Did WRAL anchor cross a line with comment?

Posted: September 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , , , , | View Comments

Blogs are abuzz with a new moniker for Carolina. But is it fair?

The N.C. State sports blog StateFans Nation pointed out an interesting post by the controversial CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel this morning — one that seems to reveal the opinion of one of the Triangle’s most popular anchors.

From: Bill Leslie, WRAL, Raleigh

I’m a journalist like you — and I am offended by your reckless article on UNC football. They are doing their best to clean things up. It’s the first black eye in recent history. You should cut them a little slack.

Doyel filed Leslie’s response among his “hate mail” sent in response to two recent columns on the ongoing NCAA investigation into the UNC-Chapel Hill football program. The investigation has since expanded to allegations of academic misconduct.

To understand why Leslie’s note would be particularly controversial in the Triangle of North Carolina, you have to understand not only the heated rivalry between UNC-CH and NCSU (my alma mater), but the widespread perception among State fans that the local news is in the tank for the Tar Heels.

Like many employees of the local media landscape, Leslie is an alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill, which has one of the best journalism schools in the nation. So the perceived bias, real or not, is that every news org from The News & Observer to WRAL is out to cover for UNC — and bury N.C. State wherever possible. Call it viewing the world through “baby blue glasses.”

But Leslie, who spoke with me over the phone Thursday, says that perception is just not true.

“I can guarantee that up here, we don’t put on any glasses as to how we treat things,” Leslie said. “It bothers me that State fans think we’re biased.”

In hindsight, Leslie admits he probably shouldn’t have gotten involved, and he “deeply apologizes” to any fans he offended. But he contends that if Doyel had been targeting N.C. State or Duke, his reaction would have been the same.

“A lot more facts need to come out before you say those things,” Leslie said.

The question here, at least in my mind, is whether Leslie’s note to Doyel reveals sympathies that may affect how the station covers the story.

As journalists, our job is not to “cut them a little slack,” especially when the reputation of one of this state’s most valued taxpayer-funded institutions is concerned. This story is serious, and it goes way beyond football.

We shouldn’t give the leaders of this institution — or any for that matter — credit for “doing their best.” Someone is responsible. Someone knew what was happening. And as journalists, it’s our job to find out who and demand to know how they’re being held accountable.

Leslie says that’s exactly what he and the other journalists in the WRAL newsroom have been doing. During discussions of how producers should play the UNC scandal story, he says he and others pushed for it to lead the newscast because it was clearly the most important news of the day.

“I’m not going to let loyalty to my alma mater get in the way,” he said.

Although Leslie said he regrets saying the things he did in the note, he said he was trying urge Doyel to act responsibly and “hold off on the broad brush strokes.” He took particular issue with Doyel’s assertion that UNC was a turd in the punch bowl.

“It’s too early to be saying the kinds of things he said,” Leslie said. “Maybe Doyel will be right, but I don’t think he has enough of the facts to determine that objectively.”

Speaking out against irresponsible journalism is part of every reporter’s duty, at least according to the code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists. There’s one line toward the bottom we rarely see in practice. Under “Be Accountable,” the code urges us to “expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.”

Just as they are accountable to readers, listeners and viewers, journalists are accountable to each other. With a firebrand commentator like Doyel, it’s not surprising that another journalist would feel compelled to urge him to be more responsible.

But even Leslie admits that’s not a duty journalists regularly live up to.

“It is kind of a club, and we’re reluctant to criticize each other,” he said.

Leslie said he and his station are waiting for more information from the investigation — but that doesn’t mean they’re neglecting the story.

“We do need to be as aggressive as we can,” Leslie said. “I do believe the NCAA will get to the bottom of it.”

And sometimes, especially in the case of corruption, journalists have to be proactive in their pursuit of what really happened.

That was the case at N.C. State last year after a scandal over the hiring and subsequent raise of former first lady Mary Easley. After a brilliantly reported investigative series by the N&O, originally focused on former Gov. Mike Easley, four top leader at N.C. State got the axe (or resigned in disgrace).

The fact that two of those disgraced names are featured prominently on my degree doesn’t change my opinion of the coverage — my alma mater is better as a result of the N&O.

If reporters had “cut them a little slack” or acknowledged they were “doing their best,” the UNC System might never have taken out the trash. But sometimes, a rush to report — and bloviate — can hinder that process.

For what it’s worth, Leslie points out that he grew up a Wolfpack fan — his father and other relatives are even alumni. He said he’ll even be rooting for State Thursday night against Cincinnati.

“It took me three years at Carolina before I thought of switching my allegiance,” he said.

Despite that allegiance, new or old, he said the the bottom line is that he’ll report the news — no matter what.

“The minute I start showing bias, I lose all credibility,” he said. “I can’t afford to lose that.”

Update: Gregg Doyel responded to the post on Twitter.

@mtdukes I dunno, but I’m positive my response to @wralbleslie crossed the line. Felt good though.

  • http://twitter.com/Fuzzsonic Ron Thigpen

    “The minute I start showing bias, I lose all credibility,” he said. “I can’t afford to lose that.”

    Too late now.

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