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Washington Post Reporter Crosses the Line with John Wall

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If you have been on the site over the last couple of days, you have seen a number of links to this profile of John Wall in the Washington Post from the Sunday edition. As I stated last night, I think it is a very well-written and interesting portrait of a kid who has overcome a great deal and is about to see his dreams realized. However one portion of the story bothered me from the initial moment I read it. The reporter did some searching into Wall’s past, specifically the criminal history of his father, leading to this exchange:

After a sweltering workout in the gymnasium of his former high school last week, Wall sat on the first row of bleachers recounting his childhood. He hardly knew anything about his dad’s time in jail. He learned just this month that his parents got married in prison, after hearing relatives talking about the dress his mom wore. He still had no idea why his father was locked up.

Wall stretched out his legs, revealing his yet-unnamed personal line of Reebok sneakers, and leaned his elbows back on the second row, seemingly at ease.

“I think it was just for an altercation or something that happened,” Wall said, wiping sweat from his face. “I don’t really know. It was something that happened.”

The only record of what happened can be found in microfilm archives deep within a courthouse located just a half mile from where Wall lived on East Davie Street: On Sept. 30, 1991 — less than a month after his son’s first birthday — John Carroll Wall walked into a convenience store in Raleigh, removed one beer and continued to the checkout where clerk Cecil Ibegbu stood. Wall placed a $1 bill on the counter. He then removed a .22-caliber Ruger from the back of his jeans and pointed it at Ibegbu, demanding all the money in the register. He was convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon.

Sitting in the gym following his workout, Wall was told his father robbed a convenience store. He offered a slight nod and said, “Uh-huh.”

Before meeting his mother, Wall’s father had served three other sentences, one for armed robbery, another for possession of a firearm by a felon and a third for second-degree murder, after shooting a 26-year-old housewife in the head following an argument.

Sitting on the bleachers, Wall learned for the first time that his father had served prison time before he was born and that the crime was murder. He offered no affirmation and looked away for a moment.

Ohhhh,” he said, dragging the sound for a second. “Oh, I didn’t even know. I didn’t know.”

He paused, but not for long. He took a quick glance at the basketball court — the place that helped him quickly rise to stardom in high school — before making eye contact again. He was calm, but his speech slowed.

“My mom never told me. I heard he had one robbery thing,” he said. “That is all I knew. I never knew anything about that other part. She would never tell me, she would not want to tell me or my sisters.”

Was he ever curious?

“I was not curious,” Wall said. “I was just happy to see my dad and talk to him.”

The gym was almost empty, except for a few of Wall’s mentors and friends chatting on the other side of the court following Wall’s 80-minute workout. Wall was asked why his dad’s past has done little to diminish his opinion of him.

“Well, because, for one thing, that’s my dad,” Wall answered without hesitation. “He brought me onto this earth and, like everybody, makes mistakes. Everyone is not going to be perfect. Sometimes people do some stuff because of certain situations they are in, or the people they are around. Or they might be drunk or something and just do it.

“Like I said, he still was there for me. . . . Probably if I were older, you would have been, ‘Forget him, he ain’t my daddy, he ain’t here for me, taking care of me.’ At a young age, you don’t know, you don’t care. You’re just happy to have somebody there that you can call your dad. And that’s the biggest thing.”

Wall has declined to get tattoos because of concerns over his image for marketing reasons, but he is considering getting one on his chest, considering it strongly enough that he has a specific design in mind. It would be of his dad’s face, with clouds surrounding, and the words “Forever Living On.”

Now imagine that scene for a minute. Just days before John Wall reaches a goal that he has worked for his entire life, a reporter for a newspaper, someone who is likely a stranger to Wall, looks at him and informs him for the first time that his father had killed someone. To me, that action is wholly inappropriate and somewhat shameful. John Wall is now a public figure, and as such, his background and life before he became known is arguably relevant. I dont believe people’s family members are necessarily relevant indicators of a person’s character, but I also know that in today’s day and age, what your family did in the past, will be brought up as part of your future. So while I probably would not have done that research into his father’s past and included it in the story, I dont think it is malicious to do so. But once the reporter knew that Wall was not aware of his father’s criminal past, I find it highly inappropriate for him to believe that he should be the one to break the news to Wall. It is clear that both his mother, and for that matter John, have made a conscious decision not to bring up that part of the past in their lives. For a reporter to believe he has the right to report that past is one thing. But then to take the next step and personally tell John and THEN to record his comments and include them in the story, to me that crosses the line.

The writer’s name is Eric Prisbell and I wont go so far as to impute upon him negative motives. The portrayal as a whole is fair and is possibly the best insight into Wall that I have read since he came upon the scene in Lexington. But there are lines that reporters should not cross. If Prisbell felt like he owed the readers a look into Wall’s deceased father’s past, then so be it. But Prisbell should not have made himself the self-appointed messenger to personally tell Wall what is likely one of the most hurtful truths that could exist in his life. And even if he were to do that, to quote his natural reaction in a newspaper story is not a journalistic potrayal, but simply sensationalism. I fully admit that I may not be the best indicator of what journalists consider their self-created standards of ethics and it may be the case that I am alone in finding this inappropriate. But for me, a newspaper reporter focusing on Wall is not Maury Povich. It isnt his job to expose his subject to his past secrets or history. Prisbell did that and to me, that is inappropriate.

Article written by Matt Jones