Syracuse mess exposes media’s faults

Years ago, long before America devolved into the world’s favorite reality TV show, US newspapers and journalism used to be about protecting our democracy and local communities.

Since Watergate and the deification of Woodward and Bernstein, American journalism has valued the salacious, instant-gratification, ratings-driving scoop above all else. Over the past 15 years, the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet hastened our descent into the kind of journalism that reports first, clarifies and fact-checks later and eventually gets around to context and perspective . . . as long as the public still has an appetite for the story months later.

It’s in this environment that convicted Ponzi schemers can repeat unprovable tales of paying for abortions and a local newspaper can sit silent for nearly a decade about a trap it set that possibly revealed a child molester.

The big scoop is our addiction. We don’t care how we get it. We’ll rehabilitate the reputation of Nevin Shapiro to get it. And, in the case of Bernie Fine and Syracuse University, we’ll conceal potentially incriminating evidence to protect our right to be first with the news.

It’s the time we live in. Corporate interests trump human interests. The same self-interest that stopped Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary from taking their concerns about Jerry Sandusky to police stopped The Post-Standard (and ESPN) from going to police with concerns about Bernie and Laurie Fine.

On Wednesday, Michael J. Connor, the executive editor of the Syracuse Post-Standard, published his rationalization on why in 2003 his newspaper did not turn over to police the tape recording in which Bernie Fine’s wife expressed concern that her husband had a sexual attraction for young boys and seemed to indicate he molested Bobby Davis. Connor acknowledged that Davis made the tape at the request of the newspaper. Connor explained that the information on the tape did not justify publication of Davis’ allegations against Bernie Fine. Connor’s explanation 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.

“To us, though, our role has always been clear: to investigate with a goal to publish,” Connor wrote. “To us, handing over to police materials we didn’t feel confident enough to publish was unimaginable. Look at it another way. When police or the district attorney gather evidence and decide they don’t have enough to charge someone with a crime, do they deliver their evidence to us and say, ‘Here you go, we don’t have enough to prosecute but you might get a heckuva story out of this’? Of course not. We have separate and independent purposes, and are often locked in an unsteady dance around information that one has and the other wants.”

Let me translate Connor’s statement: There was nothing in it for The Post-Standard so The Post-Standard had no interest in handing over its information to the police. The Post-Standard investigates with the goal of landing the big scoop and winning journalism awards. It’s the police’s job to protect the community.

The Post-Standard (and ESPN) could’ve used the media spotlight to force the police to investigate Davis’ allegations. Had Connor taken the tape to the police chief in 2003 and said, “You have a month to look into these allegations or we’re running the tape and exposing your unwillingness to investigate this matter,” it would’ve been far easier to find the truth and protect any other potential victims.

“Imagine how quickly we would lose the trust of sources we rely on and readers who turn to us if we turned from watchdog of government agencies to lap dog at their call,” Connor wrote.

Is Michael “No Snitching” Connor a Blood or a Crip? How is alerting the police to a potential child molester being a lap dog? How can Connor not see today that the media circus created by The Post-Standard and ESPN makes it exponentially more difficult for investigators to ferret the truth from a very complex story?

Had Davis brought The Post-Standard a tape recording that hinted Fine participated in terrorist activities, would the newspaper conceal the recording from police until after the Carrier Dome blew up?

As journalists, we’re compelled to act in the best interest of our readership/listenership/viewership. A watchdog of government agencies does everything in its power to ensure government agencies do their taxpayer-financed jobs.

The Post-Standard and ESPN dropped the ball. The full transcripts of their inadequate explanations can be read here and here.

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.

At least Joe Paterno expressed regret he did not do more to stop Jerry Sandusky. Can we really blame the public for losing faith in the Fourth Estate? We might be the most arrogant and delusional group on the planet.