Covering A Controversial Story p. 16

By: Arthur Z. Kamin Soccer writer is shunned after reporting that a college coach
was facing charges of sexually harassing a former team manager sp.

WHEN THE WORLD Cup soccer games ended at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., last summer, Gene Racz, soccer writer for the Home News of New Brunswick, thought it might be a long time before his byline appeared on the front page again.
These were heady times, he recalled, as the sport finally made it into the national ? and local ? limelight.
But, on Nov. 2, 1994, he was back on the front page with a controversial, exclusive story that he said he really did not like to write. It was a story that gave him many anxious moments, but one, he emphasized, that as a journalist he knew had to be written.
Even his competitive media colleagues, some of whom to this day have managed to keep clear of the story, praised him for his courage and professional skill.
The story turned out to be the lead on the Home News front page, spread across the top, with the headline, "Coach faces sex allegation," and the subhead, "Ex-RU soccer manager says she was harassed." Sunk into the type was a thumbnail color photo of Bob Reasso, the popular Rutgers University men's soccer coach for 14 years.
He had guided his teams to becoming a ranking national power and, in 1990, had been named national coach of the year.
In December ? even with the sex harassment controversy swirling around him ? he took his squad to the NCAA soccer tournament semifinal round before losing to the University of Virginia, the national champion.
The story sent shock waves throughout Rutgers, New Jersey's state university; throughout the Central New Jersey area where the Home News, with a daily circulation of about 51,000 and a Sunday circulation of about 59,000, is the dominant local newspaper, and Reasso is well known; throughout the close-knit and still rather innocent world of intercollegiate soccer; and among Home News media rivals, some of whom had timely access to the same information that had been faxed anonymously about Reasso, but fumbled with it for days, wondering how to handle such a controversial story.
"Believe me, I would have liked to have passed that story on to someone else," said Racz, who had covered soccer and other sports for the Home News since his graduation in 1986 from Rutgers, where he majored in English and biology. He has continued his personal involvement in the sport, playing in a semi-professional league.
"I knew it would have an impact on my future Rutgers coverage. And I was right," Racz added. "But once the information came to us and we checked it out thoroughly, we all were very careful that this story be treated in the most professional way possible."
Suddenly, Racz found himself being cut off from Rutgers soccer sources on even routine stories and questions.
"I just developed new sources," he said. "If a Rutgers coach didn't talk to me, I'd go to a player or a rival coach."
Reasso, asked for his reaction to the story, said it did not surprise him. He made it clear that Racz "long has been critical of me and the Rutgers soccer program," and that Racz, who also writes soccer opinion pieces, "never liked me since I cut him from the team" when he was an undergraduate.
Reasso denied that he had been cool to Racz and not answered his questions as the Rutgers team headed for the Final Four playoffs in December.
But two other veteran Rutgers beat soccer writers, Ed Barmakian of the Newark Star-Ledger and Frank Giase of the Woodbridge News-Tribune, said Racz did, indeed, receive the cold shoulder from Reasso and other Rutgers athletic officials.
Giase said he personally was "disappointed" that the coach had been telling people about Racz's being chopped from the soccer squad eight years ago.
"Gene is very professional, and he has no vendetta against Bob Reasso," he said.
Racz's initial account related how Sarah Hunt, the former team manager, accused the head coach of sexually harassing her. According to the story, Hunt said the coach had verbally and physically harassed her prior to a road game at the University of Rhode Island.
The story quoted Hunt as saying that, while in the bar, Reasso started "rubbing my side, rubbing my legs and kissing me on the head and stuff like that."
Racz also called Reasso who, according to the story, had no comment about the charge and labeled the question "preposterous."
Richard Hughes, Home News editor since 1986, said the Reasso story was "checked every step of the way," adding: "We had to make sure the woman was a creditable source" and that "there was substance to the complaint."
At that time, the university was treating the issue as a confidential personnel matter, and officials would not comment.
Home News staff writer Diane Bakst was sent with Racz to interview Hunt. She contributed to the initial story.
Racz said sports editor Jack Genung, managing editor Anthony Bersani and deputy metropolitan editor Dan Carroll also were involved in making certain his story was "tight and covered every angle."
For an immediate next-day follow-up, the Home News brought in Tia Swanson, the regular Rutgers beat reporter, to take over the story.
Swanson got the university to acknowledge it was investigating the complaint. There was no other elaboration, "except to say that the university is following the outlined procedures," she reported.
Swanson, known among Rutgers administrators and faculty members as an enterprising reporter who asks the right questions and the tough questions, continued to pursue the story.
She came to the Home News last February after working at the Philadelphia Inquirer for two and a half years.
Swanson learned that Kenneth Grispin, the attorney for the soccer coach, is a member of the university's board of trustees, and there could be a conflict of interest with his dual role. And she wrote that Hunt, a senior, was miffed at the media for reporting on Reasso's accomplishments ? but never revealing that she herself was a dean's list student and a National Honor Society member.
Swanson also quoted her as saying: "I don't want people to think I'm some sort of bimbo that asked for it."
On Nov. 19, Swanson detailed, in a page one story, that Reasso will be disciplined by the university ? but not on the grounds of sexual harassment. She quoted Hunt as saying she was told by athletic director Frederick Gruninger that Reasso will be disciplined for being in a "party atmosphere" with a student.
The decision is being appealed by Hunt to senior vice president Joseph Whiteside, Gruninger's supervisor.
Genung said he understood six media outlets received the anonymous faxes about the Reasso investigation ? but, in checking, it was difficult to pin down who actually handled them. Several reporters and editors said decisions were fuzzy as to whether news or sports or both should begin the initial checking, and as a result story delays developed.
But Janice D'Arcy, the editor in chief of the Daily Targum, the independent Rutgers student newspaper, offered no excuses.
"We had the fax," she said, "and we couldn't get our act together. Our hearts sank when we saw the front-page Home News story. There was a great deal of finger-pointing in our newsroom."
Since then, D'Arcy stressed, the Targum has come back strong with some exclusives of its own ? along with an editorial and several opinion columns.
The newspaper quoted Grispin as saying Reasso was handling the complaint "like a man."
?( Kamin, previously a newspaper president and editor, is a freelance writer and journalism educator. He is a former member of the Rutgers board of trustees.) [Caption]
?( Gene Racz's story on Rutgers University men's soccer coach Bob Reasso was the lead on the Home News front page, spread across the top, with the lead on the Home News front page, spread across the top, with the headline, "Coach faces sex allegation," and the subhead, " Ex-RU soccer manager says she was harassed.") [Photo & Caption]
?( Gene Racz) [Photo]


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here