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Reliable Sources

Are Journalists Playing Softball with Offensive Athletes and Coaches?

Aired June 10, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Rocker goes off. Bobby Knight loses it. Are journalists playing softball with athletes and coaches whose off- the-field behavior is offensive, obnoxious, or violent?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

Well, John Rocker was in hot water again this week, and hundreds of journalists lined up to tell the story. But sports reporting used to be a little more forgiving.


(voice-over): Back in the days of Babe Ruth, sportswriters were more like fans, embracing the legend that the Babe supposedly pointed to a spot in the stands before hitting a homer there.

Ruth's rambunctious behavior was covered, of course, just like Joe DiMaggio's romantic exploits when he married Marilyn Monroe. But that was before the era of strikes, lawsuits, drug abuse, and multimillionaire players turned sports journalism into more than just home runs and touchdowns.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE ANCHOR: Rocker, who needs to get his game and his life under control...



JOHN ROBERTS, ANCHOR: He has a fireball delivery and fiery temper...



UNIDENTIFIED MALE ANCHOR: He lamented his treatment by the media and his demotion to the minors. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker got top billing in the press this week, demoted the day after confronting the "Sports Illustrated" writer who wrote a controversial article about him back in December. In that interview, Rocker lambasted homosexuals, immigrants, and single mothers in a single sentence and has been fodder for the media ever since.

And Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight was back in the headlines a few weeks ago, accused of violent behavior, including choking one of his own players.

But are reporters focusing too heavily on the personal lives of athletes and coaches instead of their on-the-field performance?

The storyline of players behaving badly has gotten plenty of media attention over the past few years, like when Orioles player Roberto Alomar spit on an umpire, and when basketball star Latrell Sprewell choked his coach, and most memorably, when Mike Tyson chomped on a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear.

But is the sports press taking away from the game by hyping this sort of misconduct, or is such reporting simply a requirement for serious journalists?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, John Feinstein, sports journalist and author, most recently of the book "The Majors," just out in paperback. Dave Marash, correspondent for ABC's "Nightline." He's also the former anchor of ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" and has done play- by-play for basketball and hockey. And Jess Atkinson, who won a Super Bowl ring in 1987 as a player with the Washington Redskins and is now the sports director and anchor on Washington's WUSA-TV.


John Feinstein, Rocker was a huge story when he shot off his mouth to "Sports Illustrated," a big story again when he confronted the reporter, got himself busted to the minors. Any problem with this extravagant level of coverage?

JOHN FEINSTEIN, SPORTS JOURNALIST: Well, I think you have to cover Rocker's initial statements. You have to cover when he comes to training camp and the suspension. I'm not sure that you need to have all the reporters who were in Toledo the other day, because he got...


FEINSTEIN: When he went to the minor leagues. I mean, what is the big deal at this point? I mean, he went after Jeff Pearlman, the reporter from "Sports Illustrated," who accurately reported his comments. He got sent to the minors partly as a result of that, no matter what the Braves say, and also because he was pitching poorly. Remember this, Howie, if he was still throwing 95, and getting people out, Jeff Pearlman would have been the bad guy as far as the Braves were concerned on Sunday.

KURTZ: But that raises an interesting question, Dave Marash, and that is, when athletes who do things like spit or choke or otherwise embarrass themselves and us, also seem to have the ability to throw strikes or to hit the three-pointer or whatever, does the offensive behavior often fade in the media coverage? In other words, are we a little bit too willing to write the comeback story after one of these incidents?

DAVE MARASH, CORRESPONDENT, ABC'S "NIGHTLINE": I think the answer to that question is yes, sure, we are, we want to focus on the present-day good news. But I think there are real questions to be asked as to whether the original Rocker story was a story.

KURTZ: A story at all?

MARASH: A story at all. It's one thing to choke your coach, it's another thing to spit on an umpire, it's another thing to chew on an opponent's ear in the ring.

But to be...

KURTZ: You disapprove of all those.

MARASH: I certainly do, and I disapprove of everything that John Rocker said...


MARASH: But the fact that he is in private, and even though this was an interview situation, this was a sort of one-on-one conversation, the fact that he's a jerk to me is not a news story.

If he made those comments in a speech to the -- you know, the baseball fans of Atlanta, then it's a story. If he had caused dissension in the Atlanta clubhouse because of these views, then that's a story.


BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: You seem to be confident that you're not wrong, but of course you are. When you interview somebody -- you've done, all of us have done our shares of interviews -- and somebody gives you a bit of a lollapalooza by way of a story, do you spike it and throw it away? If I go and interview John Feinstein on his new book, for example, he'll tell me all sorts of things, I'll write about it.

I think when we cut through what we all have been saying here, the bottom line we face is a philosophical line.

Jess, do you punish an athlete for free speech? JESS ATKINSON, SPORTS DIRECTOR, WUSA-TV: You can't, for the simple reason is that all that matters -- doesn't matter what he says, it matters what he does. That is where athletes are different. What athletes are remembered for is what they do on the field. If he's throwing the ball 95 miles an hour and he's getting people out, how quickly all of this would fade.

KALB: You're not sure about that. We don't know about how that would fade.

FEINSTEIN: No, for a lot of people, it would fade. I'll tell you why, Bernie. Jess is right about that.

KALB: In the culture, in the culture of athletics...

FEINSTEIN: Absolutely, absolutely. But...


FEINSTEIN: Well, let's look, let's look for...


FEINSTEIN: Let's look at Latrell Sprewell. Latrell Sprewell is a good example in this situation. He choked his coach. He threatened to kill the guy at that moment. He said, "I'm going to kill you." He was suspended. He goes to the New York Nicks and has played very well for the New York Knicks. And Bernie, he could get elected mayor of New York right now.


FEINSTEIN: And if you read -- and if you read the media, on Latrell Sprewell, it's all about how he really learned and he's become a good guy, even though when he went back to Oakland this year for the first time with the Knicks, he was absolutely unrepentant about the incident and cursed at a number of fans during the course of the game.

But because he's hitting a lot of jump shots, he's really a pretty good guy.

KALB: So there's no difference, then, between a sports athlete and the president. The president acts in a way that many people question on a variety of things. And yet there he is with this commanding popularity. There is a parallel in that...

ATKINSON: If the economy is good...

KALB: ... competence...

ATKINSON: ... it's like throwing 95.

KALB: ... competence, competence and performance are the key determinants in the appeal of an athlete or a president?

ATKINSON: I think it depends, and I think the reason it depends is Bobby Knight's example. There is a certain core group that will support Bobby Knight no matter what he does...

KURTZ: They'll drink the Kool-Aid.

ATKINSON: ... just as with the president of the United States, nearly, no matter what scandal, no matter what it was, about 30 percent, whatever, because with Bobby Knight, they will be able to point, his supporters, to, he graduates kids. They don't get phony degrees. He does other things that they see...

KURTZ: But Jess -- yes. Jess...

ATKINSON: ... as good, and they won't buy into the other part.

KURTZ: But let's come back to the role of the press.

MARASH: Thank you.

KURTZ: The fans can root for Sprewell and Bobby Knight or John Rocker if they so choose. But when Rocker says things like, "How do all these foreigners get in the country? I don't want to sit on the subway next to some queer with AIDS," and refers to a black (UNINTELLIGIBLE) as a fat monkey, are you suggesting that that is a story for someone else, not sports reporters?

There's a conservative argument here this is all sort of liberal political correctness, and why shouldn't he be able to shoot off his mouth even if he is a jerk?

ATKINSON: I think you saw it on ESPN. I think you...

KURTZ: How so?

ATKINSON: ... saw John Rocker's comments mentioned on ESPN. I think that sports covers more than just what happens on the field. But what I'm trying to say is, nobody remembers anything else than what happens on the field.

And I think the reason is because of images. I think Bobby Knight, when things started to change against him, we saw him choking someone. That image is very real.

KURTZ: Videotape is very powerful too.

ATKINSON: Videotape...

KURTZ: But Dave, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) do sports journalists, particularly the ones who are the beat reporters, who are in the locker room every day with these teams, do they worry about losing access if they are too critical, if they are too willing to bring up some of these off-the-field incidents?

MARASH: Some of them do, some of them also have a kind of Stockholm syndrome, which is to say, they spend 180 days a year with the baseball players, or 150 days a year with the basketball players. They want to like them. They want to get along with them, and also all of the professional interactions come easier if they are getting along with them.

FEINSTEIN: Life is easier, exactly. But I have to disagree with what you said about the fact that Jeff Pearlman, the SI reporter, shouldn't have reported Rocker's comments. The reason they went down to do Rocker was because he was a controversial figure during the playoffs. And he went down to do a piece on who is John Rocker? Which is something "Sports Illustrated" does during the off-season with athletes.

Rocker throws out these quotes. There's a tape recorder running. It's not like they were sitting having a beer and he said it over -- You know what I really think? The tape recorder was running. If he -- if I'm Jeff Pearlman's editors and I find out Rocker said that stuff and it doesn't appear in the story, I got a problem with him.

KURTZ: Bernie, you're nodding -- you're shaking your head.

KALB: Well, I share that problem. But I come back to the question, Rocker does not have what's called a constitutional right to play. You talked before about, is what Rocker saying fodder for journalism? It has to be fodder. You cannot walk away from that story, as we're indicating, except for you.

But the fact remains, I don't have to hire Rocker to play on my team. He can say whatever he wants. If we get around to punishing people for what their views are, we're going to be living in a different country.

MARASH: Right, and I think that's why you can make what Rocker said into a story by doing a little reporting on it, finding out whether it resonates in the locker room and whether that's a problem in the locker room.

FEINSTEIN: Which, by the way, it would have.

MARASH: Right. But his indiscreetness and pure stupidity in babbling to Pearlstein as he did is not a story unless SI decides it a story. And by the way, the idea that he gets in Pearlstein's face and screams at him to me is, again, discretionary at best as a story. You've never had a news subject be actively angry with you, and you feel you got to run?

FEINSTEIN: Not me, no one's ever been angry at me, Dave.

MARASH: To me, this is all ignorable stuff.

KURTZ: Let me turn to John, because you've written a book on Indiana basketball. And Bobby Knight, who kept his job, never actually said he was sorry or certainly didn't volunteer that, he called in, I guess it was seven reporters from different print organizations, and gave his spin on what had happened, but he refused to talk to many others.

Is this a case of an athletic figure, a sports figure, doing what politicians do and only dealing with people you think will give you good press? FEINSTEIN: Well, I think that's exactly right. I mean, you know, the president will grant interviews to certain people at certain times who he thinks have been sympathetic to him. And Knight had his back against the wall after everything that had happened, so he brought in seven people who he knew who had written sympathetically about him in the past, who he felt comfortable with.

And he did not open himself to a press conference where anybody could come and could stand up and say, How do you explain throwing a potted plant in the direction of the 64-year-old woman?

KURTZ: Do you have any problem with the way he orchestrated this? Would you have sent a reporter from your television station under this sort of invitation-only approach?

ATKINSON: That's what they do now, that's what they do, because...

KURTZ: This is common.

ATKINSON: ... it -- What's that?

KURTZ: This is very common, selective access.

ATKINSON: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And the reason it is, is because now they're trying to get their message out. The way most of the people deal with sports figures is, they open the locker room, and everybody pours in and tries to stick the microphone in there. You never know what you get.

That's in the context of an athletic event. They don't need to get their message out in that surroundings, because you've seen what's happened. That is the message. But when things like this happen, you don't want those guys grilling you, and that's why you get the people who they feel like will not beat you up when...


MARASH: ... collaborate in this kind of...

FEINSTEIN: Well, and ESPN is very culpable in this whole thing.

KURTZ: I've got to blow the whistle here. Brief time out. Bernie, we'll come back to you in just a moment. More of our discussion when we return.



Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens, who had been a suspect in a murder case, pleaded guilty this week to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. At a news conference Friday, the football team's owner said this would be the last time that Lewis would answer questions about the case.

Lewis asked reporters also to back off.


RAY LEWIS, BALTIMORE RAVENS: That's all I want from you guys. I've always been a person who speaks to you guys freely about whatever you want to talk to me about. It doesn't matter, you know, if it's about kids, if it's about football, it's my blessing to give you anything that I have. I'll give you my best.

But this is done. This is a chapter that needs to be closed.


KURTZ: Jess Atkinson, you played with the Washington Redskins. Is that a realistic request on the part of Ray Lewis, to just tell reporters he'll talk about the game, and he's not going to talk about this other stuff?

ATKINSON: No, it's not, and it won't go away. The -- when I say the guys get into the locker room and then the microphones get in front, sooner or later someone will ask him, and it is -- it's ludicrous to think that you can stand up, address at one time, and be able to say, Hey, listen, I'm done with this. It'll go on and on.

KURTZ: Let me just follow up with Jess. When you were a player, did you ever get -- did you and your teammates ever get any guidance or even pressure from management not to talk to certain reporters or not to talk to reporters at all at a time when it might have been inconvenient?

ATKINSON: It was unwritten, it was unspoken. The press is the enemy of the guys in that locker room. Twenty years ago, John Feinstein was reporting (UNINTELLIGIBLE) football team the year before I got there. The next year I was there, man, that Feinstein's a bad guy. Why? Because you're writing critical things. You are a known...

KURTZ: So did you stiff him?

ATKINSON: No, I never got to deal with him. But I heard his legend, I heard his legend.

KALB: Let's pick up that phrase, The press is the enemy. Guys can't live, sports can't live without the press, it's impossible.

FEINSTEIN: They don't know that, though.

KALB: It's impossible...


FEINSTEIN: ... more so now they can.

ATKINSON: Here's why they can, here's why. Because the networks are partners with the leagues...

KURTZ: Ah, glad you mentioned that.

ATKINSON: ... to broadcast the games. It's nothing different than the way political reporters cover conventions these days. It's packaged, the images are more important -- the images of Ray Lewis playing football are far more -- will have far more legs than they will him in a courtroom, and here's why. What do we remember from Clinton's first run? We remember the man from Hope, we don't remember all those other things. And the networks buy that.

We are in, as sports reporters, a tough position, because what happens on that field, the images, always trump whatever it is -- whatever else we're talking about.


KURTZ: I'm sure you don't feel like a partner of professional football just because ABC carries Monday night football. I mean, do the journalists get...

MARASH: No, but I work for the news division. If I were working for the sports division -- I remember when I was working in the sports division at NBC. I was taken to task by an executive because in a sort of valedictory report on Bowie Kuhn, I mentioned that he had banned Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle for, you know, the most tangential brush with gambling, and that for most fans, this was a high-handed and stupid decision.

And to NBC's sports executives, it was, Do you know how important Bowie Kuhn was to us in getting the contract for major league baseball? Where do you get off?

Now, I have to say, having worked at ESPN, that I never got any sense of conflict journalistically at ESPN, which does produce a lot of live sports programs, but there was no division of the world into sports and our sports. At NBC, there was absolutely a bifurcation.

FEINSTEIN: You were at ESPN, though, before they got into big- bucks contracts with the NFL and before they became -- you know, we are college basketball, though they were working on it back then. And their big bucks contract with baseball. They've gone in that direction.

MARASH: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I was at ESPN the first year of "Baseball Tonight," when they had just concluded the big bucks contract.

FEINSTEIN: They'd just...


FEINSTEIN: ... at the beginning.

KALB: In the last half hours, whatever it is that's left over, let me bring it back to the journalistic culture. You're talking for -- about the desire for access to sports people. There's the same desire for -- among political reporters for access to senators and congressman. There is a constancy that's at work throughout the journalistic culture to reach the VIP, the person who has to be interviewed.

And by the same token, the people who are being interviewed do the same freeze in sports as they do amongst senators and at the White House, about who's a favorite reporter or not.

FEINSTEIN: They do it more in sports. And I'll tell you why, for -- Jess touched on it, the partnership with television.

KALB: Well, that's a question of degree. But the fact is, the characteristics are constant.

FEINSTEIN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) there's another factor here. Senators, even the president, less so congressman, they don't have...

KALB: They pick and choose.

FEINSTEIN: ... they don't have an -- well, of course they do, but they don't have endorsement deals. They can't sell themselves through their shoe company, through their commercials. Michael Jordan made himself into a star not through the media, but through his commercials. That's how he came to transcend race in this country more than anything, through Nike and Hanes and McDonald's and everybody else.

I once had an argument with Andre Agassi's agent, who was refusing any interviews for Andre Agasiz. I said, doesn't Andre owe the public something to talk to the media? He said, we reach the public through our commercials.

KURTZ: John, it is my duty to tell you that the 24-second clock has expired.

FEINSTEIN: I hit it right at the buzzer.

KURTZ: Jess Atkinson, Dave Marash, John Feinstein, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, "60 Minutes" gets an irresistible but controversial scoop. That's next in Bernie's Back Page.


KURTZ: Time now for the Back Page. Bernie?

KALB: It's really tough to resist a great story even if you can't confirm it. So this question. To use or not to use?


(voice-over): Here's a case in point. Last Sunday, "60 Minutes," about someone identified as a senior Iranian defector, who claimed, among other things, that it was Iran, not Libya, that was responsible for blowing up Pan Am 103, killing 270 people.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: If this story can be confirmed, and American intelligence is trying to do that right now, it would not only disrupt the trial of the two Libyans charged with that bombing, it could interfere with the Clinton administration's efforts at relaxing and improving relations with Iran.


KALB: What was that opening phrase again?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: If this story can be confirmed...


KALB: In other words, a big story that was iffy, that had the clout of "60 Minutes," and it should be noted that "60 Minutes" obviously did try to confirm it, but it was still iffy.

Even so, irresistible enough to be picked up by some news organizations, and with the same careful caveat. Here's "The Washington Post" with a phrase, "if the Iranian story were confirmed... " Here's "The Chicago Tribune" with a phrase, "if the defectors claims prove true... "

But what if they turn out to be false?


The overriding question is whether the use of "if" is good journalism or bad journalism. That is, using the story, but giving yourself an advance acquittal if the story ultimately falls apart. Put another way, if you can't check the story out in every detail, do you put it into play?

I prefer my own approach, get it first, but first, get it second, if that's what it takes to confirm it.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

And some final notes and our viewer e-mail when we come back.


KURTZ: Now for some notes from the world of media news.

It was a bad week for journalists in cyberspace. fired 13 employees, including its media writer, travel editor, books editor, and the wife of Salon founder, David Talbott (ph). Salon is hoping to make a dent in a $7 million budget shortfall.

CBS laid of a quarter of its Internet division, 24 pink slips. And, which focused on crime and justice, ran out of money and fired all 140 employees, the site now being staffed by volunteers and looking for new funding. Contributors range from Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist Sydney Schamberg (ph) to former O.J. prosecutor Marcia Clark.

Now to our viewer e-mail. We got a lot of reaction about our story on the Associated Press investigation into the killings by U.S. soldiers at Nogun-Ri during the Korean War. And most of the mail echoed the sentiments of this viewer.

"I am a World War II veteran. I've had it with so-called investigative reporters who are bound and determined to prove that our soldiers go out of their way to massacre women and children. Why do these `reporters,' who have never in their lives been in the situation where hard decisions must be made, pillory the troops who were there? Would the reporters have preferred that U.S. troops were slaughtered?"

And we received this about our coverage of New York Senate candidate Rick Lazio. "Why does the elitist media take it for granted that the rest of the country is that interested in this particular race? This is a perfect example of those in the media deciding what the rest of the country should be interested in and shoving it down our throats."

Of course, there is another option, turning it off.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next, Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, did Al Gore break his word when his soft money campaign was launched? And did the Republicans act first? Republican Congressman John Kasich of Ohio joins THE GANG to talk about that and much more, right here next on CNN.



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