alabama Media Group/al.com — shamed itself by not defending the First Amendment against its assault by a Shelby County judge.

Granted, the case is as bizarre as the behavior of the blogger involved.  But First Amendment cases are a matter of principle, regardless of the individual whose rights are attacked.  It is not up to the courts — nor the news media — to determine who deserves First Amendment protection.  Freedom of the press is a right of the people, not the news media.

When acting Shelby County Circuit Judge Claud Neilson issued an injunction preventing Legal Schnauzer blogger Roger Shuler from writing about an alleged affair between a former governor’s son and a Republican lobbyist, that was unconstitutional and the state’s news media should have responded quickly.

The injunction was issued before Oct. 3, when Shuler said he was served with the order, and he was arrested on Wednesday, Oct. 23, for violating it.  The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote about it on Friday, Oct. 25.

But where were the “leading” news sites of Alabama when all this was going on?  Absent and silent.  The RCFP (a respected media rights watchdog group) reported it, and other bloggers expressed outrage, but a Google News search for four days after the RCFP report turned up nothing else.

Finally, on Tuesday, Oct. 29, the Alabama Media Group posted a story about the case.  It was well reported and included the constitutional controversy, but that was as far as it went.  No editorial opposition or further comment.  AMG, which includes three of the biggest and most distinguished newspapers in the state — the Birmingham NewsMobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times — has allowed this story to die along with Shuler’s First Amendment rights.

(Note: Daily visits to the al.com search page for “Shuler” produced nothing until the Oct. 29 article.  A more recent search referred to an article under “Clay, AL community news” on Oct. 28, and one under “Pelham local impact” on Oct. 25.  However, both articles share the heading used by the Oct. 29 article, and a link to those pages does not show an article on the day in question, so I am taking that for a glitch.)

Other state newspapers do not fare well, either.  Neither the Montgomery Advertiser nor the Tuscaloosa News have reported or commented on this.  Even the Shelby County Reporter, a lively community newspaper that covers Neilson’s court, did not post an article until Oct. 29.

This silence by the state’s newspapers is deplorable and sets a poor example for the next generation of journalists.  The political motivations of Judge Neilson’s actions — granting an unconstitutional prior restraint to Bob Riley Jr., the former governor’s son — are apparent.

In a state like Alabama, where political dirty tricks and insider networks poison state politics, it’s even more scary.  When shady state political leaders see something like this happening, with no legal or media response, you wonder if they consider this another trick to add to the bag in dealing with critics and opponents.

People argue that Shuler’s actions in flaunting a judge’s order deserve arrest and imprisonment, but that misses the point.  The restraining order that created this circus should not have been issued, period.

The traditional recourse for someone like Riley Jr. is to sue Shuler for libel.  If Shuler is the journalistic disaster he claims, Riley can sue him and add financial bankruptcy to the ethical bankruptcy he alleges concerning Shuler.

That is the correct remedy, not issuing restraining orders before things are written.  Such judicial overreach creates a “chilling effect” on public debate that certainly is convenient for state politicians, but defies decades of Supreme Court precedent.  You blew it, Judge Neilson.

And until the state’s newspapers step forward and do their part to defend the First Amendment that protects their right to publish, they are just as complicit by their silence.

In an Internet age, where the speed of news transmission and the breadth of news contributors have both exploded, all journalists must hold on to such enduring foundational treasures against all threats.  It is our duty.