Retribution for reporter? p.16

By: MARK FITZGERALD FOR MORE THAN seven months, CBS and its golf announcer Ben Wright suggested that the Wilmington, Del., News Journal feature writer Valerie Helmbreck fabricated quotes attributed to Wright about lesbians hurting women's golf.
In the days and months since Wright was quoted in the May 12 story as saying "lesbians in the sport hurt women's golf" and that women golfers were at a disadvantage because their "boobs" interfere with a proper golf swing, the announcer and his network not only accused Helmbreck of fabricating quotes ? they suggested darkly to some reporters that the writer had a political or personal pro-gay rights agenda that led her to make up the quotes.
But evidence continued to mount that it was Helmbreck who got the story right ? and finally on Jan. 9, CBS announced it was dropping Wright from its golf coverage and had "no plans for Wright's return to CBS Sports golf broadcasts."
"Because of the continuing controversy that has arisen from comments attributed to Wright, CBS believes his association with the network has detracted from its golf coverage, as well as the focus on the players and the tournaments," CBS Sports president David Kenin said in a brief statement.
A CBS spokeswoman said the network was not elaborating on the statement. According to numerous published reports, CBS is not firing Wright, whose contract was extended for four years in November ? just weeks before a Sports Illustrated article provided more evidence that Helmbreck had accurately quoted Wright's remarks about lesbians and women golfers.
The article in the Golf Plus supplement in the Dec. 4 issue of Sports Illustrated suggested Wright has spun a considerable number of fabrications himself about Helmbreck ? and that Wright told the famed sports writer Dan Jenkins at a cocktail party: "Of course I said it. But I was granted complete anonymity." The article also quotes a caddy at the golf tournament as saying he overheard Helmbreck interviewing Wright ? and that Helmbreck's account is accurate. In his article, Sports Illustrated reporter Michael Bamberger also writes that Wright "characterized Helmbreck as divorced, involved in a custody battle, possibly a lesbian." CBS, which supported Wright immediately after the controversy in May, continued to stand by its announcer even then.
For instance, a prepared statement issued by CBS on Nov. 28 said only that the network "regrets the additional statements attributed to Wright" and that "Wright has been advised that any comments contrary to the network's policy will not be tolerated.
A CBS spokeswoman said Dec. 12 that no further statements are being made about the incidents.
And at the time, neither CBS nor Wright apologized to News Journal reporter Helmbreck.
"I know CBS has not contacted me or my newspaper. Nor has Ben Wright. It's pretty amazing," Helmbreck said in a telephone interview last month.
On the day he was suspended from CBS Sports, however, Wright did issue a statement that expressed "my sincere regret for any hurt (Helmbreck) may have experienced."
At the same time, however, Wright's statement claimed it was a "fact that I have been widely misquoted." And CBS extended no apology.
Helmbreck, who could not be reached immediately, told the Associated Press that she was not impressed with Wright's "apology."
"If talking out of both sides of your mouth were a sport, Ben Wright would be a gold medalist," she said. "It's pretty disingenuous eight months after the interview to say in the same breath that he was misquoted but that he also apologizes . . . .
"It's inconceivable to me that he could believe such a backhanded apology is of any value."
Certainly, Wright's statement comes after a long, hard year for reporter Helmbreck. Wright's remarks about Helmbreck's personal life, as quoted in Sports Illustrated's Golf Plus are "completely unfounded and untrue," says the 43-year-old reporter who describes herself as a happily married mother of three.
The Sports Illustrated article, Helmbreck said, "proved nobody has to put words in Ben Wright's mouth.
"It does feel good," Helmbreck added, "but I think as a journalist, the worst thing in the world is any kind of public attention because we need to be less famous than the people we cover.
"We don't bring a personality to the story. When you get this kind of attention, you lose the anonymity you need to the job.
"It certainly," she said, "made it harder for me to do my job."
Helmbreck had never covered golf before when she was assigned to do a story on television coverage at the McDonald's LPGA Championship tournament.
In an interview with Helmbreck, the voluble Wright made a number of observations ? unsolicited, the reporter says ? about the supposed extent of lesbianism in the LPGA, including referring to "butch" players and labeling one player in particular "a casino rat."
After the story appeared, Wright issued a long statement denying quotes attributed to him, and CBS officials quickly backed him up.
CBS also began a public relations offensive against Helmbreck, according to several sportswriters and Helmbreck herself.
"It's been really difficult for my family to hear unkind and untrue things said about me," she said.
"CBS is very big and powerful, with a large and active PR force that worked very hard at the time to malign me, to label me as having some kind of agenda ? all of which turned out to be false," she added."I think it's terrible that a news organization," Helmbreck said, "would attack a journalist this fiercely ? and this carelessly."
Those personal attacks had spurred numerous protests from women's groups and such gay rights groups as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
LeRoy Aarons, president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, said Wright's remarks demonstrated that for reporters to comment on sexual orientation "is one of the last areas where that kind of character assassination is permissible."
While welcoming Wright's dismissal, Aarons said, "I think CBS certainly took a lot of time coming to the conclusion that their sports department was stained by these remarks." In a similar situation that arose in 1988, CBS Sports was much quicker to dismiss an even better-known commentator, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder.
In a videotaped interview, Snyder suggested that African Americans were better athletes than whites not only because they practiced harder, but also because slave owners "bred" black people to make them stronger.
Snyder was fired within hours of the airing of that interview.


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