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May 27, 2010When a newspaper breaks a scandal, it's customary for the editorial page, as a way of vouching for the importance of the story, to weigh in with an editorial scolding the subject of the scandal. So it's not surprising that the Detroit Free Press has again editorialized to scold the Michigan athletic department over stretchgate. But the level of chutzpah on display is still pretty staggering.
Let's review the basic facts. The Free Press published a report last summer accusing Rich Rodriguez of spearheading a scheme to force his players to go two or three times over limits on practice and workout time. The report triggered a year-long tidal wave of adverse publicity against Rodriguez and the Michigan program. In response, the university invited the NCAA in to investigate. It found, as the university noted in its report, that the Free Press report was almost totally false. The overages were minor, consisted almost entirely of confusion over whether stretching exercises counted toward time limits, and the whole thing stemmed not from Rodriguez but from bureaucratic ineptitude that preceded him.
Moreover, the Freep's lead reporter on this story was a columnist who had crusaded against Rodriguez and relied upon anonymous sources. (Imagine another newspaper allowed me to report an expose on the Free Press's bungled story, and I published a blockbuster story based on anonymous former Freep employees. Would the Free Press editors think that was fair? No, they wouldn't. And they'd be right.)
Like I said, it might be expecting too much to hope the Free Press would apologize for its dubious reporting methods and debunked conclusion. But must the paper compound its guilt by scolding the university for having the temerity to point out that the accusations against it were almost entirely false? Yes, apparently, it must. Here's the key passage from the Free Press editorial:
On its way to admitting guilt, the university spends too much effort trying to dilute the allegations by insisting it didn't do anything beyond what's the "overwhelming norm" in college football. The university also tries to knock down the strength of Free Press reports.
Let's examine the logic here, step by step. First, there's a shot at the university for pointing out that its practices reflect the overwhelming norm in college football (which, the report hastens to note, does not excuse any shortcomings.) This seems like a fair point to make when you've been accused of massive cheating. But to the Free Press, it's more evidence of guilt.
Next, the editorial complains that the university points out that the Free Press story turns out to be wildly misleading at best. The Free Press does not explain why this conclusion is incorrect, nor even bother to merely assert that it's incorrect. Instead it holds up the fact that the university is pointing out the falseness of the widely-publicized accusation against it as evidence that the university is not committed to following the rules.
Let me return to an analogy I suggested the other day. Imagine I accused Free Press editor Paul Anger of massive, systematic tax fraud. In response, he invited the IRS in for a top-to-bottom audit, and discovered that he had mistakenly expensed several meals that he shouldn't have, and offers to pay back double what he owed. Anger's report notes that, despite the mistakes, he is not in fact a massive tax cheat. Now I reply by insisting that the very fact that he denies being a massive tax cheat shows that he lacks remorse and may well cheat on his taxes again.
The athletic department turns out to be guilty of incompetence. This isn't exactly something to be proud of, and it needs to be cleaned up. But it has displayed transparency, willingness to investigate criticism of its practices, and commitment to correct its errors. That's more than the Free Press can say.