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Post Poor journalism on display in Oklahoma

Wednesday September 26, 2007

Now that the games have come and gone, the big national story is Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy going off on local columnist Jenni Carlson for a critical piece about quarterback Bobby Reid.

Gundy’s sin was losing his composure. By doing so, he becomes the story in a clownish sort of way that’s up there with John L. Smith losing it last year or Jim Mora’s famous "PLAYOFFS!?!?!" meltdown. That’s too bad because he has a valid point, and it will likely never resonate because of his histrionics.

The issue isn’t a coach trying to stamp out dissent or criticism, though some would have you believe that every time a coach questions a reporter he’s trying to control the press. There’s nothing wrong with critical opinions, and I think that there were more than a few critical pieces after Oklahoma State’s 1-2 start and the loss at Troy.

The problem here is the journalism. Carlson, in her response, states that her goal was to tackle the question "why have the Cowboys, who so adamantly backed Reid, suddenly switched course, benched the biggest recruit to ever sign with the program and jumped full speed ahead with Zac Robinson?" That’s a clear and reasonable focus; Reid was considered a key element of the Cowboy offense, and his benching raises some questions (and eyebrows). So how should one approach getting the answer?

Let’s think this through. There are a handful of people with some very good insight into the attitude of the quarterback. The first is the quarterback himself. Who better to respond directly to questions about his state of mind? The head coach might be a good person to talk to. The decision of the starting quarterback ultimately rests with him, and he can also evaluate how Reid has played through injuries before. Offensive coordinator Larry Fedora might also get a phone call. He is the mastermind of this high-powered offense, so he might be able to provide some technical analysis of Reid’s struggles as well as a comparison of Robinson and Reid. Of course teammates and other coaches could help, but they are secondary sources in this story.

Isn’t it a little strange that of those three only Reid is quoted in her original piece? And those Reid quotes were taken from other reporters in different contexts. Carlson doesn’t offer a single sourced quote in response to a question that she asked. Unnamed sources and Carlson’s personal observations are of course appropriate and can be sprinkled into the story, but are they really the substantial stuff around which to build a column that reaches such a harsh, personal, and definitive conclusion?

A few weeks ago, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz penned a controversial column suggesting that Mark Richt needed to show a little more toughness and fire. Many, including myself, disagreed strongly with Schultz’s position. Others found it spot on. My biggest problem was a distortion of the historical record. But as much as I disagreed with Schultz’s conclusions, he at least got Richt on the record about the subject. He asked Richt on-point questions at the weekly press conference, and he based his column in large part on his evaluation of Richt’s responses. Even though I found fault with Schultz’s reasoning, Richt’s comments on the topic were right there for evaluation.

Carlson claims that she stands by her sources and observations. But she is about as forthcoming with additional information as Gundy seems to be about specific disagreements. Is "trust me" really what journalism is all about now? In both her original piece and her response, Carlson never claims to have asked Gundy or Reid for comment before the original piece ran. Her "show me what was wrong" sideshow is the kind of journalistic legwork she should have done through Reid, Gundy, and other primary sources before the fact.

After a column full of whispers and rumors, she opened the final paragraph of her orignial column by asking "Who knows?" Ms. Carlson, you’re the journalist with the press pass. You have access to these people. Throwing rumors out there to see what will stick and extrapolating from watching the guy eat chicken is amateurish message board territory. Columnists often rely on speculation and opinion, but they are usually backed up by something much less flimsy.

Now let’s look at a few responses from the community of sportswriters:

Football Writers Association of America president Mike Griffith issued a statement about the incident on Monday. "I consider Coach Gundy’s behavior completely inappropriate. It shows a lack of respect for the media and doesn’t speak well for the university and the fans that he represents. Coach Gundy’s actions have brought national attention and further scrutiny to the situation that could have been handled in a more private and appropriate matter."

Association for Women in Sports Media: "The Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) is alarmed at the unprofessional manner in which Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy chose to take exception with a column written by AWSM member Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman. Gundy has the right to express his opinion, just as Carlson has the right to express hers. But his decision to air his objections in the form of a personal attack shows a lack of respect for all journalists."

It seems to me that the expectation of respect is one-way here. The two statements didn’t have much to say about the appropriateness, professionalism, or respect demonstrated by a piece that all but called Reid a mama’s boy.

The refrain that the response "could have been handled in a more private and appropriate matter" has popped up in a couple of places since Gundy’s outburst. Writers can splash their columns in front of tens or hundreds of thousands of readers, but objections and responses should be handled out of the public view through the back channels. This kind of column needed and deserved a public response if only to illustrate the lack of professionalism and respect that the FWAA and AWSM demand from the people they cover but not from their own.

Remember that Carlson states that her subject was the question "why have the Cowboys, who so adamantly backed Reid, suddenly switched course, benched the biggest recruit to ever sign with the program and jumped full speed ahead with Zac Robinson?" Did her column do a good job of attempting to answer that question?

5 Responses to 'Poor journalism on display in Oklahoma'

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  • […] But, since Stuart Mandel’s poorly reasoned take (now there’s a real surprise) on the matter almost elicited a response from the Pavlov’s dog in me (fortunately Michael Elkon saved the day), I thought I’d at least mention that the post I agree with the most on the subject is Groo’s. […]

  • Groo, this is the best thing I’ve read on this whole issue. And you are exactly right. Gundy was out of line in the way he addressed Carlson, but Carlson was just as out of line in the way she wrote her story. It wasn’t much better than well written sports blog speculation. Well written for a sports blog that is.

  • Groo,

    For all the reasons you mentioned (and some you didn’t), I agree that Jenni Carlson’s piece was poor journalism.

    However, I disagree that Gundy overreacted. We all bring our life experiences to the table when we believe someone we have a vested interest in has been unfairly attacked. As a long-time manager of employees, I actually think Gundy showed restraint while standing up for one of his guys. I can’t say my comments would have been as measured.

    Herein, I think, lies the disconnect between the media and the general public. The media seems to believe the coach’s first obligation is to it during a press conference. You can’t blame them. They’re trying to get first hand information and they are under deadline pressure.

    Yet it’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority of coaches believe their first obligation is to their players under any circumstance. The same is true for any person in any leadership position (at least those who take their responsibilities seriously). This was an article about a demoted QB completely devoid of references to undesirable on-the-field performance, off-the-field conduct, or questionable ethics.

    As a reader, I was left wondering, “What is this except a personal attack?”

    So, no, given the situation, I don’t think the coach overreacted at all. I thought it was a healthy, human reaction.

  • Your perspective is the best I’ve read on this incident. The media is getting too much power in alot of arenas. Coach Gundy’s “honesty” in his response is seen as offensive to the media, but not an unreal reaction that will be seen as both politically incorrect and inappropriate. HOWEVER, the media has a public forum (their readership) to address when coaches don’t. Had Ms.Carlson had to publicly present her article, she would’ve been met with public disfavor that she isn’t exposed to after going to press.
    Just because you’re a columnist doesnt’ mean you’re and expert or right, nor above reproach. Go Gundy!

  • […] thing to consider in this debate about “journalistic credibility”.  Go back and read Groo’s commentary about Jenni Carlson in l’affaire Gundy, particularly this observation: … Carlson […]