ESPN refusing to fix its Fine mess

Lord Alistair McAlpine endured eight days of being known throughout the United Kingdom as the man who sexually abused Steve Messham in North Wales several years ago.

The claim came the night of Nov. 2 on a report by the British Broadcasting Co

rp. investigative show “Newsnight,” which by its own admission in a Nov. 12 follow-up failed to contact McAlpine for comment or input on the original story. Although the Nov. 2 broadcast did not name him, social media speculated on the accuser’s identity. McAlpine issued a statement two days later saying he had never been to the children’s home in which the accuser had lived.

As is now known, “Newsnight” made a horrendous mistake in the Nov. 2 report. Messham said he was wrong when accusing McAlpine because of mistaken identity in a photo, according to a statement he read Nov. 9 on “Newsnight.” On that show, BBC presenter Eddie Mair opened with a 30-second segment that featured an apology to McAlpine from his accuser, and ended with this statement: “We also apologise unreservedly for having broadcast this report.”

McAlpine’s innocence has received as much (if not more) attention than did the accusations against him – in large part because of the repercussions of those involved in the inaccurate reporting. But in a similar incident, former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine’s own name-clearing one week ago came nowhere close to the attention given the accusations a year ago he sexually molested SU ball boys.

Fine, in fact, has yet to receive a public apology from any of his four accusers (two of whom admitted they made up the accusations), or from the university where he had worked for 35 years that fired him 10 days after the accusations were made. He also has not received an apology from any media source that accused him of wrongdoing, most notably ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” program and reporter Mark Schwarz.

It was a year ago this week that ESPN aired an “Outside the Lines” report by Schwarz[O3] that named two former SU ball boys, stepbrothers Bobby Davis and Mike Lang, who claimed Fine had sexually abused them. In that initial story, the program downplayed the fact that Davis had come to the sports network in 2003 with the same story, while Lang then had denied Fine abused him.

But a year ago, news coverage of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of children while he was an assistant football coach at Penn State University created a much different environment for that sort of accusation. Over the next several weeks, Schwarz and ESPN “broke” several stories on the matter, including telephone conversations taped with Davis and Fine’s wife, Laurie; accuser Zach Tomaselli’s details of abuse; and the network’s own role in reporting the case. ESPN defended both its decision to not provide to police a tape of the conversation between Laurie Fine and Davis, as well as the fact that Schwarz introduced Davis and Tomaselli after Tomaselli came forward following the initial ESPN story.

(Excerpts of the conversation between Laurie Fine and Davis, which were made public, implied Laurie Fine knew of abuse going on by her husband and in her home.)

Earlier this year, Tomaselli – whose story of the accusations changed numerous times as facts challenged the truth of them – admitted he made up the accusations. He also said Davis coached him on what to say, according to an April story in the Syracuse Post-Standard.

“I’m ready to step forward and admit that I fabricated the Bernie Fine story,” Tomaselli said in the April 13 story.

Rather than offering any apology to Fine, Tomaselli said he enjoyed the national media spotlight the story created for him.

While many sports writers and columnists quickly linked Syracuse and Penn State as equal villains in child abuse scandals, in the past week only one news source appears to have said that was wrong. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote Oct. 19 – before the federal investigation against Fine was announced as over – that a year after he wrote, “The closer you look at Syracuse basketball, the more it does, in fact, resemble football at Penn State,” he had changed his mind.

“The refusal of The Post-Standard to publish an article about Davis’s allegations — charges it could never corroborate — now looks like responsible journalism rather than a dereliction of duty,” Nocera wrote last month. “The university hired the law firm of Paul Weiss to review its actions in 2005. The firm concluded that, while the university had made mistakes, it had investigated Davis’s allegations diligently and had come to the same conclusion as the newspaper: there was simply no proof.

“With the passage of time, ESPN is the one that appears to have acted irresponsibly — along with the rest of us who piled on. … What the Bernie Fine case really shows is not how far we’ve come, but how much further we have to go.”

When the Syracuse University men’s basketball season began last week, for the first time in 36 years Bernie Fine was not on the bench next to coach Jim Boeheim. Most of the follow-up stories this past week note that he is without a job, his Syracuse-area home is up for sale and his wife is suing ESPN for libel.

The BBC error also has resulted in people losing their jobs — only these were not the wrongly accused, but those who did the wrong accusing. The BBC has put two senior editors on leave, suspended all investigative activities by “Newsnight” and accepted the resignation of BBC head George Entwistle, who took over just two months ago. Complicating the decision by “Newsnight” to air the report that led to McAlpine was an apparent cover-up of one of the BBC’s longtime and best-known personalities, the late Jimmy Savile, who is thought to have molested up to 300 children.

The BBC also has stated this week that it expects more disciplinary action as both matters are further investigated. This statement came during a 15-minute story “Newsnight” did Nov. 12 about the BBC and whether it can restore its credibility with its audience.

In its report Nov. 9 of the decision by federal investigators to drop the investigation of Fine, ESPN highlights its own involvement with just one mention of airing the tape between Davis and Laurie Fine: “The same day, ESPN aired an audiotape in which Fine’s wife, Laurie Fine, apparently acknowledged to Davis she knew about the molestation he alleged.”

The only other portion of the story that elaborates on Fine’s innocence is one line: “From the start, there were doubts.”

That was as close as ESPN came to acknowledging Fine might not have been as guilty as charged by the network and Schwarz, who said last December he had no doubt of the stories told by the accusers. He has yet to make any comment on the investigation being dropped. He did not do ESPN’s story last week on the matter. ESPN, in fact, did not do the story at all, but used a report by the Associated Press.

In the United Kingdom, the BBC and “Newsnight” have taken swift steps to erase the doubts of its credibility with its viewers, who have expressed disappointment and outrage in comments online and in print.

ESPN, on the other hand, has so far ignored the thousands of comments on its website, and others, as well as social media that call for an apology and for Schwarz to be fired.

A year ago, ESPN and the rest of the U.S. media piggybacked the Fine story on the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. This time around there appears to be no such attempt to follow the lead of the BBC in its handling of a sexual abuse of children story.

Pat Louise is a 1984 (Newhouse) and 2001 (Whitman) graduate of Syracuse University. Her journalism career has included six years at the Syracuse Post-Standard, including three years as a sports editor heading up coverage of SU sports. She lives in upstate New York, where she is publisher of a community weekly newspaper and teaches journalism at Utica College.

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