oklahoma state

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 …

ssss

… 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 …”

On Oklahoma State

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.34.53 AMI have waited to write about the whole Sports Illustrated-Oklahoma State-Thayer Evans thing because—frankly—I wanted to think about it. To really think about it. Too often these days, we’re asked to have a take ASAP. We need to respond immediately; to opine decisively; to declare something big and bold and shocking on the spot; in the spur of the moment.

Too often, however, this results in buffoonery.

Wait. Before I go there, a bit about Thayer Evans and reporting …

I don’t know Thayer Evans. We’ve never met, never spoken. In fact, before a couple of days ago I’m not sure I’d ever heard of the man. Is he a good reporter? A shady reporter? Does he love Oklahoma and hate Oklahoma State? Could he care less? I just don’t know—and, I’m quite certain, most other don’t know, either.

Here’s what I do know: Much of the criticism of his reporting methodology has been—on the surface—bunk. There’s this idea out there that, in order to properly and rightly report a story, one needs to interview a select group of people—generally the stars and head coach. If you don’t speak with them, the logic goes, you’re interviewing the wrong folk.

This is crap.

Without fail, stars and head coaches are almost always the worst interviews/sources. Why? Multiple reasons: A. They’re the ones who benefited most from the team/program. The head coach of Oklahoma State was paid big money to guide a high-exposure program. He had endorsement deals, contractual perks, etc … etc. Unless he was ultimately screwed, there is, literally, zero reason for him to speak. Stars can be grouped in the same category. You’re Brandon Weeden. You were the starting quarterback at Oklahoma State; that ultimately led you to the NFL. What, exactly, are you going to complain about? Who are you going to rat out?

Along those lines, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—wrong with interviewing, quoting and relying upon former players who have reasons to be unhappy with Oklahoma State. Why? Because everyone has a motivation. Just as Weeden is surely going to be thrilled by his time with the Cowboys, the frustrated transfer is going to be, well, frustrated. That does not mean his story doesn’t count; or that his information isn’t legitimate; or that he’s going to go out of his way to lie. Earlier this year I wrote about my time at Manhattanville College, and being booted as the student newspaper’s adviser. Does this therefore mean I’m going to slam everyone at the college? That I’m a disgruntled ex-employee who wants to burn the place down? Absolutely not.

The job of a reporter (and it ain’t easy) is figuring out whose information is correct, and whose is not. It’s about feeling comfortable with sources; about having other people vouch for a source’s words and/or character. Ultimately, it’s a judgement call. Not knowing Thayer Evans, I can’t speak for his judgement in this area. However, bashing him for speaking with Oklahoma State exiles is, well, naive. Find me a strong reporter who hasn’t tracked down a disgruntled ex-employee/player/whatever, and I’ll find you someone who’s not, actually, a strong reporter. Ultimately, the goal is to interview everyone—happy, unhappy, successful, failure—and piece together your final project.

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.32.56 AMThe thing that puzzles me—that has always puzzled me—is the brainless craziness that is college football. Whether Thayer Evans’ reporting was flawed or perfect, clearly Oklahoma State did some very bad things. This is obvious, and a fact no one seems to be denying. And yet … why don’t school loyalists care? We’re talking about 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year-old (so-called) student-athletes once again being treated as pieces of meat. They’re models for uniforms, dollar signs for endorsement deals, images to place on the cover of university literature … and, rarely, actually people.

I hear college football die-hards speak of their teams as “we”—we need to run the ball better; we need to come out strong against Oregon. This, of course, is ludicrous. These are often kids with flimsy academic credentials, being asked to carry a full course load while also practicing X hours per day, flying X miles across the country, missing X class and X class and X class. They would struggle to maintain a 2.0 average if they were solely enrolled in school (minus sports)—and yet, we pretend all is OK and groovy and grand. We dress them up in our school colors, roll out the balls and cheer away. Then, seven or eight years later, when we see X player living in his mother’s house, barely able to read, 44 credits shy of a college diploma, we shrug. Shit happens.

If you love Oklahoma State, shouldn’t you be furious? Not at the reporter or the magazine, but the school and the athletic department and the football program? Shouldn’t you be demanding a clean system; a desire for all-around excellence; a chance for your guys to wind up as successes in business, not just a meaningless game against Baylor? Shouldn’t you demand to hear the truth from your university? Aren’t there better questions to ask than, “Why does Thayer Evans hate us so much?”

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.32.56 AMI’m a Jason Whitlock fan. I truly am. I thought his commentary on the Don Imus-Rutgers stuff was outstanding. His gun stuff was equally top shelf. He’s written some wonderful stuff through the years; some columns that I’ve read more than once.

That said, this has not been a good week for the man.

Whitlock clearly sees himself as some sort of media sheriff; a guy charged with keeping the rest of us in line. He likes calling out individual writers, pointing out their flaws, explaining (in not these exact words) why they suck and he’s awesome.

In regard to Thayer Evans, Whitlock told an Oklahoma radio station, “Having worked with Thayer Evans at Fox Sports …”

OK, to start here. I’m pretty sure Whitlock did not work with Evans. Back in the day, when people shared offices, they worked together. I’m in this cubicle, you’re in that cubicle—we work together. Whitlock never shared an office with Evans, never spent great time (if any time) with Evans. Literally, they were located in two different cities. By Whitlock’s definition, I worked at Sports Illustrated with Gary Smith. Sure, he was in North Carolina and I was in New York. And sure, we literally were never in the same room at the same moment. But we worked together because our paychecks were signed by the same person. No.

Furthermore, Whitlock talks about Evans’ loyalties, calling him a “huge, enormous, gigantic Oklahoma homer.” However, Whitlock’s past desperation to work for Sports Illustrated was no great secret. His dream of being handed the back-page column. He, of course, was never offered a job by the magazine—and was, we can assume, angry about it. Does this not (by Whitlock-think) make him the wrong guy to go off on the magazine? Is he not as biased as Evans is presumed to be?

After slaying Evans, Whitlock noted, “I think the story is a cliché and bogus and suspect and just the wrong angle.” He also admitted, and I’ll place this in capital letters, that HE NEVER READ THE ARTICLE. Never. Not once. Not a word. DID. NOT. READ. IT. Even if you think the writer is a fraud, how in God’s name can you rip a piece you never read … then have other credible news sources give those words weight.

Again, I think Whitlock is a good writer, and I have no personal beef. But he pulled this same crap when I appeared on his podcast several years ago to promote Sweetness. Whitlock welcomed me on, wanted to talk Walter Payton … but admitted never having read the book, because he doesn’t read sports books.

Uh …

My favorite piece of the Whitlock diatribe comes here: “There are a brand of sports writers who love doing these investigative pieces. They are not hard to do these days in terms of so-and-so got this money under the table. We’re into this area where unnamed sources can say anything, any of these he-said, she-said stories. I don’t respect the entire brand of investigative journalism that is being done here.”

Jason Whitlock has the absolute easiest job in sports media—and he knows it. He opines. That’s it. He doesn’t report. He doesn’t dig. He doesn’t make calls or seek out information. He takes the reporting done by others, sits in front of his laptop and comes up with a take. That’s it. He’s a good writer. Is he one of the, oh, 200 most-talented sportswriters in America? Probably not. (For the record, I’m by no means placing myself on that list either) But—and this is the big part—he’s loud. And obnoxious. He presents himself as a tough guy unafraid to take a tough stand, and people buy it. They absorb his self-righteous diatribes, because—on the surface—it seems to be driven by a desire to seek out truth and justice.

But, with men and women like Whitlock, truth and justice are often smokescreens for the parallel drugs plaguing the American media: Attention and fame. Whitlock seems all about attention and fame. Or, put differently, what sort of person states his own case for the Pulitzer Prize? What size ego must a man have to A. Think to himself, “I deserve the Pulitzer” and B. Write about it? I mean, between all the craziness of life and the highs and the lows and the ups and the downs, who even has time to ponder such a thing?

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.32.56 AMFor all I know, the Oklahoma State report is filled with holes, and Sports Illustrated will have to apologize and Thayer Evans will soon be selling insurance door to door in Ada. I just don’t know.

As a journalist, however, I am deeply troubled by the blame-the-messenger mentality that has zoomed to the forefront.

There is more here than just a reporter with a vendetta, and or a reporter who can’t report, or a magazine story.

It’s time we all try and see it.