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The Motive Behind the Chicago Sun-Times Stories

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A female reader sent this picture of her thoughts of the Chicago Sun-Times

Never a dull moment. If there is one thing we have learned over the last 15 months it is this…so long as Calipari is at Kentucky, there is no offseason. When one combines the tradition of UK, the rock star personality of John Calipari and an ultra-obsessed fanbase willing to devour any story (or author) they dont like, you have a recipe for a never-ending cycle of news an controversy that will follow the program wherever it goes. For people who run blogs, such a situation is wonderful…with rare exception, there is always something to write about on a given day (and if there is not, the Coach down the road will give us something with his 15 second Italian restaurant encounters). But for the people that are actually involved in the program, it must grow a bit tiresome, as every move is dissected and magnified, even as other coaches are enjoying their summer vacations.

The latest controversy occurred Thursday and Friday with the Chicago Sun-Times. Michael O’Brien, a writer heretofor known primarily by parents in Chicago hoping to see their child’s name in print on his prep sports blog, became the center of a national journalism debate, criticized initially on UK sites and Twitter and later, on national forums such as PTI. O’Brien writes a story for the Sun-Times blog, in which he says Anthony Davis Jr is likely to commit to Kentucky, giving the “local boy makes good” storyline for his ten readers. But then bizarrely, he includes two outlandish rumors nine paragraphs into the piece, one being that Davis and his father are asking schools for money and second, that UK has arranged to give him $200,000. The reaction was swift, with the story going viral and getting killed by anyone and everyone. UK threatens legal action, the Chicago Sun-Times pulls the $200,000 accusation, and later, the entire story altogether. Then, the next day after reflection, the author writes a new story, repeating the allegations and adding that he has spoken to “three unnamed sources” who say that Davis Jr and his father asked for money from schools that were recruiting him. UK responded again, Davis Jr’s father threatened a lawsuit and the Times continued its “no comment” policy, engaging in behavior that it would lambast if it occurred by a public figure instead of a newspaper.

So after all that, the question that continues to go through my mind is what could possibly have been the motive for the Chicago Sun-Times’ behavior? Some UK fans and people on websites have suggested conspiracy theories that Rick Pitino, Pat Forde or some other sinister villian is likely behind all this and it is all part of a larger plot to bring down John Calipari. I have been asked often if I agree with this line of thought and the reality is that I dont. Do I know for certain that there arent greater forces pushing this particular story? No. However when we engage in bombastic charges without proof too often, we are the ones that begin to look crazy. I find it hard to believe that Pitino, Forde, Thamel or the lone gunman on the grassy knoll would use a random high school sports reporter in Chicago to push an agenda in the 9th paragraph of an article on a rarely read blog. Could I be wrong…sure I guess. But I will play the averages.

Instead, what I think is much more likely is that this is a classic case of a newspaper mistake and a rush to engage in “cover your assdom” without understanding or concern for its ramifications. My guess is that Mr. O’Brien (who will become my focus in this next week…get ready my friend) simply was writing a story about Davis Jr and decided to include gossip he had heard in the high school ranks. As part of a general profile, he thought he would include “rumors” of what Davis Jr and his father were after in the recruitment. O’Brien probably never thought twice about it…the conventional wisdom of the area says the Davis family is on the take, he thought he would write about it and since it was on the blog and not in print, no harm done. He threw this tidbit in the 9TH PARAGRAPH, hardly the place that one would put breaking news. My guess is that he never thought this was a real accusation or that it would get attention…if he did, it would have been the lead, not buried deep in the story. If O’Brien believed he was “breaking” a story or a scandal, the headline would have read, “Kentucky pays High School player.” Instead he made a poor decision to go with a rumor, and no facts to back it up.

Then things got out of control. Criticism of the story was harsh, and the accusation quickly disappeared. UK threatened to sue and probably for the first time, upper-level Editorial staff became involved. They cared little about a random blog post before, but now the national sports media was on their case and legal action was being threatened. It was time to regroup. The entire story was pulled, and a gameplan enacted. The Times did not however want to be seen as backing down to a lawsuit threat, so O’Brien called college Assistant coaches with which he was friendly and said, “hey, have you heard that Davis Jr is on the take?” They said yes in a “gossipy” rather than a “newsy” way and he went to his Editors and said, “see now I have THREE sources and we can re-run the story, with more backup and less ‘rumor’ talk.” The Sun-Times then goes with this new story the next day. In the story, they fail to mention the fact that they made the decision to pull the story the day prior, conveniently leaving that part out because…oh well, it makes them look bad. By recasting the entire story this way, they have done two things:

1. Saved themselves from a lawsuit by UK…they retracted the original $200,000 accusation and repeated it only to “set the scene” in the news recap of the events, a cowardly way to handle the situation, but one that probably covers the paper from a suit.

2. Gave themselves protection from a lawsuit by Davis JR. While they went with the “three unnamed sources” quote, if sued they can claim that they werent saying that Davis Jr HAD BEEN PAID, but just that the sources SAID he had been paid. That subtle difference is once again cowardly, but it allows them not to look like they backed down to UK and once again, cover their asses.

From a legal standpoint, it was a smart way to play it. From a journalistic standpoint, it is a complete joke. Rather than admit a mistake, they attempt to cover themselves and act as if they did nothing wrong…refusing to comment to other news sources or even to ACKNOWLEDGE PUBLICALLY that they pulled the original article….a cowardly, but altogether consistent, line of behavior for a newspaper to take when publically challenged.

Now do we know this is how it played out? No we dont. But to me, it is the most plausible explanation and much more reasonable than this being the mastermind of a Rick Pitino/Pat Forde connection. Forde and other journalists are out to get Calipari and I do believe they have engaged in concerted behavior on some stories (like the Pete Thamel New York Times piece on Bledsoe) to try and bring him down…not necessarily always because of personal animosity, but because Calipari is their journalistic Moby Dick. But as far as this particular instance, the much more likely scenario is simply the journalistic malpractice of a newspaper that found itself on the ropes. It will be interesting to see if the Sun-Times or its writers will ever make a public comment on the issue, or whether they will go into hiding in a manner such as a politician, an action they would surely criticize if the roles were reversed. At this point, they have probably protected themselves from any successful lawsuit, and their lawyers performed much more admirably than their writing staff. But their cowardice and lack of journalism ethics cannot be undone by a carefully worded follow-up article.

Like the telegraph, Beta Max VCR and Pager repair shop, newspapers have a predestined ending that they may simply not be able to stop. If that slow decline is inevitable, it is often correctly said that the one real loss (besides the employment of a great many good people) will be a news source whose truth and objectivity cannot be questioned. But if the Chicago Sun-Times fiasco is indicative of how the industry will act during this decline…well maybe we wont lose much after all.

Article written by Matt Jones