Specifically, the correspondence relates to coverage of the NCAA’s investigation into North CarolinaÕs troubled football program.
There’s a belief among many who wear colors other than Carolina blue that the local media has dropped the ball in its reporting of the multi-dimensional Tar Heel scandal.
And it might seem that way, considering how much of the news has been broken by Yahoo Sports and its Chicago-based correspondent, Charles Robinson, rather than by writers and reporters who are actually on the ground in and around Chapel Hill.
It’s a situation routinely blamed on a perceived media bias toward UNC.
N.C. State fans have been falling back on that one since the NCAA lowered the boom on Jim Valvano and the Wolfpack basketball program back in 1989.
But while it’s true that there are a large number of UNC journalism school graduates working at news organizations throughout the state, there is an alternate explanation for why so much of the information about John Blake, Marvin Austin and the others is being generated by national, not local, sources.
There just aren’t as many local sources with the budgets and manpower to devote to such a complicated story as there has been in the past.
A decade ago, mainstream newspapers from Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and perhaps even Fayetteville would have been swarming all over the scent of an NCAA probe into the highest-profile athletic department in the region.
Now only the Raleigh News & Observer, which has a combined staff with the Charlotte Observer, is actively investigating the Tar Heels’ mounting troubles. And even it has had to piece together its coverage in a non-traditional manner by juggling four writers with other responsibilities on the beat, instead of having one full-time reporter such as Robinson at Yahoo.
“Everyone’s kind of pitching in, but they’re doing it around other things,” said Lorenzo Perez, the News & Observer’s assistant sports editor. “It’s been a challenge. I think we’ve done a good job with our coverage. We’ve gotten beat on a couple of things, but we’ve also gotten in a couple of good licks ourselves.”
In fact, the N&O has been out front on the UNC story nearly as many times as Yahoo by uncovering things such as the volume of phone calls between former Tar Heel assistant coach Blake and professional sports agent Gary Wichard, Blake’s glaring omission of Wichard’s California-based Pro Tect Management from his resume, and Blake’s contact with former Nebraska star Ndamukong Suh. The N&O also recently ran a story naming three people who provided benefits to UNC players, including a former UNC player (Chris Hawkins) and an associate of prominent agent Drew Rosenhaus.
Perez said as many as six investigation-related stories have made it onto the newspaper’s front page since July.
At the same time, though, most of the biggest, most substantive bombshells to date have been dropped by someone who hasn’t come within 800 miles of Chapel Hill.
Robinson, a respected investigative journalist who gained acclaim for his reporting of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush’s transgressions at Southern California, said he has yet to leave his Chicago office to do any of his fact-gathering on the UNC story.
The advantage he’s exploited over those who are closer to the action is the time he’s been able to spend working the phones in search of new information.
“I do a Sunday NFL column, so I still have to keep in touch with all NFL contacts, and I’m also doing some other investigative stuff, but in terms of (UNC) I devote a pretty sizeable amount of my time on this,” Robinson said. “A lot depends on which phone calls get returned on each particular day.
“It’s similar to when I was working on the USC thing, in that a good portion of my days are spent making calls, talking to sources, going through tips – that kind of thing.”
Robinson said he’s fortunate to be working for a media outlet that has developed a niche for reliable investigative reporting and has allowed him to devote so much focus on this one story.
News & Observer reporters Ken Tysiac, Joe Giglio and Robbi Pickeral, by contrast, also are responsible for providing full-time, day-to-day coverage of UNC, N.C. State and Duke football, in addition to the NCAA probe. Now college basketball season has arrived, too.
“With the landscape of newspapers now – cutting staff and budgets – it has shrunk the number of journalists that are able to do good investigative reporting,” Robinson said. “I think we (at Yahoo) have embraced picking that up and making it our prime focus.
“Compared to ESPN, we’re a boutique. We’re a fraction of their size. But while we may not have the manpower, with the resources we have we’re going to go out and develop the investigative stories that may otherwise not be developed. It’s a reputation we’ve built in the six years I’ve worked here. It’s kind of our forte, and it’s what we want to be known for.”
In addition to Yahoo and the N&O, ESPN.com and InsideCarolina.com are the only two others to have done significant investigative work on the Tar Heels’ troubles with improper agent contact and academic misconduct.
Don’t think for a minute, though, that the smaller number of entities actively working the story has made the competition for breaking news any less fierce. It’s just coming from different places.
“There’s not a day we don’t leave here thinking, ‘I wonder what the other side has,’” the N&O’s Perez said. “I remember the day Yahoo Sports broke the story about the money being paid to John Blake by Gary Wichard, one of the last things I said walking out of the office was,’You know, Yahoo has been very quiet the last couple of weeks. I’m a little worried about what they have going on.’”
Robinson admits he has the same kind of thoughts about his rivals, but he said he welcomes the competition. He said the more people working on a story, the more information that ultimately will come out about it.
“I think it’s good when other reporters are out there generating things, because typically when someone writes something it opens up a host of new ideas for you,” Robinson said. “It can actually help in that it allows you to bring new ideas into your investigation and open new, fresh dialogue with the people you’ve been talking to.”
Developing sources for this particular story has been especially important, since most principals – Blake, Wichard, UNC head coach Butch Davis, athletic director Dick Baddour and the implicated Tar Heel players – have hunkered down and provided precious little first-hand public information. Last week, several media organizations sued UNC in an attempt to get more records related to the NCAA investigations.
“It’s been difficult,” said Greg Barnes of InsideCarolina.com, a website affiliated with Scout.com that bills itself as The Independent Voice of UNC Sports. “When you have minor things that happen with this university, a lot of people are willing to talk about it because a lot of people know. But with this situation, it’s only a handful of people that know all the details, so a lot of times you have to piece things in from a bunch of sources to see what all matches up before you have enough information to run something.”
It’s been a tedious process that is far from over, despite the fact that 12 of the 14 UNC football players suspended as part of the probe have either returned to action or have had their cases judged.
It took nearly four years for the NCAA’s recent cases against Southern Cal and Florida State (counting appeals) to come to conclusions.
While the UNC investigation shouldn’t take nearly as long, because of the cooperation school officials have given the NCAA and the fact that most of those involved are still on campus, the people covering it aren’t expecting a final resolution until long after the current football season has ended.
According to Robinson, the media has only scratched the surface when it comes to details of the academic side of the probe and what went on at the now infamous agent party in South Florida last summer.
Like Yahoo, Perez pledged that the N&O will continue to dig for new facts no matter how long it takes.
“We’ve had a lot of UNC people lately asking, ‘When are you going to lay off? You guys just won’t let this go.’ And my response is, ‘Why would we let it go?’” Perez said. “The story is not resolved. We haven’t got to the bottom of what’s going on over there.
“That’s been the commitment of the paper. Our executive editor, John Drescher, has been very clear about it. He wants to keep this story front and center. He recognizes that this isn’t just a big sports story, it’s an important news story, as well.”
There are those, of course, who don’t necessarily agree.
For every ABC (Anybody But Carolina) fan who believes the local newspaper isn’t doing enough to chronicle UNCÕs recent football missteps – State fans, in particular, typically compare the current Carolina coverage to the treatment they believe their school received two decades ago, amidst an NCAA investigation into the Wolfpack’s basketball program – there are those Tar Heels who think the N&O is going too far in an effort to kick Davis and his program while they’re down.
“Everyone here is a professional, and that’s part of the job,” Perez said. “They’re not up there to make friends or be a cheerleader. Things are going on that have to be reported.
“I’m sure (UNC officials) get tired of the News & Observer coming around again, asking questions about phone records or this, that and the other. But that’s the situation they’re in.”
The bulk of the criticism has been aimed at Giglio, which is ironic considering that he spends considerably less time working on the NCAA investigation story than his colleagues Tysiac, Pickeral and Andy Curliss.
Because he is the one responsible for approaching Davis and his players and asking their reactions to revelations uncovered by others, he has become something of a lightning rod for readers of the paper.
So much so that Drescher was compelled to write a recent column defending Giglio for his dogged questioning of an unresponsive Davis at a post-practice press conference.
Many UNC fans wrote in to complain that Giglio was badgering the coach and that the paper was piling on with its coverage of the controversy. But Drescher countered that Giglio was simply doing his job and that the paper has an obligation to inform the public of what is going on in its community.
He also pointed out that while Giglio is a graduate of N.C. State and Pickeral went to UNC, the majority of those covering and directing the coverage of the Tar Heel football scandal went to colleges outside the state.
Not that it matters.
“The only way to avoid any local connections would be not hiring anyone who attended State, Carolina, Duke or any other college in the state,” Drescher wrote. “That would rule out some of the best reporters in the country – journalists who know this state, its people and its traditions.
“Our reporters leave their degrees at home and do their jobs without fear or favor.”
That remains the goal of most in the media, on this UNC story and otherwise, whether fans wearing various colors choose to believe it or not.