Coach's Ground Rules Were
Out of Bounds
February/March 2010

by Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery

In our most recent column, we defended President Obama's right, as a news source, to refuse to appear on a Fox News Sunday show because, in the president's opinion, the network is biased against him.

"As a source," we wrote, "he gets to say what he wants – to whomever he wants."

Now we're faced with another situation, that of Tennessee Volunteers head football coach Lane Kiffin, who resigned after an unexpectedly short period of time on the job. Kiffin insisted on very specific, restrictive ground rules in exchange for meeting with reporters to discuss his resignation. We wondered whether we were compelled by our own precedent to defend his right, as a source, to "say what he wants – to whomever he wants," according to whatever ground rules he chooses to establish.

The answer, we believe, is no. The two cases are different and lead us to different outcomes.

Here are the basic facts. Kiffin led the Volunteers for just one (mediocre) season before he "shocked the football world," as ESPN put it, by bolting to the USC Trojans. His tenure at Tennessee was stormy at best, and his hasty departure was irksome to fans and reporters alike.

Upon his exit from UT, Kiffin agreed to make a final statement to the news media. However, through sports information director Bud Ford, he set some conditions.

First, no live coverage of the event.

Second, no video recording of his initial remarks – only his final statement. Audio recording, and of course note-taking, were to be permitted throughout.

Third, no questions from the news media.

When reporters balked, Ford sternly reminded them, "You're in our building – you know that. You're in a university building." The counter-argument that a university building is public property – and that Kiffin, at least until he quit, was a public employee – didn't seem to have an effect on Ford. (The entire exchange was on YouTube, but has since been removed, presumably due to copyright issues.)

The journalist who put up the stiffest resistance to Kiffin's proposed ground rules was WBIR-TV news director Bill Shory. He refused to go along with the idea of an off-camera session and an on-camera session.

The print folks seemed to be OK with Kiffin's proposal. So, according to Shory, were his fellow TV people.

"[Shory] doesn't represent all of us," one reporter can be heard to say on the YouTube video. "I'm not going to have him ruin our opportunity."

"I don't think one guy has the right to completely screw up video for everybody," complained another.

"We've got deadlines to meet. Can we get just him in the room?" said a third, in frustration.

Shory stood firm. He insisted that his station wanted to tape everything Kiffin had to say.

"You cut your nose off to spite your face, TV," warned UT's Ford as Kiffin approached to make his statement.

Kiffin made a 59-second statement on camera, and then disappeared. That was all the reporters – print and broadcast alike – got at the time.

Shory later elaborated on his reasons for insisting that the entire Kiffin appearance, not just a selected part, be held on camera. He made it clear during an interview with Al Tompkins of Poynter Online that he did not like being pushed around by a news source.

"Whether or not you agree that cameras were essential to complete coverage, no one can deny that Kiffin (with the university's help) was dictating the conditions of the event in order to cast himself in the best possible light," Shory told Poynter. "Whether it's a governor, a mayor or a football coach, all journalists should oppose that kind of manipulation to the greatest degree possible."

That word "manipulation" is the key to our analysis and conclusion.

We define manipulation as the exercise of influence over another person by coercion or deception.

In the president's view, Fox News manipulates by deception -- by selectively reporting facts and by making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about matters of vital public policy. In our view, no news source is obligated to cooperate with journalists who engage in that sort of behavior.

Similarly, no news reporter is obligated to cooperate with a news source who seeks to manipulate a situation to the public's detriment. Journalists were trying to get Kiffen to explain why he was bailing after only14 months on the job.

Here the manipulation was by means of coercion, not deception. Kiffin, who wanted to make a public statement, but only on his own terms, in effect put a gun to the head of journalists under deadline pressure and held them hostage to his non-negotiable demands. From what we saw on the YouTube video, most of Kiffin's journalistic "hostages" were ready to give in to those demands.

Only one, Bill Shory, stood firm. We applaud him for that.

Kiffin's behavior -- hiding behind UT's sports information director and refusing to meet hostile reporters in a "fair fight" -- was unattractive. Moreover, it was a disturbing attempt to manipulate the press.

It's hard to say who "won" the struggle. Shory didn't get what he was looking for -- the chance to videotape everything Kiffin had to say. On the other hand, Kiffin didn't get the opportunity to make his excuses off camera, in what he apparently thought was a "safe" environment.

Let's call it a draw for the parties, but a win for the principle of independent journalism.

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

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