Today's class in Journalism 101 will come to order. No more jokes about Howard Cosell's hard-hitting performance on "Battle of the Network Stars" or Phyllis George's quest for the White House. Today's subject is serious stuff.
There are two questions before the class: How tough is a network willing to be when reporting bad news about a sport it televises? And how should TV deal with university athletic officials who pull out the brass knuckles to keep a worrisome story off the air?
We'll take a stab at the answers later. First, the who, what, when, where, why.
Our case involves the Clemson-North Carolina football game shown by ABC Nov. 7. On its surface, this was an excellent shoot-'em-up between the No. 2-ranked Tigers and the No. 5-ranked Tar Heels. Behind the scenes, it nearly became an alley fight between Clemson officials, the Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner and the network.
The scenario began Wednesday, Nov. 4, when The Washington Post reported that Clemson's football program faces a threat of NCAA probation. Two former recruits from Knoxville, Tenn., have publicly accused Clemson of offering them money for signing letters of intent, The Post's story said. The recruits made their charges after Clemson Coach Danny Ford refused to release them from their agreement so they could play football at Tennessee.
After reading the piece in New York, ABC news and sports chief Roone Arledge sent announcer Jim Lampley and a camera crew to Knoxville. "Don't come back till you find those guys," he said. By Thursday afternoon, Lampley not only had found them, he had persuaded one of them to make his charges against Ford on camera.
With little time to work with, however, ABC could not unearth other important elements of the story. Lampley was unable to find an insurance executive and a former Clemson assistant coach who were identified by the 18-year-olds as intermediaries. The NCAA refuses to confirm or deny anything about any of its investigations. All Lampley had were the unsubstantiated charges.
Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, N.C., ABC sought a response from Clemson Athletic Director Bill McLellan. "Get outta here," McLellan said in effect. He would not respond to the charges in any way. Nor would Ford. Neither gent would even appear on camera.
What to do?
Should ABC go with the few facts it had? Should it kill the story? Should it put the piece on hold, ho- ping that Lampley eventually could find, say, the insurance man? Arledge and other ABC officials say they made a "99 percent firm" decision to push the hold button after several conference calls linking New York, Knoxville and Chapel Hill Friday afternoon.
Here the plot thickens.
At a cocktail party in Chapel Hill that night, McLellan accosted Donn Bernstein, ABC's media coordinator for college football. Bernstein said the piece almost certainly would not air the following day. McLellan seemed unpersuaded. "If it does," he kept insisting, "our team will not go on that field."
At the same party, ACC Commissioner Bob James buttonholed the NCAA's information director, Dave Cawood. According to a knowledgeable source, James asked Cawood to call Tom Hansen of the NCAA Television Committee and have Hansen lodge a complaint with ABC. Hansen was unable to reach Arledge or ABC Vice President Jim Spence, the source said.
Saturday, the story did not run. Clemson took the field and defeated Carolina, 10-8. But afterward, in an interview with The Post's John Feinstein, Ford once again insisted that Clemson would not have played if ABC had aired the payoff accusations.
All right, class, a hypothetical case:
Let's say ABC News had allegations from a Tennessee roofing contractor that a bagman for the governor of South Carolina had paid him illegally for work on the Statehouse dome. The roofer later wanted out of the deal, the governor told him to get lost, and the roofer went public. Would ABC News have run the story immediately without substantiating the charges?
Possibly. At the very least, it would have flooded South Carolina with reporters. ABC News doesn't pay the South Carolina legislature for rights to cover events. ABC Sports does pay the NCAA and, by extension, Clemson.
But by pushing the hold button, by opting for care over speed, can ABC really be faulted?
The airing of uncorroborated charges, when Clemson stands innocent until proven guilty, could damage the school permanently. What's more, little would be lost by holding the story, fleshing it out and reporting it a few weeks hence.
As it happens, ABC now plans to run a better researched piece during the Pitt-Penn State or Alabama-Auburn game Saturday.
Said Jeff Ruhe, ABC's senior producer for college football, "We've gotten to parties who have been willing to talk to us. We've pursued it as far as we feel is possible without the cooperation of Clemson officials or former Clemson officials."
As for the Brass Knuckle Boys, ABC should tell a nation of sports fans this weekend that McLellan and Ford were willing to use a college game as a lever to dictate the news. That tactic is its own indictment.