CBS and Tony Barnhart's Conflict on Missouri to the SEC
Late Thursday night Outkick the Coverage broke the story of pending press releases inadvertently visible on the SEC website that announced the arrival of Missouri as the SEC's 14th member. One of those releases featured CBS Sports columnist and CBS TV host and analyst Tony Barnhart analyzing the benefits of Missouri as the 14th member of the SEC. Barnhart's analysis was solid -- he's very good at what he does -- but there was only one problem -- Barnhart is also employed by CBS as both a columnist, TV reporter, and host which means he had access to major expansion news and didn't break it at CBS.
In his defense Barnhart told Paul Finebaum on Friday: "I was asked about Missouri in a what if? No one gave me inside information."
Reached by OKTC Barnhart reiterated those comments adding that since he was asked about Missouri in a hypothetical context he never had any direct knowledge of Missouri to the SEC. Barnhart told us that if he'd had that knowledge he would have reported it.
That's a defense, but is it a persuasive one? Finebaum didn't press Barnhart on the issue -- and when asked he told OKTC he didn't want to comment further -- but the next question that begs to be asked is this one, did you provide analysis for other schools in a hypothetical fashion?
If Barnhart broke down additional schools, that helps the hypothetical excuse, but it's still news.
If the SEC had Barnhart break down three schools, for instance, as a hypothetical 14th member instead of just Missouri then he knows exactly which three schools are under consideration. That's a tremendous scoop. But if he only broke down one school hypothetically, then it's hard to argue this was truly a what-if scenario. He would have known which school was set to become the SEC's 14th member as soon as he was asked about it. Especially since he provided the same breakdown when Texas A&M was added to the conference as the 13th member earlier this fall. Now, in Barnhart's defense, he's clearly respected by the SEC to be entrusted with this job. Barnhart's opinion on Missouri's fit to the conference is important enough to be included with the official announcement. That's heady stuff for any media member, but it's also a conflict with his CBS job. A job which, at least on its surface, exists to cover the league not correspond with the league.
Also, in his posted interview -- which you can read here -- the SEC interviewer specifies: "In this special “Q&A,” we sat down with Tony Barnhart..." Tony lives in Atlanta. So did he travel to Birmingham from his home in Atlanta for this interview or was this via phone? Many other questions also come to mind. How much advance notice did Barnhart receive so he could speak intelligently about, for instance, the town of Columbia, Missouri and the culture of the Tigers? Was it a spoken conversation that was transcribed? If so, did he have a chance to review his comments? Were they edited? Or was it a written email correspondence with multiple versions passing back and forth? When did the interview take place? Did it take place a week before it was accidentally released? A month before? These questions and answers matter, particularly when you consider the SEC's skittishness in regards to any potential lawsuit arising from realignment. (OKTC requested comment from the SEC and Barnhart on the date and method of this interview and neither party responded to requests for comment on this issue).
Preparing releases in advance of major news isn't uncommon. Media outlets regularly prepare, for instance, obituaries of famous people so they can be ready to roll in the event of death. But this situation is quite a bit different than those. When a vice-presidential candidate is announced, let's say, how do you think CBS News would react if Katie Couric was quoted analyzing the selection before news of that selection was ever public?
Now Barnhart is also employed by the SEC as a freelance columnist -- he writes a weekly column -- so he effectively has two bosses. (Or none since freelance work means you aren't legally an employee of anyone. But it has been my experience that full-time freelance is pretty damn similar to regular employment just without the benefits). Trying to make multiple bosses happy in today's media age is not uncommon. Lots of writers have radio shows. Lots of writers have television gigs. Given how uncertain and unreliable the media landscape is, we all want to have as many income streams as possible. This means the sports media is an incestuous mess. (Take me for example. Harper Collins (Fox) published my books, I've written at CBS, Deadspin and AOL/Time Warner, Cumulus is my current radio boss, I've freelanced for Sports Illustrated and written for Yahoo. I've been appearing on NBC Sports Versus network a couple of times a week this football season. I'm a walking conflict when it comes to multiple media outlets).
My only saving grace is that OKTC is uniquely independent. That is, no one can control what I write here. That's uncommon in today's media day and age. Especially when media companies won't allow criticism between fellow employees. Good luck finding an ESPN employee ripping another ESPN employee for anything other than his opinion of Tim Tebow. Or even standing up for an employee when that employee is wronged by the company. (See Feldman, Bruce) Good luck finding someone at CBS pointing out Barnhart's conflict or asking why CBS didn't break this news story. (In fairness to CBS, Brett McMurphy has broken a lot of big realignment stories. Unlike ESPN, they haven't been sitting out the entire story).
I really like Tony Barnhart. In fact, I think everybody in the sports media does. He's a good guy. And Tony Barnhart didn't choose for the SEC stories to be accidentally released, placing him in an awkward public position. But it's not really the release that created the conflict. The release just created the public knowledge of the conflict. As soon as he provided answers to hypothetical questions about Missouri joining the SEC, he'd placed himself squarely in that awkward spot. He proved his reliability to the SEC by not breaking this story, but did he create an untenable conflict in the process?
I think so.
OKTC has held ESPN's feet to the fire over its multiple conflicts in this expansion mess -- so much that ESPN PR has me on speed dial and so much so that USA Today piggybacked on our stories for a front page ESPN conflict story yesterday -- so it's not really fair to let Barnhart's conflict slide by the wayside just because he doesn't work at ESPN.
I did a Google search to find someone who even mentioned Barnhart's conflict publicly.
Do you know how many results I got?
How many results would there have been if ESPN's Joe Schad was the expert quoted in this article?
Or if ESPN's Andy Katz was quoted discussing the basketball fit of Missouri in the SEC?
ESPN would have gotten killed, right? I mean, murdered. There would have been a hashtag on Twitter that lasted for days, there would have been fulminating outrage from every blogger on Earth. Sports Illustrated would have weighed in on the hypocrisy. CBS would have castigaged the four-letter network. Every major media outlet in the country would have extracted their pound of ESPN flesh. Everyone likes to tee off on ESPN in situations like these because ESPN is, at times, a big media bully. (As I noted on Twitter, OKTC broke the Missouri SEC website story. We weren't mentioned anywhere on ESPN. This is a common complaint of many writers, that ESPN confirms things after the stories already break and leaves the dumbest sports fans in America -- and there are tens of millions of these people -- with the mistaken belief that the worldwide leader breaks every story. That's why when ESPN messes up everyone piles on. Because there's a built-up cavalcade of disgust).
If ESPN reporters were included in the SEC's Missouri to the SEC piece, I would have written a column asking why it's possible for ESPN's top analysts to break down Missouri's addition to the SEC in basketball and football while not breaking a single bit of news about Missouri joining the SEC. Or much expansion news, for that matter, at all. This website has trounced ESPN in covering conference realignment. (Yes, this qualifies as a website jersey pop). Do you really think we have more resources than a multi-billion dollar corporation?
If Schad and Katz were interviewed and quoted about Missouri to the SEC, the conspiracy theorists would have taken this information and run with it. ESPN would have been hammered for failing to report on its own conflict. Armageddon would have reigned on the Internet.
But when it happens at CBS, no one even makes a sound. No one at CBS covered the conflict or acknowledged it. No one at SI touched it. ESPN didn't either. (That was probably a good decision).
Again, complete Internet silence.
So if a CBS writer doesn't break a story because of his conflict no one cares?
I asked the top brass at CBS -- full disclosure, I love those guys, they were my bosses for three years and they've led to everything I've been able to accomplish in sports -- to comment on this conflict and they didn't respond either. So if CBS, and the SEC -- and to a lesser extent Tony Barnhart -- are all silent, doesn't that silence speak volumes?
Interestingly, while CBS's top editors aren't commenting on Barnhart's Missouri analysis, the website has made one intriguing move, they've pulled a video of Tony Barnhart discussing Missouri to the SEC from their site.
Imagine if ESPN did this.
Of course it could just be an oversight.
But it's a pretty convenient one, right?
Go to CBSSports.com and type in "Barnhart Missouri."
This is the top result:
Okay, that's a good enough description. But what happens when you click on the link?
You get an error message and CBS redirects you to another popular video, presently Tony La Russa on David Letterman. So CBS pulled that video off its site. Why? Is it because they believe Barnhart had knowledge of Missouri's potential addition to the SEC when he commented on that issue? Is it because they're trying to pretend that Tony Barnhart never commented at all for CBS on Missouri to the SEC?
That's a question for others to ask. But for now I'd just like to leave you with one lasting question, if Tony Barnhart was employed by ESPN would this be the only article on the Internet about this conflict?