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November 5, 2010

In Re: Free Press v. Rodriguez

There's a classic scene in "Citizen Kane" where Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper magnate, was overseeing his paper's coverage of his own gubernatorial campaign. The editor has prepared two headlines, "KANE ELECTED," and "FRAUD AT POLLS." I thought of that when I scanned the morning's headlines.

It's interesting to read how different news outlets report the conclusion of the NCAA investigation into allegations of practice abuse at Michigan. Here's the headline of one report:

"RichRod gets win, but still needs more on field"

Here's the headline of a second:

"UM's violations deemed major, but not serious"

And here's a third:
"NCAA's verdict: Rodriguez ignored rules; U-M gets more probation"
Those headlines came from ESPN, the Detroit News, and the Detroit Free Press. You can probably guess which was which.

The NCAA report was essentially a ruling on the case of Detroit Free Press v. Rich Rodriguez. The Free Press found itself, like Charles Foster Kane, in the position of reporting on a story to which it was a party.

The finding was not ambiguous. It thoroughly debunked the Free Press's claims. The report concluded, "The committee noted that the violations of daily and weekly countable hour rules, though serious, were far less extensive than originally reported and that no student-athletes were substantially harmed." The committee also described the violations as "relatively technical."

The first part of that passage is buried in the last paragraph of the Free Press story. The second line does not appear. But this is the heart of the report. After all, from the very beginning, the Free Press has framed its story as an expose of Rich Rodriguez and his uniquely sinister training regimen. The original Freep article carried the headline, "A look inside Rodriguez's rigorous program," and told a tale of a coach shattering practice guidelines due to his obsession with overworking players. The reality, according to the NCAA report, is that the violations were vastly smaller than reported by the Free Press, overwhelmingly confined to confusion about whether stretching counted, and related to mismanagement by the Athletic Department, not Rodriguez.

Which is to say, the violations found by the NCAA bore virtually no relation to the Free Press's lurid allegations. The two are connected in the public mind because the story triggered the investigation. But the investigation actually debunked the allegations, and found some technical violations of the sort that would be found at nearly any program that invited the NCAA in to comb through every scrap of paper.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Michael Rosenberg and Mark Snyder did not report that the NCAA debunked the reporting of Michael Rosenberg and Mark Synder. Luckily, other newspapers saw it differently. Which means either that every other media outlet in the world is massively biased, or that perhaps the Free Press is not reporting on itself with a sufficiently critical eye.

Now, did Rosenberg and Snyder lose? It depends. As journalists, they utterly failed. As water carriers for a faction devoted to tarnishing Rich Rodriguez, they succeeded. Their stories and columns drove a nation-wide media narrative, causing countless recruits to spurn Michigan for fear that the program was on the verge of major sanctions. As a coach, you only get one chance to come in fresh and build up recruiting momentum. Rosenberg and Snyder helped ensure that Rodriguez didn't get much of one.

If Rosenberg, Snyder, and their Free Press editors were approaching this enterprise as journalists, they would feel like they lost. If they were approaching it from the standpoint of crusaders against the hated West Virginia interloper, they'd feel like it was a job well done. My hunch -- and it's just a hunch - is that they think they did their job well.

Michigan NEWS


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