I cover Oklahoma State. I went to Oklahoma State. I love Oklahoma State. You have an agenda.

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 12.44.35 AMEarlier today, thanks to the magic of Twitter and the spiritual power of the wild and wacky information superhighway, I stumbled upon this Tweet from Carson Cunningham, a sports reporter for KOCO-TV, Oklahoma City’s local ABC affiliate …

artellThe word that jumped off the screen was “agenda.” Here was another local reporter accusing a national magazine of having an agenda against Oklahoma State University and, specifically, its football program. The same theme has been repeated over and over and over and over and over and over by Oklahoma State loyalists.

Agenda …

Agenda …

Agenda …

Agenda …

And, perhaps, Thayer Evans does have an agenda. Perhaps he openly roots against the Cowboys and wants the school to burn down and has all the love in the world for Oklahoma and Baylor and all of OSU’s opponents. As I noted earlier, I’ve never met Thayer, I’ve never worked with Thayer, I’ve read only a few things he’s written. I’m neither fan nor foe—though, clearly, the recent five-part series could have been handled much better (You make any mistakes in an investigative piece, you damage the reputation of the entire project. Period).

That said, it’s weird (creepy, almost) how those screaming “Agenda!” can do so without the slightest trace of self-examination or introspection. Exhibit A, B, C, D and E: Carson Cunningham, pride of KOCO-TV and the station’s leading Evans/Sports Illustrated critic.

Cunningham, according to his bio, is a 29-year-old graduate of, hmm, Oklahoma State University—and is, “proud to cover some of the best teams in the country here in Oklahoma.” Personally, I have no doubt graduates of colleges can remain unbiased when dealing with their old loyalties. I, for example, have written myriad scathing pieces on the University of Delaware through the years. In a way, it’s a good sign if a reporter leans the other way; if he/she actually goes a tad harder on the ol’ alma mater. I’m assuming Carson shares this belief and would never use his Twitter account to set forth anything like, uh …

… this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 9.32.07 PM

Or, egad, this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 9.32.24 PMAnd, even if Carson Cunnigham—unbiased news/sports reporter for an ABC affiliate—would re-Tweet such things, he would at least (of course) remain unbiased and neutral when it comes to his statements. I mean, he certainly learned in school that a reporter/anchor’s job is to—first, foremost and only—take no sides; to gather the information, then convey it as fairly and evenly as possible. Even in the Internet era, reporters are not cheerleaders. They are deliverers of information.

So if you were to tell me Carson Cunningham—unbiased news/sports reporter for an ABC affiliated—would Tweet this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 9.37.33 PM… and this …

hdhdh… and this …


… and this …

!!!… and this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 11.43.05 PM… and this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 11.40.22 PM… and this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 11.41.48 PM… and this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 11.42.01 PMWell, I wouldn’t believe you.

Wait. Scrap that. I would believe you. Because I would think, “Yes, he’s Tweeting and re-Tweeting some awfully one-sided takes on the SI series. But surely he’s also asking the tough questions. Surely he’s reaching out to Oklahoma State administrators and demanding to know which parts of the story are true. Surely he’s thinking to himself, “Well, this is Sports Illustrated. And even though I don’t particularly trust Thayer Evans, George Dohrmann is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Jon Wertheim is one of the great sports journalists of the modern era, and the magazine does some amazing work. So my job is to figure out what’s legit here, what’s false here—and to report my ass off. This is my chance to take ownership of this story, and I’m gonna do it.” In fact, I’d be quite certain Carson—unbiased news/sports reporter for an ABC affiliate—would be devoting hours to the phone; going one by one through the old media guides, calling every listed player and coach and trainer and equipment guy and and saying, “This is Carson Cunningham from ABC. I’m investigating the SI investigation of Oklahoma State, and I wanted to see if you had a moment …”

That, after all, is how the great sports TV journalists I grew up watching did things. Len Berman, Sal Marciano, Warner Wolf—they went after stories. They worked the phones. They relied on their own reporting. They stayed as unbiased and neutral as humanly possible. Their opinions weren’t the stories. The sports were the stories.

Ah, the good ol’ days …

Unless I’m mistaken, Carson Cunnigham—unbiased news/sports reporter for an ABC affiliate—hasn’t reported worth a damn. He landed this embarrassingly vapid phone interview with former Oklahoma State quarterback Josh Fields, which offers young viewers a riveting 9-minute, 40-second lesson titled, HOW TO MAKE SURE YOU’LL NEVER BE THE NEXT WALTER CRONKITE. Or, put differently, how in God’s name don’t you ask some variation of, “Josh, over the past few years myriad athletes have denied accusations, only later to be proven false. Why should people believe you in light of this story?” Or, “Josh, even though you say you did nothing wrong, Sports Illustrated does have many ex-players on the record. Do you believe the program was clean, or were there at least some issues?” Or, “Josh, do you think the university should launch an internal investigation?” Or, “Josh, is it possible you just didn’t know?”

But, no, Carson Cunningham devotes a huge chunk of his star-attraction, welcome-to-the-big-time-Mr. Strine interview to lead-in questions (“Josh, the thing that jumped out to me, the players interviewed, most of them—if not all of them—didn’t finish their time here at Oklahoma State. What were your thoughts on who were interviewed for the story?”) and slow-motion softballs and homer nonsense (“I don’t know how much you know about this Thayer Evans …”). He doesn’t even leave open the chance that maybe, just maybe, Fields is full of crap. That maybe, just maybe, he’s one of many ex-Oklahoma State players thinking, “Oh, fuck, this has the potential to be really damaging.”

I’ll say this once again: It is certainly a possibility that Thayer Evans messed this thing up and belongs working aisle 23 at the nearby Target. But is it likely that absolutely everyone who was interviewed lied? That Oklahoma State is clean of guilt? That none of the financial and academic accusations are true? Uh … no.

For “reporters” like Carson Cunningham, though, the story seems to be only about Sports Illustrated, and how a magazine dared mess with his beloved university. That’s how things often work in small towns like Stillwater, where coverage is mostly sympathetic and national entities are viewed warily and the us-vs.-them genre of thinking transfers from students to fans to media members. Too often (but not always, of course), what reporters in such environs want most is access. Is time with the star quarterback. Is the head coach knowing his first name. Is a nice, central spot in the press box—where the temperature is a comfortable 72 degrees and the free ham hoagies are plentiful.

Hell, with that sort of ambition, it’s easy to smile and stare into a camera and cheer for the home team.

The hard part of journalism comes with asking the tough questions. Tough questions you often don’t wish to know the answers to.

PS: To reply to the inevitable snipes. 1. No, I don’t work for SI. 2. Yes, I was the guy who “got” John Rocker. 3. Yes, I worked as a local reporter—for two different papers. 4. Yes, my book on Clemens sold 14 copies. 5. No, I don’t hate Oklahoma State. Or Oklahoma. Or Carson Cunningham. Or Lance Mehl. 6. Yes, I rooted for Delaware when it played in last year’s women’s basketball tournament. However, I haven’t covered a Blue Hen game in more than a decade.

PPS: Forgot to say, I love the final question of the Fields Q&A: “You have the floor …”

15 thoughts on “I cover Oklahoma State. I went to Oklahoma State. I love Oklahoma State. You have an agenda.”

  1. The problem with your article is that its premise appears to be to prove that Carson is *not* being non-biased in this situation. Well, he never claimed to be. And, if you asked him, I’m sure he wouldn’t deny it. No story here…

    1. Well said, Mike. I don’t believe the ethics of journalism apply to Twitter. Tweets are nothing more than opinion, and the last time I checked, this is America. It’s legal to have an opinion.

  2. Jeff, as you know, every town in this country with high school and/or college athletes and teams has at least one Carson Cunningham. It’s just not worth it.

  3. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black…. You attack someone because they have an agenda (defending their alma mater) and you do the same thing. Your agenda is defending your SI cronies against the onslaught of well deserved criticism for publishing their slanderous series on the OSU football program. Your childish rant is embarrassing and insulting. You proclaim to be a professional journalist and you print this crap? Cunningham obviously struck a nerve with you. At least the SI writers that actually wrote the trash series had the class to respectfully disagree with the multitude of criticism directed towards them. You just select one person out of thousands and go on a rant about his “agenda”. What for? Do you really think the half dozen or so people that actually read your blog care about his agenda? Or your agenda? Hell, no.

    P.S. You state in your rant you do not work for SI, but your web site says you do work for SI. Hmmm.

    1. He actually said that he doesn’t know the original author of the Ok State piece. Also, it says that he’s a former writer for Sports Illustrated. I don’t think you read it correctly. I don’t understand why people read this man’s BLOG, his own personal space to write his thoughts and feelings on topics, and assume that he has an agenda. I don’t agree with anything Mr. Pearlman says about politics, but I do know that those are his own opinion and there is no reason to bash a man for exhibiting his first amendment rights.

  4. if anyone is questioning Jeff’s motives… I might be the biggest Barry Bonds fan still alive and I bought his “Love Me” book for list at Barnes, out of respect to his craft.

  5. The fact that he would jump so quickly to the defense of a large organization against one of his fellow reporters speaks to a total lack of character. Reading his timeline is an embarrassment, starting with the picture he posted of himself with Charles Barkley. Way to act like you’ve been there before, you jock-sniffing buffoon.

  6. Assuming you land (or have landed) another journalism lecturer gig, please make this sordid saga part of your curriculum. So many directions to take this, all instructive.

  7. This is absolutely the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time:

    “I mean, he certainly learned in school that a reporter/anchor’s job is to—first, foremost and only—take no sides; to gather the information, then convey it as fairly and evenly as possible. Even in the Internet era, reporters are not cheerleaders. They are deliverers of information.”

  8. Here are the agendas I see at play:

    Evans = anti-OSU agenda (as demonstrated in his former columns and his Twitter feed)
    Dohrmann = I-want-another-Pulitzer agenda
    SI = The-whole-NCAA-stinks-and-exploits-athletes agenda

    Because Evans does the majority of the research, his agenda filters the “facts” available to Dohrmann and the editors. The “facts” he brings, especially the Woods story, fit really well with Dohrmann’s agenda and with SI’s agenda. They fit so well, in fact, that nobody from SI bothers to corroborate them.

    After all, the specific details at a specific school are not as important as the overall message. SI already knows that college football brings unprepared kids to a university, extracts whatever value possible from their football ability, and spits them out once they are no longer a contributor on the field. It doesn’t really matter to that agenda that Hershel Sims is not an example of this phenomenon at all – he gave them some good quotes so he becomes a feature character in The Fallout.

    I think I agree with SI about the NCAA as a whole exploiting kids, but since their 10 month investigation was unable to dig up much in terms of examples (Kevin White’s story is the closest, but unfortunately SI didn’t investigate his story so I’m left wondering if there is really any “there” there) I came away from the series thinking that the exploitation might not be as widespread as I assumed.

  9. This quote drives me up the wall:
    “But is it likely that absolutely everyone who was interviewed lied?”
    I really wish you so called members of the media did a little research on this story before blindly defending SI. SI claims that they spoke with something like 60 former players and coaches. But they only include information from about 12 of those “sources”. And about 10 of those so called have came out publicly and either recanted their stories or claimed that SI purposely misconstrued their words and took them out of context to fit the narrative of the story that SI was wanting to depict. So now SI only has 2 so called sources that are standing with them. One of which is in prison and the other is trying to sue OSU for money due to football injuries.

    So what about the 50 or so other sources that SI claimed to have talked to? Why aren’t they quoted in the SI story? It turns out that many of those people approached local media outlets that Thayer basically ambushed them and asked them misleading questions. Those people told SI their stories about their time at OSU and it refuted the narrative that SI was trying to push so SI didn’t include their quotes in their story. But in a few cases they did takes their quotes out of context to further promote their false narrative.

    So basically, SI has a story with only two sources left standing, and their stories have been proven to be at best inaccurate due to actual fact checking. SI wrote a tabloid piece about college football where they tried to show OSU as a seedy college football program. SI HASN’T PROVIDED A SINGLE FACT TO SUPPORT THEIR STORY! The only facts that have come out in this story are the ones that prove key components of their story was wrong.

    You people don’t get it. It’s not that people locally in Oklahoma are being homers about their local university. We all understand that some things are going to happen in a college football program and OSU is not immune to that. It’s that before we believe the story you are going to have to provide us with some sort of evidence. And so far the only evidence that has surfaced has proved SI wrong.

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