ESPN, the self-described “Worldwide leader in sports,” yesterday found itself served with a lawsuit regarding one its most sensational stories of the past year.
Last October, following hard on the heels of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse allegations, ESPN aired a report that accused then-Syracuse men’s basketball assistant Bernie Fine of years of sexual abuse of young men connected with the basketball program.
One of the main pieces of evidence used to give credence to the allegations against Fine was a secret audio tape of his wife, Laurie Fine, that purported to be a conversation between her and one of Fine’s accusers.
In it, Mrs. Fine appeared to implicate her husband in the alleged abuse and acknowledge that she suspected the activity was taking place.
On Wednesday, Mrs. Fine announced (news via Syracuse Post-Standard) that she had filed a lawsuit charging that ESPN had libeled her and sullied her reputation. Her most explosive allegation was that ESPN had selectively edited the tape recording used in its report to cast both her and her husband in a negative light.
The allegations against Fine and ESPN’s reportage have bothered me from the very beginning. The story seemed designed to piggyback on the Sandusky story to create a sense of hysteria about the allegations of sexual abuse; a sort of sports version of the sex abuse fever that swept the nation in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s.
After the Sandusky story broke, ESPN aired a raft of stories focusing on abuse allegations, while simultaneously fending off questions about the timing of the Fine story. When it was learned that ESPN had the allegations years in advance, yet had done nothing to really investigate them, it brought quite a bit of public disapproval their way.
What is most disturbing about this particular story in my view is the recklessness ESPN exhibited in covering the initial allegations.
ESPN seemed desperate to turn the allegations against Fine into a scandal that could possibly be the undoing of Jim Boeheim’s tenure as Syracuse head coach.
Very little vetting was done of the accusers at the time, two of whom have recanted their allegations against Fine. Instead, ESPN ran story after story that presumed the men were being honest in their allegations and seemingly designed to hasten Boeheim’s departure.
Very little credence was given to Bernie Fine’s protestations of innocence. Instead, ESPN turned to the now-disputed audio tape and interviews with “witnesses” who witnessed nothing as a means to bolster the media case against Bernie Fine.
It was as if ESPN had developed tunnel vision in its reporting, refusing to notice any evidence or testimony that disputed the belief that Fine was guilty as charged.
The way the Fine case was handled, coupled with the sudden moralistic prattling that the network did in rushing to condemn Joe Paterno for Jerry Sandusky’s alleged crimes, serves, in my opinion, to discredit ESPN as a credible journalistic source.
In this story and many others, ESPN looked more interested in creating a story than in reporting one.
Sitting on the Fine allegations for years, then ignoring the credibility issues with the accusers is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the network’s journalistic integrity.
Even if the Fine lawsuit lacks credibility, as ESPN’s legal mouthpieces pronounced, it may very well shine a much-needed light on what look to be some of ESPN’s shadier journalistic practices.
Maybe this dose of sunshine will disinfect the ESPN newsroom and force it to clean up its act.