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December 4, 2009I've never bought into the idea that newspapers have agendas. Individual reporters may have agendas. Newspapers can make mistakes - lots of them. But the cumulative individual mistakes tend to go in different directions, as reporters or editors are misled by eagerness to break a big story, susceptibility to groupthink, or sloppy work. I have never noticed a newspaper as an institution having an intentional agenda of favoring one party or tearing down another.
The Detroit Free Press's coverage of scandals involving Michigan and Michigan State is a glaring exception. The bias is breathtaking. I've previously discussed the paper's coverage of allegations that Michigan football players practiced beyond the allowed limits. For a telling contrast, consider the Free Press article appearing December 3rd, about an alleged assault by Spartan football players.
The article's trouble begins with the headline: "Inside the MSU fight." Start with the word "fight." Already the paper is taking the side in a contested claim. A fight is something that occurs between two people by mutual agreement. A boxing match is often called a fight. A mugging is not called a fight. According to the alleged victims, the incident was an assault.
Was this incident a fight? Well, it's possible, but I highly doubt it. It's unusual for normal students to challenge football players to a fight when not under the influence of alcohol. It's even more unusual for female students to do so. How likely is it that the female student punched in the face raised her fists and challenged a football player? About as likely as Glenn Winston winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
A second problem with the headline is the word "Inside." An inside account is generally one that attempts to arrive at truth by drawing upon the perspective of all the participants. This account relied entirely on the parents of the accused players - doubly unreliable sources, in that they are both inherently biased and relying on secondhand information themselves.
Here is the origin of the incident, as repeated secondhand by a player's father:
Mark Dell Sr. told the Free Press on Thursday that running back Glenn Winston was dancing with someone else's girlfriend at the Small Planet nightclub on the outskirts of East Lansing on Nov. 21, a few hours after Penn State had crushed the Spartans, 42-14. According to Dell Sr., a couple of men jumped Winston. He told teammates about it, and they agreed to follow him to Rather Hall the next evening - shortly after the team banquet - to track down the instigator.
Well, this version is plausible, but I sure wouldn't bet any money on it. First of all, remember that Glenn Winston has already been convicted of assault. It may be worth reprinting a portion of a letter from Winston's first victim explaining how he behaved, given that the Free Press has never seen fit the publish the letter itself. [UPDATE: THIS IS UNTRUE, THE RESULT OF A DATABASE ERROR. PLEASE SEE NOTE AT BOTTOM.] (The letter is also useful because it provides a handy reminder of the difference between a "fight," which is the term the Free Press uses repeatedly to describe the altercation between football players and co-ed students holding a potluck dinner, and an assault.):
"Last October, I was assaulted by Glenn Winston. This was not a fight, or a disagreement. I was in bed in my room and came downstairs after hearing the commotion caused by three cars pulling up filled with screaming and violent people.
"I was standing in my front yard trying to figure out what was going on when Glenn Winston punched me in the head from the side. I never saw him. I did not have any chance to protect myself at all. Neither did his other victims.
"That night, I received a fractured skull, five stitches inside my mouth, and a subdural hematoma, or bleeding on the brain. I was not involved in a college fight, as this story is perceived. After having nothing to do with any events that occurred earlier that night, I was attacked in my own house.
"As a hockey player, I know what a fight is. What happened that night was not a fight. What happened was a violent crime. Pure and simple."
Now, maybe this last time, poor Glenn Winston was keeping to himself and was jumped for no good reason. But I think, given Winston's very recent history, this assumption deserves a little skepticism.
Next, there's the claim that the players planned only to visit the fraternity in order to "track down the instigator." That's an odd choice, isn't it? If you're the innocent victim of an assault, wouldn't you ask the police to track down the instigator? What would you do when you found them? Trick them into confessing into a hidden tape recorder? It's possible that the Spartan players fashioned themselves as a more muscular version of the Hardy Boys, using their amateur detective skills to outwit the bad guys. But this claim, too, deserves some skepticism.
The story continues in this stunningly credulous vein. Why were the players suspended? Here's the Freep:
Dell Sr. said his son did not participate in violence at Rather Hall. He, however, did say his son initially lied to coach Mark Dantonio about his presence there.
"I said, 'Man, why didn't you just tell the truth and say you were there and didn't participate in any of the physical stuff?' " Dell Sr. said. "He said: 'I don't know. I should have just told the truth.' "
According to Dell Sr., all the suspended players initially lied to Dantonio.
Hmm. So the players did nothing wrong, but they decided to lie about it? Even if that's true, doesn't it raise the possibility that they're lying to their parents, too?
The Free Press does not raise the possibility. Nor does it appear to have spoken to either the alleged victims or their lawyer. Contrast this with the reporting about Michigan, which relied upon anonymous quotes whose meaning depended upon context provided by the reporter.
Imagine an alternative scenario. Suppose the Michigan allegations came from a third party source. And suppose the Free Press decided that to publish an "investigative" story consisting of testimonials from players' parents. Kind of hard to imagine, isn't it? Right. That's the point.
[The letter appeared in the Free Press on August 24. I wrote that it didn't because it did not appear in either a search at freep.com or in a search of the Nexis newspaper database, which is considered a comprehensive archive of major newspapers including the Free Press. My apologies for getting this wrong. I believe my other points about this particular article stand.]