SBD/December 2, 2011/Media

Poynter Review Says ESPN "Gave Up Prematurely" On Investigating Fine Story In '03

ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard held onto the tape for nine years
In the latest entry for ESPN as part of the Poynter Review Project, Kelly McBride wrote based on what ESPN Senior VP & Dir of News Vince Doria said this week, “it's clear that the network didn't have enough information to publish a story” in ’02 when it received the taped conversation between accuser Bobby Davis and Laurie Fine, the wife of former Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine. Going public “would have been journalistically irresponsible.” Many critics have suggested that the tape of Laurie Fine “should have been enough for ESPN to go public.” But McBride wrote, “It's not. Nowhere on the tape does she describe firsthand knowledge of her husband abusing children.” McBride noted journalists can “put the investigation on the backburner, stoking it only when new information arises.” Or, as ESPN did in ’03, “you can drop it.” But in this instance ESPN “gave up prematurely,” as the net “should have pursued two more lines of inquiry.” First, “someone should have called the chief of police in Syracuse.” And second, ESPN journalists “should have called someone in the Syracuse president's office to ask whether there were other complaints and to review policies that govern the interaction of employees and children.” These two basic lines of inquiry “could have shaken something loose.” McBride: “We do not believe ESPN acted with gross negligence, but rather a lack of persistence. And we don't believe ESPN was responsible for leaving other children vulnerable; that's on the Syracuse PD” (ESPN.com, 12/1).

DROPPED THE BALL
: FOXSPORTS.com’s Jason Whitlock noted Syracuse Post-Standard Exec Editor Michael Conner’s explanation of why the paper did not turn over the tape to police “made sense.” Laurie Fine’s statements “were not clear-cut proof.” What was “clear was that Davis’ allegations needed to be investigated by professional investigators.” There was nothing in it for The Post-Standard so the paper “had no interest in handing over its information to the police.” The Post-Standard and ESPN “could’ve used the media spotlight to force the police to investigate Davis’ allegations.” They “dropped the ball.” Whitlock: “In their hunt for the big scoop, Internet clicks and ratings, they concealed evidence from the police, unfairly released one-sided, inflammatory stories that convicted Bernie Fine in the court of public opinion and now they don’t have the courage to apologize” (FOXSPORTS.com, 12/1).

ANOTHER SIDE OF THE STORY: SI’s Richard Deitsch spoke with ESPN reporter Mark Schwarz, who broke the Fine story. On the criticism of his reporting, Schwarz said, “I think the problem with people that react to any story of this nature, including Jason Whitlock and [Syracuse head basketball coach] Jim Boeheim, is these are the types of stories that are difficult to fathom. We don't understand sexual child abuse as a culture and so when people do come forward, which is so very unusual, often the reaction is, 'That guy must be looking for money. That guy is looking for attention.' … I think Jason Whitlock and Jim Boeheim reacted to the very first thing they saw and decided it was unfair, untrue and the victims became their target.” Schwarz also called claims that ESPN pushed the Fine story as hard as it did in reaction to the Penn State story "ludicrous." Schwarz: "One story has nothing to do with another story. The fact is, the reason why this story was aired on ESPN on Nov. 17 is because someone came out from denial to corroborate a story that we had been given by one man in 2003” (SI.com, 12/1).

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