from University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne,
there were legitimate reasons for delaying and softening a
negative article on the football program sp.
TOM OSBORNE WAS on top of the football world.
His University of Nebraska Huskers had just beaten Miami in the 1995 New Year's Day Orange Bowl to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship. Osborne could use his championship to court the nation's best high school seniors and sign them up by the Feb. 1 NCAA deadline.
And then he learned the Omaha World-Herald was readying a front-page Sunday story comparing the misdemeanor and alcohol offenses of the Husker team members to Nebraska's non-football playing students.
The World-Herald had found that the football players outscored the regular students in the Lancaster County courtroom by a two to one margin, a statistic Osborne did not want any potential recruits to see.
Osborne lobbied the paper's news and sports editors to soften the story, then worked to delay it until he finished making his pitch to the high school stars.
World-Herald reporters, angered by Osborne's efforts to kill the story, staged a minor, but ineffectual revolt.
When the shouting was over, the coach had won a major media bowl game. The story, originally scheduled to be on the Sunday, Jan. 22 front page, was published on Saturday, Feb. 4, after the new recruits had committed to Nebraska. The story was not run on the front page of the newspaper, but on the bottom of the sports section cover page ? with the meat of the article on a jump page.
The headline, "NU's Football Endures Off Field Problems," over a long pull quote by Osborne bemoaning the tendency of people to criticize champions, watered down the significance of the story.
The court survey, once the lead, was now in the 15th paragraph, on the jump page. And two other stories that were part of the package ? one on Osborne and a second on the court survey ? were scrapped.
In fact, even the scaled down story was on hold until James Allen Flannery, the writer who conducted the court survey, went to see World-Herald president and CEO John E. Gottschalk.
And last summer, Flannery resigned from the World-Herald to become chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Creighton University in Omaha.
"I had taught for four years at California State University in Fresno and it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up," Flannery said in an interview.
But World-Herald newsroom sources said Flannery left because he had become embittered by the way his paper had caved in to Osborne's pressure.
"It was the last straw," said one reporter.
What the survey found
Flannery designed the survey with David Moore, a World-Herald poll taker from the Gallup Organization, in Princeton, N.J., and Philip E. Myers, the author of Precision Journalism, a respected book on the survey process.
Flannery discovered that 17 Nebraska football players ? or 13.2% ? of the 129 members of the 1995 NCAA championship team had committed misdemeanors or alcohol-related infractions.
He also found that only 6% of 300 non-football male undergraduates who were randomly surveyed had run-ins with legal authorities.
The survey covered a five-year period.
Osborne began his telephone campaign to stall the publication of the survey and devalue it the week of Jan. 17, the start of a 13-day period when college coaches are permitted to contact high school players.
His first call was to G. Woodson Howe, the paper's editor and vice president.
"I simply wanted to explain my point of view to Woody," Osborne explained in an interview. "I do that when I think the World-Herald is doing something that is unfair or when they don't have all the facts. But I can't control what the World-Herald does."
On Jan. 18, Flannery and Lee Barfknecht, who were in charge of the football aspect of the piece, were called to a special meeting.
"We were told that the only way the story would be published was if the research findings on the court survey were not in the lead," Flannery recalled.
Howe denied that Osborne had influenced the journalistic decision making.
"I had been concerned about the scientific validity of the survey before Coach Osborne called me," Howe said. "I was not sure that it met the highest standard. As time went on, my editors convinced me it was a good survey, we printed it and we did not pull any punches. If anyone suggested differently, they're wrong."
On Jan. 19, Osborne telephoned World-Herald sports editor Steve Sinclair.
"He said he was aware of what we were doing and wanted to touch base with us and make sure that our piece would be fair and accurate," Sinclair said.
But Osborne also demanded that Sinclair not run the story until after the Feb. 1 signing deadline for new high school recruits.
When Sinclair balked, Osborne called Howe again.
By that time, the story was no longer a candidate for the front page of the high profile, Sunday World-Herald edition.
"One of my editors thought it should have been a page one story," recalled Howe. "But I didn't think it was that kind of story. It didn't have a hard enough edge to it."
Michael Finney, the World-Herald executive editor, who pushed the project for the front page, indicated the story lost its edge when the court survey was de-emphasized.
"It was the strength of the story," Finney said in an interview. "The poll was a helluva good idea."
Never on Sunday
Howe insisted Osborne had nothing to do with getting the story shifted to the Saturday sports pages or having it delayed until after the college sign-up period had ended.
"We have enterprise stories scheduled for weeks in advance and we change when we run them all the time," he said. "It never occurred to me that running it on a Saturday was downgrading it."
Howe also said he was not involved in the final decision on when the story would run.
"I didn't have any say or input on that," he asserted.
Finney, who edited the final version of the article, was asked why the survey was not mentioned in the headline and why it was taken out of the lead.
"That is an internal matter," Finney said.
But that question has been asked repeatedly by reporters in the World-Herald newsroom.
It was the main topic of the Jan. 25 session of the World-Herald journalists, who hold weekly meetings to discuss philosophical and ethical issues.
The reporters at the meeting had heard the World-Herald had killed an enterprise story on Husker players who had scrapes with the law.
They were worried about the impact the decision would have on the paper's reputation. A radio talk show host had mentioned the paper had been working on the piece.
When the meeting was over, the reporters went back to their terminals and sent out a computer "call to arms" memo.
"Few of us know exactly what the story is and why it didn't run, or hasn't run yet," the memo said. "It is fairly widespread knowledge, both in the newsroom and beyond, that the story was in the works . . . .
"The hope was expressed that the editors would feel this matter warrants an explanation to the staff of what the story was, whether it had been killed or held, why it was being killed or held, who made the decision . . . and whether Tom Osborne, Bill Byrne [Nebraska University athletic director] or anyone else associated with the team communicated with any executive before the decision was made.
"The view was expressed that the commitment the news staff has shown to this paper entitles the staff to an explanation of such a decision."
Flannery goes to the top
On Jan. 27, with his investigation on a journalistic life support system, Flannery met with Gottschalk.
"I went to see him to talk about the story," said Flannery, while declining to disclose what the two men discussed. "I don't know what he did after that."
But one week later, on Saturday, Feb. 4, it finally got into print.
Gottschalk said he had nothing to do with dislodging the story from a kill file.
"Jim and I spoke about how the polls were conducted and whether they were fair and accurate," he explained. "I am not surprised that employees might speculate on how editing decisions are made. They do that all the time."
The World-Herald publisher noted that football coaches are always calling up newsrooms to complain about something.
"Anyone who is suggesting that our news integrity was discredited is making a mistake," he said. "The important thing is that the story ran."
The details of Osborne's successful power play did not surface until early last April when Flannery gave a guest lecture in the reporting journalism of Nebraska journalism professor Alfred Pagel.
Flannery was instructing the students on the proper use of quotes when he offhandedly mentioned the problems he was having with his story.
"He suddenly looked sad," recalled DeDra Janssen, a 22-year-old senior who was in the class.
"He looked discouraged, and tired," she said. "He was upset because the editors had buried the best part of his story."
Janssen, associate news editor of the Daily Nebraskan, and an intern last summer at the World-Herald, demanded to know why Flannery had not fought harder to maintain the integrity of his story.
"He said he wouldn't talk about it," Janssen recalled.
"It upset me as a journalist that you can uncover something and that a newspaper would bury it."
Janssen and several other Daily Nebraskan reporters who sat in on the class brought Flannery's partial tale back to their newsroom, but didn't follow it up.
"It was an interesting piece of information that we didn't have the resources to go after at the time," said Jeff Zeleny, who was the Daily Nebraskan editor last spring. But it certainly wasn't because we were afraid to go after the World-Herald."
Kathryn Reith, the director of public information for the NCAA, said Osborne wasn't breaking any rules by fighting to keep an unfavorable story from being published during the high school recruiting period.
"There are no specific rules on what coaches can say to the media," Reith said.
?("I had been concerned about the scientific validity of the survey before Coach Osborne called me. I was not sure that it met the highest standard. As time went on, my editors convinced me it was a good survey, we printed it and we did not pull any punches. If anyone suggested differently, they're wrong.")[Caption]
?(? G. Woodson Howe, editor and vice president, Omaha World-Herald
Wolper, professor of journalism at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, covers campus journalism for E&P.) [Caption & Photo]
?(University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne was recently featured in a cover story in New Man magazine, written by a Nebraska alumnus. The article touts his Christian values, but does not mention his role in lobbying the Omaha World-Herald's editors to soften a negative story on his football program.)[Caption & Photo]
?(The headline, "NU's Football Endures Off Field Problems," over a long pull quote by Osborne bemoaning the tendency of people to criticize champions, watered down the significance of the story. The court survey, once the lead, was now in the 15th paragraph, on the jump page. And two other stories that were part of the package ? one on Osborne and a second on the court survey ? were scrapped.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Wolper, professor of journalism at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, covers campus journalism for E&P) [Caption]
By: Allan Wolper Omaha World-Herald execs say that, despite receiving calls