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September 1, 2009

Borton's Blog: Another voice weighs in

Many Michigan fans remember the book "Natural Enemies." (No, it wasn't a history of the relationship between Michigan athletics and the Detroit Free Press. The author of that tome has his own ideas, though, about the present controversy surrounding the newspaper's allegations.

John Kryk, who penned the definitive book on the Michigan-Notre Dame series down through the years and is working on a more definitive history of Michigan football, is National Entertainment Editor for Sun Media, Canada's largest newspaper chain, including the Toronto Sun. He's also an intense follower of the Wolverines and their fortunes on the gridiron.

Kryk read with interest the spread of articles alleging misconduct in terms of exceeding NCAA hours limits in the football program. With more than 20 years as an editor at daily newspapers - more than half of it as an editor at the Toronto Sun -- Kryk has some serious misgivings about the presentation.

Why? Simple, he says.

"1. BALANCE -- Did [Michael Rosenberg] not find any current or former players, or their parents, who believed Rich Rodriguez is NOT in violation time-wise? Did he even try? If he did try but all he talked to were unanimous in saying there were blatant violations, then either he would have written that prominently near the top of his story -- or, if he didn't, then his editors would have insisted he write it that way, because it would give the story much more weight.

"No writer or editor at that level (Freep) would miss that opportunity, in my opinion: eg, 'Every player and former player the Free Press spoke to confirmed that the mandatory hours the players put in exceed NCAA limits.' That Rosenberg did not write that into his story, nor quoted any current or former players who disagreed with the premise, would strongly suggest that he (1) selectively interviewed only those he strongly suspected WOULD give those answers, or (2) he used quotes from only those current players, former players and parents whose comments support his story's thesis. Either way, that makes for a slanted story, even if he's fully right.

"The fact that other media are easily finding former players, current players and players' parents who disagree wholeheartedly with the Free Press' findings is another concern.

"2. CONCEALED AGENDA -- If Rosenberg did not plainly tell those freshmen and any other interviewees what story he was working on, and what he was interviewing them for, then he was deceitful. I have little respect for any writer or editor who engages in this brand of journalism as a matter of intent. If I found out one of my writers conducted interviews for an investigative feature that way, I'd have him go right back and apologize and fully disclose the intent, and not use the ill-gotten quotes.

"If, however, Rosenberg's idea for the feature came about after media day last Sunday -- that is, he looked at his notes afterward and thought, hmm, maybe this is in NCAA violation, I'd better look into it -- then that is one thing. I cannot believe, however, that a feature of this depth was conceived, researched, all those interview requests made and conducted (as you know, callbacks of this scope take days, even weeks), and then everything written and edited all inside five or six days.

"No way. He went into media day with an agenda to write this story. Fine. But then how did he conduct himself? When he writes that the named freshmen he spoke with on media day 'apparently' didn't know about the hours-limit rule, it's because he didn't ask to find out if the kid knew or didn't know about the purported NCAA violation. A responsible journalist without a concealed agenda would have followed up by asking these frosh, 'Well then, did you know that that is a violation of NCAA rules?'

"Because that would likely make the story even stronger -- eg, 'The players were shocked to find out they've been duped.' That Rosenberg didn't follow up like this strongly suggests he was attempting to conceal his agenda -- not just from the frosh, of course, but from Rodriguez and the athletic department. Because if he'd asked that follow-up, the frosh instantly would have thought, 'Oh no, I've screwed up here somehow,' and would almost certainly have then apologetically told a coach or media-relations member about it afterward. Rosenberg knew that that's what would have happened, in my opinion.

"And as your guest columnist from The New Republic wrote yesterday, I would not assign a writer (Rosenberg) to such a potentially explosive investigative feature if that writer had already publicly expressed, on several occasions, his disapproval of and even antagonism toward the coach and his program. Surely, the Freep has enough investigative reporters still on staff who instead could have spearheaded this project, through untainted eyes.

"We journalists have a tough enough time convincing the public we're far more fair-minded, on the whole, than most people would ever believe. Slanted stories harm our profession. Every journalist's job is to seek the whole truth, not just 'a' truth. Sometimes, sure, you know you could more likely get the answers you want by concealing the purpose of a question. But sometimes, too, you can get an inaccurate answer that way -- that is, an exaggerated answer.

"Journalists who don't know this are fooling themselves, or are fools, in my opinion. For instance, if someone is interviewing me about, whatever, the awful state of my lawn and the fact I haven't cut the grass in two weeks, I might have said, 'It's because I've been spending dozens of hours the past two weeks refurbishing an old Philco radio console.' But I wouldn't be so unspecific about the number of hours I've slaved on that dang radio if the question, instead, were, 'Exactly how many hours have you been working on the radio?' Then I'd actually have done a quick count and realized the number isn't in fact 'dozens.' See the key difference? Bottom line, you can't be as sure the info you're getting from a question is accurate if the context and intent of the question is concealed -- in my learned opinion.

"3. INTERPRETATION OF RESEARCH AND QUOTES -- I wonder if Rosenberg and Snyder were so wowed by the number of hours they'd heard players had been spending on football, that they didn't break down press to find out particularly how many of those hours were actually voluntary as opposed to mandatory. It appears as though they are counting everything as mandatory. What's more, did they thoroughly comb through the NCAA rulebook? I have not done so myself, but from the rule excerpts I've read in the past two days, the interpretation holes between what is truly mandatory and what is voluntary are wide enough to drive an entire fleet of transport trucks through. These writers, with their editors' blessings, based their entire conclusions on what appears to me to be vague and multi-interpretable NCAA rules, and to me that is perhaps most concerning.

"4. UNNAMED SOURCES -- No conscientious writer or editor wants to resort to using them. As Watergate proved, however, sometimes that is the only way to get an important story published. Hardliners against say you don't go with a story until you get two sources, independent of each other, on the record -- and convinced that neither has a self-serving agenda at play. Well, that's the ideal. Real-world journalism often doesn't work that way.

"But then what are you prepared to live with? Every journalist has a different opinion, and hopefully all do their best to do honest work within their parameters. My only real beefs with Rosenberg's piece in this regard is that with all the departures since Rodriguez took over, Rosenberg couldn't get one kid, or his parent -- not one?! -- to go on the record on this? Strains credibility. What's more, why Rosenberg wrote that unnamed FORMER players feared the reprisals of Rodriguez -- hence their anonymity -- makes no sense. That that was written suggests the Freep editors didn't have their logic caps on. Which raises other concerns, regarding the writing and editing."

Just so you know the head-scratching extends beyond the borders of the U.S.



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