Outlets defend handling of Fine tape

In a recording that two media outlets had in their possession for eight years, the wife of fired Syracuse University assistant men’s basketball coach Bernie Fine appeared to support allegations that her husband molested a former ball boy.

Though the recording Bobby Davis made of his 47-minute phone call with Laurie Fine seems to buttress his allegations of abuse, the information did not become public until Sunday, when ESPN and, in turn, The Post-Standard released the audio they were given in 2003.

Hours later, Bernie Fine was fired after more than 35 years at Syracuse. And ESPN and the Syracuse newspaper were defending their decision-making involving the recording.

“From a professional standpoint our role as a journalist is to seek out information and vet that information and when we’re satisfied with the credibility of that information to report it to the public,” Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, said in a statement posted on the company’s website Monday. “It’s what journalists do. It’s not necessarily the journalist’s role to go to the police with potential evidence that at the time we didn’t believe was strong enough to report ourselves.”

Journalists aren’t doctors, nurses, teachers and any number of other professionals who are mandated to report child abuse. And since the statute of limitations had already run out in the case of Davis, who alleges he was molested multiple times several years before the recording, authorities — who reportedly only recently received a copy of the tape — likely wouldn’t have been able to move forward with a case against Fine, according to New York defense attorney Jonathan Ripps.

“Since we are covered by the First Amendment, we don’t have to turn over anything,” said Bob Rucker, a professor and interim director of San Jose State University’s department of journalism and mass communications. “Still, it’s not always that obvious, especially when it comes to protecting the interests of children. I know I’d be hard-pressed not to go to my bosses and tell them I need to talk to the police.”

Bobby Davis’s tape was released 10 days after ESPN first reported the allegations against Fine, who then was placed on administrative leave by Syracuse officials but still had the support of head men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim. (Boeheim said in a statement after Fine was fired Sunday that he regretted those comments.)

Fine hasn’t been charged, although his house was raided by federal authorities Friday.

ESPN, and then the newspaper, investigated Davis’ claims but didn’t report the allegations until a second alleged victim – Davis’ stepbrother Mike Lang — came forward last week.

Davis’s recording of his conversation with Laurie Fine was allegedly made the same year a third man says he was abused by Bernie Fine in a Pittsburgh hotel room, according to details of a statement given to police and obtained by The Post-Standard.

That accuser, 23-year-old Zach Tomaselli — whom ESPN cited as the reason for making the tape public – is facing sexual-assault charges in Maine.

But why did it take more than a week to make public a tape that had been in the possession of two media outlets since 2003?

“It was clearly a damning tape in terms of her characterization of her husband, but much of it was her thinking and beliefs,” Doria said. “She never directly acknowledged to have witnessed any of these actions first-hand. So based on that tape which we had not generated; which we had no real knowledge of how it was made and Bobby Davis’s story — which was one person with no corroboration — we felt in 2003 that the material we had did not meet the standards for reporting the story. This is consistent with how we have viewed these types of stories in the past.”

ESPN also said it authenticated the tape in recent days, although CNN reported Monday that a nephew of Laurie Fine said the tape had been altered.

Stan Linhorst, senior managing editor for The Post-Standard, refused to answer any questions about the paper’s reporting and referred FOXSports.com to the newspaper’s website. There you will find excerpts from Davis’ tape and audio of the recording, which the paper has had for nearly a decade.

“If it was the wrong thing to publish this then, why is it the right thing to publish it now?” Rucker asked rhetorically.