Ventura cries foul as Press takes Gophers out of the game p.8

By: David Noack Allegations of academic fraud, reported the day before March Madness, kept some Minnesota cagers on the bench and drew criticism from the fans, governor

Walker Lundy knew the story the St. Paul Pioneer Press was about to publish ? an alleged cheating scandal involving former and current University of Minnesota basketball players ? would cause a public outcry.
What he couldn't anticipate was the depth of the reaction, which ranged from the man on the street to Gov. Jesse Ventura, the ex-wrestler-turned-politician, calling the paper's actions "despicable" and "sensational journalism."
Since the Pioneer Press broke the blockbuster on March 10, the eve of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament, there's been a firestorm of criticism, with 400 readers canceling their subscriptions, more than 450 telephone calls, and 600 e-mails.
"I was surprised at two things, the depth of the reaction. I thought some people would wonder about the timing. I was surprised at the number of the people who did and then I was surprised at the number of people who were unwilling to accept my explanation. I don't think I've ever been called a liar by that many people before," says Lundy, editor of the Knight Ridder newspaper. He concedes that no matter when the story ran, it would have caused controversy.
In an effort to quell the attacks, Lundy, in a March 11 column, the day after the scandal story broke, explained to readers the newspaper's actions. "The simple truth is we ran the story when it was ready to run. With my hand on the bible, it's not any more complicated than that," penned Lundy.
The column explained the editorial process: how the paper was tipped off to the story in December, checking sources and facts, conducting interviews, getting reactions, and finally getting proof of the allegations from the main source of the story in the form of computer disks that housed the term papers.
The story, which was the result of a three-month investigation, alleges that Jan Gangelhoff, 50, a former office manager in the academic counseling unit from 1993 to 1998 did more than 400 pieces of course work for players, including some starters on the 1996-97 Final Four team.
She gave the newspaper computer files containing examples of course work she said she wrote and players turned in. Some of the papers had grades and comments from instructors written on them.
Reader advocate Nancy Conner says the complaints about the story center on not allowing students to enjoy their moment in the national spotlight.
"The main thing was a lot of innocent kids on the team and on the band and the cheerleaders and everything else were hurt by the timing and didn't have the chance to enjoy the thrill of being in the tournament, and we should have either held off ? or they're saying we should have got it out sooner," says Conner.
She says the substance of the story has not been challenged.
"A lot of people are saying 'I don't condone cheating, but everybody does it when it comes to college sports, everybody knows everybody does it, so why did you pick this time to print that,'" says Conner.
Media ethics observers say the paper would have been criticized no matter what it did. Keith Woods, who teaches ethics at The Poynter Institute, says that while the paper could have considered the timing of the story, doing so would have raised other serious issues.
"The release of the story in the midst of 'March Madness' is a provocative act, and the controversy that sprang up could easily undermine the greater value of the story. ? Frankly, though, the newspaper's choice was fairly limited," says Woods.
He says killing the story was not an option or holding the story until after the first NCAA game against Gonzaga might have worked. But if Minnesota's Gophers had won that would have complicated the issue.
"If I were to adjust anything, given the benefit of hindsight, I would have suggested to the newspaper that it publish Walker Lundy's explanation on the day the original story ran. The newspaper should have anticipated the public challenge to its motives and headed it off with a published justification for its decision," says Woods.
John Hartman, a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University, says the backlash is the result of the public not wanting to hear bad news about cherished institutions.
"Folks are more concerned about their favorite team and sometimes their alma mater making a run at the Final Four than whether the program is clean," says Hartman.
William Babcock, director of the Shila Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, applauded the paper's coverage, but points out that there needs to be ongoing reporting on other sports issues, such as athletic admissions, alumni, and faculty boosterism and whether a double-standard exists between athletes and regular students.
"Unfortunately, such stories are often of little interest to sports reporters keen to report on the outcome of the game," says Babcock, in an opinion piece penned on the controversy.


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