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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: Does Fairness Matter To The Media?

Probably the biggest single reason that the Big Blue Nation went into a mini-tizzy yesterday over Gary Parrish's resurrection of the Anthony Davis kerfuffle of last year boils down to one question:  Is it fair to continually question Davis about a rumor repeated by the Chicago Sun-Times?  No sources were ever named in the Sun-Times story, no evidence was ever produced, and no investigation (and I presume there were many) turned up anything remotely resembling affirmation that the Davis family was soliciting money for the privilege of having their son play college basketball.

The Sun-Times defended the story to the degree required to avoid a lawsuit, which although threatened by the elder Davis, never materialized, presumably because such suits against the media have a high burden of proof, low probability of success, and are costly to bring.

Most of us concluded that this story was bogus, and much of the media, including Parrish himself (at least, according to him on Larry Glover Live last night), attacked the story as blatant rumor-mongering and shoddy journalism.  The story, to the extent it was one, burnt hot for awhile but quickly faded to nothing, and up until yesterday had been reduced to a footnote in most respectable journalist's stories about Davis -- mentioned briefly, but never explored, presumably because there is nothing credible to explore.

Parrish also claimed on Glover's show that the idea that the story is over, "just isn't true."  The problem is, there is no story.  There is only a rumor, and that would be largely over (and should have been) but for him resuscitating it, at least if and until someone comes up with the tiniest shred of proof.

The fairness issue, I think, is at the bottom of the outrage.  Even Parrish acknowledged the unfairness of his own examination of the story with the lede, "Fair or not, Kentucky freshman Davis must face 'scandal'."  Clearly, Parrish considered the possibility that the story is unfair to Davis, yet he plunges ahead with it anyway.

What much of the Big Blue Nation, including yours truly, does not understand is why Davis must face this "scandal."  If someone accused Gary Parrish of stealing, offering no proof but a couple of other witnesses who corroborated that story with hearsay, would Parrish think it was fair for fellow media members to periodically ask him how it feels to have such a story written about him?  Most people of good conscience, probably including Parrish, would consider it unfair, since there was no evidence offered by anyone to support it.  Many people, when faced with questions about false and defamatory accusations simply refuse to address them.

Yet somehow, Davis "must" face these questions, according to Parrish.  What we don't know is why.  Why must Davis, or Calipari for that matter, continue to answer questions that have already been asked and answered?  Was the first answer simply not good enough?  Is it that every reporter deserves the chance to ask that question in turn until the story changes, or a "gotcha" moment comes up when you carefully parse the words?

Parrish wrote this when Davis committed to Kentucky:

"I hope UK is ready for the NCAA to come on in," one high-major coach texted to after the story broke, point being that the NCAA will almost certainly spend time examining Davis' recruitment based on nothing more than the Sun-Times article. At this point, it doesn't matter whether the allegation has merit. This development will be scrutinized regardless, which is why many industry sources believed Davis might ultimately choose DePaul, Ohio State, Syracuse or some other college -- anybody other than Kentucky -- after last week's story went national.

Note the inclusion of yet another unnamed source.  I am not at all convinced that Parrish disbelieves the Sun-Times report, or considers the lack of proof problematic, despite his allusions to the contrary.

When a story is blatantly unfair to begin with, in what universe can it be acceptable to continue to bring it up as though it is fair, particularly when, given the excessively negative media rhetoric associated with John Calipari, it just tends to lend false justification to wild, unsupported theories that he is breaking the rules?

That's the rub.  That's the problem.  That's the source of the Big Blue Nation's paranoia and angst. 

If even rumors that are unsupported and most likely false become fair game for reporters to use to badger people (especially kids) with, where does it end?  It was probably this question that produced an outburst by Kentucky associate athletics director for communications DeWayne Peevy to make a Twitter comment that appeared to threaten Parrish's media credentials.

Peevy undoubtedly overreacted and made a mistake, and I'm sure he knows that.  He isn't, of course, going to revoke Parrish's credentials.  What his unfortunate tweet did do was create a plausible reason for some to jump to Parrish's defense by attacking Peevy. 

In essence, Peevy became the story among members of the media, and if he'd simply remained silent about the matter, these same people would have been forced to look at the story and Parrish's treatment of it more objectively as a matter of fairness for the young man, rather than as a matter of fairness for Parrish.  The media are as quick to defend their own as the Big Blue Nation is to defend theirs, and they have turned this matter on its ear by concentrating on Peevy's unfortunate tweet and becoming apologists for Parrish.

To me, whenever the media questions someone who has arguably been defamed about that defamation, they are unintentionally elevating the subject to a sort of legitimacy by reminding everyone that the nature of the charges are so serious that, true or not, they must be followed up.  Somehow, they manage to use the "true or not" (read also as "fair or not") as a disclaimer rather than a stop sign.  Should the media really be asking questions that have already been asked and answered over and over about a mostly-discredited rumor?  Should stories that are likely untrue be treated the same as if they were true?

In the movie Absence of Malice, when the heroine played by Sally Field was reflecting on her career as a reporter, her editor told her, "I know how to print what's true.  And I know how not to hurt people.  I don't know how to do both at the same time and neither do you."

If everyone -- bloggers, media members, coaches, everyone -- would just stick to printing and talking about what is true, instead of passing rumors (particularly about lawlessness), and treating them as true, I think most of us can live with people getting hurt sometimes.  That's just part of life, and the truth often hurts.  But when rumors hurt, particularly when they hurt young men and women, people get mad.

That's why there is outrage among the Big Blue Nation.