‘Knoxville News Sentinel’ Dispute Not the First Run-In With UT Football

By: Joe Strupp

The Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel’s recent dispute with the University of Tennessee over an unauthorized interview with a football player, which resulted in the suspension of the writer’s media credential, is not the first time the paper has been in hot water with the campus this season.

Just three weeks ago, the News Sentinel was reprimanded by the university for giving a fan a media credential to enter the press box and go on the field during the Sept. 23 football game. That incident not only brought a rebuke from the athletic department, but also criticism from the Football Writers Association of America.

“This kind of conduct erodes our credibility and undermines our professionalism,” FWAA President Dennis Dodd of CBS Sportsline.com wrote in an e-mail to the university after the incident. “It is a slap to those of you in sports information who try to help us in our day-to-day duties.”

Chris Low, who covers Tennessee football for The Tennessean in Nashville, agreed. “To me, that is far worse [than the interview],” he told E&P. “We are all hustling to break stories, but to give a fan a press credential is far worse.”

Tiffany Carpenter, public relations director for the UT athletic department, said the university sent the newspaper a warning on Sept. 27 after the fan had been allowed to use the credential. The letter stated that “providing a media credential to someone who is not employed by the Knoxville News Sentinel is in clear violation of the credential use policy, and there are no bounds that protect you in this regard.” The letter also warned that the paper could lose its credential privileges in the future.

Steve Ahillen, News Sentinel executive sports editor, said the fan who had used the credential was not just some random person. A season ticket holder, Victoria Caldwell, had been the subject of a previous News Sentinel story after the university had called her to ask that she not be so loud at games after some other fans had complained.

Ahillen said the paper wanted Caldwell to write a column about watching the game from the press box since she had been criticized for watching it from the regular seats. He said the column has not run.

“We are used to battling Tennessee,” Ahillen said. “There is almost always an adversarial thing going on.” He said there had been some other disputes in recent weeks, including one over the paper reporting on some players’ use of www.myspace.com and a similar campus-linked site, www.facebook.com. Carpenter acknowledged the incident, saying the university had objected to the paper linking its Web site to some of the players’ facebook.com Web pages, which are supposed to be limited to students and faculty.

The most recent disagreement stems from an interview News Sentinel football writer Dave Hooker conducted with football player Inquoris “Inky” Johnson, a defensive back injured in the team’s Sept. 16 game. Hooker interviewed him on Oct. 4 for a story that ran Oct. 5.

The story drew objections from the athletic department because Hooker had not arranged it through the university, as the team’s policy states. The team had been denying such interviews since Johnson’s injury, but Hooker arranged it through a third party he has not identified.

On Oct. 9, Hooker received a letter from the athletic department criticizing the story and informing him that his media credentials would be suspended until Oct. 23, a time period that includes the team’s next game, against the University of Alabama, on Oct. 21. The team has claimed that Hooker improperly interviewed Johnson on campus in an “ambush” style approach, according to Ahillen, who contends the interview was done over the phone and the player did not object.

“We have a tape recording of the interview and it is obviously over the telephone,” Ahillen said. “There is no doubt.” The editor says he is considering posting an audio file of the interview on the paper’s Web site to prove it. Carpenter said that Johnson did not know he was being interviewed and the reporter never formally stated the conversation was on the record.

Ahillen said the paper has written a formal letter of protest and plans to publish an editorial on Sunday about the matter. Just today, the Society of Professional Journalists weighed in with its own letter of support, which says, in part, “Hooker broke no rules, other than those related to the arrogant efforts of the University’s sports information director to try to manipulate the news.”

Ahillen said he also has received supportive e-mails and calls from news outlets that include The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, and ESPN. “We are still wresting with what else to do,” said Ahillen. “We want to do the right thing, take the high road. But we really are dissatisfied with what has happened.”

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