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The truth, in media, can hurt

By David Pickle

Years ago, a newspaper columnist friend of mine found himself conversing with a young woman at a Houston bar.

After a couple of telling comments, the woman suddenly realized she was speaking with a celebrity.

“Are you who I think you are?” she wondered aloud.

My friend raised his eyebrows to hint he had been outed.

“Are you really who I think you are?” she said, with even more feeling. This time, my friend nodded his head in humble acknowledgment.

“Gosh,” she said. “Your columns really suck lately.”

Such is the life of the columnist.

They live in a constant paradox: Readers hate you even when they love you.

Nobody should underestimate the difficulty of being a columnist. It’s harder than people know to put your thoughts on the line all the time in a provocative way. Commentators serve an important function, and most deserve respect for the work they do.

All of that said, they have not been sent down from the heavens with a lock on The Truth. They are subject to the same shortcomings as other flesh-and-blood creatures. They can make mistakes, and they certainly are eligible to receive return fire.

This is topical because of recent exchanges between the NCAA and two high-profile publications: The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times.

In December, the Chronicle assembled a package of commentary from eight experts under the headline “What in the hell has happened to college sports? And what should we do about it?” The subhead said: “No wonder they call it big-time sports/College athletics programs pull in about $106 billion in revenue annually. But the challenges facing college sports may outweigh any dollar amount.”

Quite obviously, the $106 billion figure was an error. It is larger than the gross domestic product of 16 states and exponentially larger than the actual revenue of college sports.

What bothered me wasn’t so much that the Chronicle made the error (an omitted decimal point). Anybody in the publication business knows such mistakes happen. What frustrated me was the error in combination with the incendiary headline over a collection of commentary that repeated the usual tired (and, in this case, conflicted) criticisms of college sports.

I thought the Chronicle, which is a truly great publication, should do better and said so in a Dec. 13 blog.

Then in December, January and February, Times columnist Joe Nocera unleashed his column-writing and blogging might on the NCAA. If you believe his version, the NCAA is guilty of greed, exploitation, a corrupt rules structure, dubious interpretation of the rules and violations of privacy laws, among other things.

Nocera has a right to interpret as he sees fit, but criticism as harsh as his should be underwritten by considerable accuracy and an absence of perceived bias. I raised that concern in a Feb. 3 blog.

In his Dec. 30 article in The New York Times Magazine, Nocera included a disclaimer that his fiancée is director of communications for a law firm involved in litigation against the NCAA. My concern about that relationship hit a nerve with some readers, who accused me of an ad hominem smear of Nocera.

Nocera himself appears quite comfortable calling motivations into question, having labeled CBS reporter Seth Davis as NCAA President Mark Emmert’s “favorite lapdog reporter” in one of his blogs. As one associate said, if it involves puppies, it must be OK.

The real question is why the Times included the disclaimer. I believe the editors were (rightly) alerting readers to a potential bias. At least I hope that’s the meaning. Surely they don’t believe the inclusion of a disclaimer provides automatic absolution.

Of greater concern, Nocera made substantial errors along his way. Honestly, I sympathize with him to a degree. NCAA rules can be complicated, excessively so in some cases. That’s hardly a secret, as evidenced by the high-level work currently under way to simplify them.

The problem was that his entire thesis in two cases was built on a mistake. In his Dec. 30 column, he stridently took on the NCAA for prohibiting legal counsel to student-athletes in eligibility cases. That’s absolutely, unambiguously wrong. When asked to correct the record, his response was to unload on the NCAA a second time for saying that NCAA legislation makes it difficult or impossible for certain student-athletes to acquire counsel. In other words, the NCAA got a double dose of high-profile criticism because Nocera erred in the first place.

The other prominent mistake appeared in his blog. He claimed that a student-athlete ran afoul of NCAA rules because of expenses incurred when she traveled with her infant to a competition. Again, the underlying premise was wrong. The issue was that the school had paid her boyfriend’s (the father’s) travel expenses.

Again, Nocera “made right” with a follow-up blog that said the actual circumstance was as bad or worse than what he originally described.

This time, he threw in an examination of whether the NCAA violated the athlete’s privacy by correcting his mistake. So the NCAA got three trips to the woodshed instead of one because Nocera made a mistake at the outset.

After my February blog and other NCAA communications (including an outstanding article by NCAA General Counsel Donald Remy), the Chronicle wrote about whether the NCAA had suddenly become overly aggressive in responding to criticism. The conclusion, more or less, was that the NCAA would be better off listening than responding.

In general, I agree about the listening – and I believe most of my colleagues do, as well.

For my part, I posted exactly two blogs from December through February, so it’s not like I went off every time I disagreed with something. In fact, the NCAA’s overall response to all this has been rather measured.

But it’s one thing to listen and something else to let distorted criticism go unchallenged. Modern technology provides everybody with the tools to respond, and any organization would be delinquent to its stakeholders if it failed to use them in a responsible way.

David Pickle is executive editor of NCAA Champion magazine. This column appeared in the April 2012 issue of NCAA Champion.