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ESPN Handling of Fine Story is Flawed

It was a quiet weekend for the Bernie Fine story coming out of Syracuse.

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 19:  Head coach Jim Boehei...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

That’s good news for Fine, the assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University who has been accused of sexually abusing two former ball boys decades ago.
If true, the Thursday report by ESPN’s Mark Schwarz featuring on-air interviews with Fine’s two accusers might have led to more accusers quickly coming forward. No one did. Fine has denied the accusations.

The quiet also allowed this 1970 Syracuse graduate to reflect on the accusations and the journalism behind the story.
The local Buffalo stations did provide some unintended levity to this very serious story.
Channel 2 sent reporter Dave McKinley to Syracuse Friday, apparently to tell viewers Syracuse is close by since his report said next to nothing. All Buffalo stations reminded viewers that Syracuse is close to home. Channel 2 anchor Scott Levin said it was a three-hour ride away, which is about 45 minutes more than it takes me to get there.
As I wrote Friday, naturally I’m hoping that Fine is innocent. I added that Fine is a loser anyway because his reputation has been damaged in the current news world where one is guilty until proven innocent instead of the other way around.
If a Syracuse graduate like me who wants Fine to be innocent can’t positively decide who is telling the truth, the mere accusations mean Fine’s reputation is likely beyond repair.
That’s why a case involving someone accused of a heinous crime should require a news organization to proceed with extra caution.
As a journalist, I wouldn’t have been comfortable relying on the sources that ESPN has relied on in airing a story that has led the Syracuse police department and district attorney’s office to investigate years after Syracuse University says that former ball boy Bobby Davis, now 39, told it that the authorities declined to do so.
The university, which has one of the country’s best journalism schools, has done an excellent job at damage control. That’s not surprising. However, the idea that it took Davis’ word on what the police told him is a cause for concern. After all, Fine’s defenders have called Davis a liar.
The new investigation seems to have been sparked by ESPN’s report, rather than the other way around. That’s an important distinction. If ESPN learned that Fine was being investigated by Syracuse police, then running with the story would be understandable.
As a journalist, you might ask what has changed since ESPN, the Syracuse Post-Standard and the university investigated the claims made by Davis several years ago, couldn’t corroborate them and decided there wasn’t enough there to publish a story or, in the case of the university, fire Fine?
Two things have changed, neither which was strong enough to air the story. ESPN said it reported the story because a second accuser came forward. The second accuser, Mark Lang, is Davis’ older stepbrother. The Post-Standard wrote Sunday that Lang was interviewed during its investigation years ago, when he didn’t say he was molested.
As a journalist, I would want the second accuser to be someone other than a relative who previously had told a different story. After all, a defense lawyer would have a field day in cross-examining a witness who had changed his story. I certainly would need a third source before going forward with the story.
The second thing to change is there is now heightened awareness about child sex abuse because of the Penn State scandal. As a journalist, that might make me even more leery – not less leery – of running the story to make sure the accusers aren’t exploiting the Penn State situation rather than using it to raise public awareness.
At the very least, I would have spent more time investigating what Davis and Lang have been up to in recent years before putting them on the air and having the nation decide if they are credible. At the very least, I would have had asked them what they would say to people – like Boeheim — who might accuse them of looking for a payday.
After all, what is credible? On the same morning that the Fine story broke, the captain of the yacht on which actress Natalie Wood died went on NBC’s “Today” and blamed her husband Robert Wagner for what has been ruled an accidental death three decades ago.  Interviewer David Gregory pulled the information out of the reluctant accuser, who didn’t seem to know what he wanted to say.
Was he credible? They used to say the camera never lies. But how many times have we been taught in the last few decades that that isn’t true. President Clinton “did not have sex with that woman.” Alex Rodriguez never used steroids. The list goes on and on.
I heard Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan on WGR Friday saying he didn’t want to prejudge Fine but he found Fine’s accusers credible. I didn’t know what to make of them since I’m not a psychologist and don’t know how sexual abuse victims act a decade or more after they have been abused.
I found Fine’s defenders credible, even though their beliefs have nothing to do with the facts.
Head Coach Jim Boeheim (see above) stuck his neck out for Fine, saying Davis told a “thousand lies,” including that he saw Davis in Fine’s hotel room on one road trip. Boeheim, who has been Fine’s friend for 50 years, has been criticized for some strong comments and even has since admitted he may have said too much. But I’ve always liked him and forgive him for his ill-advised shots at the accusers. I hope his loyalty isn’t misplaced.
Tim Welsh, a former Syracuse assistant, said in an ESPN interview that he roomed with Fine on road trips and was shocked about the allegations. He added all they did on road trips was recruiting and watching film of opponents. He said Davis accompanied Fine on one road trip to New York City to babysit Fine’s kids so the coach could go out with his wife for dinner or a Broadway show.
Several former and present Syracuse players defended Fine and believed the accusations were baseless.
Of course, they don’t know the truth. Nobody does except Fine and his accusers.
The current Syracuse investigations can’t lead to criminal charges because reportedly the statute of limitations has expired so the case seems to be as much or more about how the previous investigations were handled than determining Fine’s guilt or innocence.
The former ball boys’ charges – of things they claimed began when they were pre-teens — would gain credibility if other accusers surface. They didn’t over the weekend. I repeat, I’m no psychologist, but I wouldn’t think pedophiles cure themselves.
Unfortunately for Fine, the only way he can get his reputation back is if the accusers recant their charges or the investigations end with the authorities strongly proclaiming his innocent. That’s about as likely to happen as Colgate is likely to beat Syracuse on the basketball court in the next decade.
Fine has already been convicted by some people in the court of public opinion. But he isn’t the only one on trial. So are ESPN and Schwarz, which needs some finding against Fine to justify its “scoop.”
If the accusations are true, ESPN will get credit for forcing past accusations against Fine to be looked at again even if the journalism behind its report was flawed. If Fine is exonerated, ESPN and Schwarz should be ashamed of ruining his reputation.
As a Syracuse graduate, I’m rooting for Fine to be innocent. If I were the reporter who broke the story like Schwarz, I wouldn’t want to be put in the position of rooting for an outcome just to justify how I did my work.
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4 responses to "ESPN Handling of Fine Story is Flawed"

  1. Gman says:

    News agencies have to stop the mentality of ” get it on the air first.” I rather wait and have the RIGHT information. Maybe more lives and reputations wouldn’t be ruined by false accusations.

  2. Jlessord says:

    Every other outlet was basically forced to address it when Boeheim and the school commented and then put Fine on leave.

  3. Jlessord says:

    So……..you were saying?

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