An expose of the University of Minnesota basketball program draws howls of protest from readers--and Gov. Jesse Ventura. Should news organizations let public sentiment determine when they run a story?
By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
THE ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS expected some reaction to its March 10 story of academic fraud within the University of Minnesota men's basketball program. After all, a woman alleging she wrote papers and took tests for players over a five-year period makes for big news.
The story ran the day before Minnesota was to face Gonzaga University in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Loyal fans would hardly be happy to see coverage of the next day's tip-off overshadowed by scandal. In fact, Sports Editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz predicted the paper would lose about 400 subscribers.
It did, and then some.
But what the paper wasn't prepared for was the volume and vehemence of the public backlash. Readers called and e-mailed in droves, many using the words of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who called the Pioneer Press' action "despicable." Public response echoed Ventura's accusations that the paper had run the story just before the tournament on purpose and had engaged in "sensational journalism."
The university reacted quickly, suspending the four current players implicated, including two starters, the day of the Gonzaga game. And then, true to the script, the tarnished Golden Gophers lost to the little school from Spokane, Washington.
A week after the article appeared, Pioneer Press reader advocate Nancy Conner had tallied more than 1,000 phone and e-mail messages to various offices in the newsroom, running about 2-to-1 against the paper. Jon Schmoll of St. Paul wrote: "Cheating happens throughout college, and not just with athletes. The fact that you used these students, at this exact time, one day before the tournament started, is totally inexcusable." Brian Deal of Lake Crystal weighed in: "You should be more than ashamed of yourself. It's time the media stop being the self-appointed watchdog of society. We are all tired of it. Thanks for crushing the hopes of a state that has endured the Vikings loss, the Twins debacle and the NBA strike. I hope the editor feels he has served some grand purpose, whatever that may be."
But there were some positive notes, congratulating the paper for publishing a hard-hitting piece in the face of criticism. And Editor Walker Lundy points out that despite the deluge of complaints, "no one has challenged the basic allegations of the story."
Lundy, whom many unhappy Gopher partisans have branded a liar, has said repeatedly that the paper simply published the story when it was ready. It took sportswriter George Dohrmann three-and-a-half months of reporting to nail it down. He and his editor, Garcia-Ruiz, did it the old-fashioned way--slowly cultivating a source, hand-sorting through hundreds of term papers and bibliographies, tracking down players. Then came the payoff: a major scoop for the paper over highly competitive rivals.
While Dohrmann kept talking to his chief source, Jan Gangelhoff, a former office manager in the university's academic counseling unit, Garcia-Ruiz worried news of the academic fraud would surface first in the Twin Cities' other daily. Every day for two months, Garcia-Ruiz says, he picked up Minneapolis' Star Tribune thinking it would have the story.
Instead, the Pioneer Press (circulation 200,000) sent the bigger paper (circulation 387,000) scrambling to follow its lead. "I wasn't thrilled," says Star Tribune Editor Tim J. McGuire. "I was disappointed.... But I think this newsroom reacted very well" in pursuing the story once it broke.
The newsroom did, partly thanks to memos investigative reporters Paul McEnroe and Chris Ison had received two years earlier--memos that may have enabled the Star Trib to unearth the scandal first if editors had made different decisions at the time. In the spring and summer of 1997, McEnroe and Ison were reporting on other unsavory behavior involving Gopher basketball players: tales of domestic violence involving then-player Courtney James and other allegations of basketball players sexually assaulting women.
As they covered the sexual assault stories, the Star Tribune reporters received memos that demonstrated not fraud, but academic problems within the basketball program, McEnroe says. Those documents told of strained relations between the head of academic counseling and officials with the men's basketball program, and of the unusual separation in 1994 of basketball's academic program from the university's counseling department.
The Pioneer Press ran the story of Jan Gangelhoff's allegations on the right side of the front page on March 10 and a piece on this academic-basketball divide on the left, detailing Gopher basketball coach Clem Haskins' push for the separation. "We pretty much had that story," Ison says of the 1997 leads.
Ison and McEnroe say their supervisor, projects editor Greg Stricharchuk, told them two years ago the Star Tribune's top editors weren't interested in going after the academic angle. McGuire says the reporters' leads were "few" and "very sketchy." But while Ison and McEnroe express great respect for the work the Pioneer Press did, the story evokes feelings of what could have been.
"When we saw the St. Paul Pioneer Press story, we had nothing but admiration and jealousy for the work they had put into that," McEnroe says. "I was extremely impressed, and I was extremely jealous at the same time.... I felt like...we would've gotten there too."
WHETHER OR NOT the Star Tribune could've owned this one two years ago would be easier to assess if time travel existed. On two occasions in the last two years, Gangelhoff, when questioned, told the university's NCAA compliance director that she wasn't tutoring players and she hadn't done coursework for them, according to Pioneer Press and Star Tribune reports. She now says she lied to the compliance director. Gangelhoff later became the pivotal contact for the Pioneer Press. Why did she tell the paper about her fraudulent tutoring this time? "They asked," says Gangelhoff, now an account manager at the Hole-in-the-Wall Casino in Danbury, Wisconsin.
If you had asked Pioneer Press staff writer George Dohrmann in late November if his less-than-a-hunch about academic misdeeds within the basketball program would lead to front page news stories, he probably would've said no. "It was like a bad rumor," Dohrmann says, "and I didn't necessarily believe it." The Pioneer Press sports department was chasing about three different stories about the basketball program, Garcia-Ruiz says, adding, "I didn't think the academic fraud would be the lead thread."
In December, Dohrmann met Gangelhoff through another source. The reporter wanted her to talk about "the atmosphere" in the university's athletic department. She did--and about much more--ultimately alleging that she completed more than 400 pieces of coursework for at least 20 basketball players between 1993 and 1998.
In their first meeting, Gangelhoff showed Dohrmann a letter, dated October 26, 1998, written to her by Mark Dienhart, director of men's athletics at the university. The letter said that an NCAA compliance review of the academic unit found that Gangelhoff's involvement "has made it necessary for us to disassociate [Gangelhoff] from the men's basketball program."
"There was a question of whether we should do something with the letter right there," Dohrmann says. "It was them admitting some NCAA violation."
But Gangelhoff, who often tutored basketball players, didn't know what violation the letter referred to, Dohrmann says, and the reporter didn't know if it was a serious charge. Over time, Gangelhoff, who took classes at the university from 1993 to '95, described the "hostile environment" in the athletic department and her close relationship with the players, Dohrmann says.
Dohrmann, who followed his boss Garcia-Ruiz from the Los Angeles Times to the Pioneer Press in 1997, wouldn't have had as much time to pursue the story if it hadn't been for the NBA players lockout. His beat was the Minnesota Timberwolves, but with the Target Center dark in November and December, Dohrmann worked mostly as a general assignment reporter. It was during this time he talked to Gangelhoff the most.
Their slowly evolving conversations "got to the point where we could slip little things in" on what she had done for players, Dohrmann says. He knew from other sources that she was not always authorized to tutor.
"Then just one day...she said, `George, you know what, I trust you and anything you want to know, I'll tell you the truth," Dohrmann says. "And at this point, I said, `You did papers for players?' And she said, `Yes.' "
On February 27, after numerous requests from Dohrmann, Gangelhoff handed over papers she had written to prove her claims. Dohrmann and Garcia-Ruiz spent about a week sorting through 250 of the documents, matching bibliographies to cover letters to term papers. One day they met in Garcia-Ruiz's basement to read through term papers, hunting for evidence to corroborate Gangelhoff's assertions that in some cases different players used the same paper.
"That's when we began to see massive duplication," Garcia-Ruiz says. Two papers had the same typo, and students three years apart had used the identical paper.
Gangelhoff says she probably wouldn't have come forward had a reporter not contacted her. "But if I were asked again, I would do it again," she says. "I struggled with this. It took me a long time...weeks and weeks of considering the decision and the people that it would impact.... I just decided it needed to be told" to prompt changes at the university.
On Friday, March 5, the day before Garcia-Ruiz and Dohrmann scrambled through term papers, the sports editor told Pioneer Press Editor Lundy and Managing Editor Vicki Gowler that there was enough information to substantiate the allegations. They briefly talked about the timing issue. The story would most likely be ready to run when the Gophers were playing in either the NCAA tournament or the National Invitational Tournament.
The Pioneer Press spent that Monday and Tuesday, March 8 and 9, tracking down a former assistant coach, former players who could confirm the allegations and athletic department officials. Four former players said Gangelhoff had done work for them. By Tuesday afternoon, the basketball team was on a plane to Seattle for the first round of the NCAA tournament. Tuesday night the paper reached the university's president, the vice president for athletics and coach Haskins. And on March 10, the story that Dohrmann thought at times would never run graced page one.
RHEADER ADVOCATE CONNOR expected to see a lively debate, but one centered on athletics and academics, not on the right of a newspaper to publish a story that adversely affects a sports team and disappoints its fans. Some readers, she says, charged the Pioneer Press with running the story when it did to maximize the attention it would receive. But it doubtless was the torrent of criticism, particularly by the governor, that attracted the wave of national media coverage.
As the debate swirled, Lundy wrote a column that ran March 11 outlining three options open to the paper had it not published the story when it did:
"1. Run the story a few weeks earlier before Dohrmann had done the lengthy, meticulous reporting job. Any votes for that one?
"2. Simply kill the story outright, as at least two readers I talked to suggested. If you like this option, you'd probably be happier reading a different kind of newspaper than the Pioneer Press.
"3. Hold the story until the Gophers lost, thus not hurting their chances to bring honor and glory to the state's most prestigious university with a big-time college basketball victory. Of the three options, this was the most popular among those readers, like the governor, who questioned our motives. The problem with this solution is that it would be unethical."
Others in the media agree with Lundy's viewpoint. "The underlying principal is, without worrying about the timing...you publish when it is ready," says Ralph D. Barney, editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics and a professor emeritus at Brigham Young University. To Barney, ethical behavior means providing information to readers in a timely way. If the paper actually had the story months earlier and held it, as some readers charged, releasing it when interest in basketball is at its peak, Barney says, "would be a morally faulty thing to do."
The Star Tribune's McGuire says nailing his rival for when it ran the piece is "B.S." Gary Gilson, executive director of the Minnesota News Council, which hears citizen complaints about news coverage, calls the timing "a nonissue." He adds, "The only way I see timing being an issue is if someone's health and safety are at stake" or national security is a concern.
The paper sold an extra 8,000 copies the day the story broke, says Lundy. He remains unconcerned about the 500 canceled subscriptions. "My experience is most folks get over being angry with the paper and come back to it," he says.
And not everyone hated what the Pioneer Press had done. About a third of the comments have been those of thanks. "It's been really heartfelt to read and see...how many people truly understand the role of a newspaper in a community," Lundy says.
While many continue to attack the messenger, no one disputes the message. "Now that I look back on it," Dohrmann says, "I'm sort of happy about it.... They didn't attack the story.... They couldn't attack the story."
WHEN PAUL McENROE walked into the Star Tribune newsroom on March 10, he says, "Chris [Ison] looked at me, and he had a small grin on his face. I had a bigger grin on my face, and I shook my head." ###
Within an hour, the two reporters were in a meeting where editors asked them to play catch up. The remembrance of leads past did not come up, McEnroe says. "We didn't rub it in."
Though he felt "something way beyond the definition of frustration" when editors had no interest in battles for academic control between the basketball department and the counseling unit in 1997, McEnroe says there are always other stories to pursue. He didn't fight to follow his leads then, and he hasn't broached the subject with editors since. While both McEnroe and Ison had a sense editors didn't want to be "piling on" after hard-hitting coverage of sexual assault allegations, they quickly moved on to other projects.
"It's unusual in an investigative project not to have times when you have disagreements about the value of the news you are pursuing," Ison says. "Because as reporters we get real aggressive and we push and we get real passionate.... Editors play devil's advocate.... That...can make you feel frustrated."
McGuire didn't recall McEnroe and Ison's academic leads when first asked about them in March by AJR. "Neither Tim nor I can remember discussing active leads that were brought to us by reporters," says Managing Editor Pam Fine. "I think we felt...that we had done a really good job on the stuff we knew about, and that the story as far as we knew had been tackled."
After consulting with others at the paper, McGuire later told AJR that he and Fine had considered a memo that contained 10 or 12 different story possibilities, among them McEnroe and Ison's academic thread. "We chose some others," he says, "because we didn't think [the academic problem leads] had any legs." McGuire and Fine stress their commitment to aggressive reporting and say it's highly doubtful the memos obtained in '97 would've grown to a story on academic fraud.
Projects editor Stricharchuk shares his superiors' views. "When I looked at the memos recently...does it make sense that [academic fraud] is logical?" he asks. "Yeah...but we didn't know that." In retrospect, he says, he should have questioned why anyone would want to separate the basketball program's academic advising from the main counseling department.
But instead of wallowing in regret, the Star Tribune worked hard to get back in the game. In late March six staffers were covering the story full time, and as many as 12 or 14 had been involved at one point or another. The Pioneer Press devoted six reporters and three editors to the fraud issues full time. The Star Tribune's coverage has been in step with the Pioneer Press' since day two, and with two more tutors admitting they also enabled players to cheat and the university launching an investigation, this story will be around for a while. Both papers' front pages housed related news for at least two weeks, and both set up discussion areas on their Web sites.
The Star Tribune advanced some aspects of the story concerning whether the university was going to suspend players from the Gonzaga game and the allegations of one former player who said coach Haskins gave him money while he was on the team. That story, says McEnroe, made the Sunday paper with 45 minutes to spare, thanks to "some brilliant calls" by Fine. (Haskins has denied the allegations made against him and any knowledge of academic fraud. His attorney, Ron Zamansky, says Haskins will not comment further.)
"I think we've acquitted ourselves very well," Fine says. "I'd say...that we feel we are leading quite often but have been in the hunt since the story broke."
McEnroe says he has no "sour grapes" over the fact that the St. Paul paper got the story. But he is bothered by his sense that publication in the Pioneer Press "legitimized" a story he had been poised to pursue. "When we were looking at it without anybody else probing, it was just a hunt," he says. "There wasn't that legitimacy.... It was going to be construed as trying to tear down a program."
Dohrmann says he heard of the Star Tribune's '97 leads only when his story was about to be published. "Since the stories ran, they've showed a lot of memos that they had," he says. While McEnroe and Ison didn't yet have the academic fraud angle, he adds, "they were on their way, it looked like."
This two-newspaper "town" may be ripe ground for vigorous competition, but admiration exists as well. "The people in the newsroom here, while we wished we had the story...we have a lot of respect for the story they produced, and we'd be hypocrites if we denied that," Ison says.
Stricharchuk calls the Pioneer Press "gutsy" for running the story when it did. He adds that when McEnroe and Ison were writing stories in the summer of '97 on drugs and sexual and physical assault, "no one lifted an eyebrow.... Isn't it something that you write a big piece on academic cheating, and it's like the second coming?"
And that's not the only oddity, he notes. "The main person who's a whistleblower," he says, "is blowing the whistle on [herself]. It's bizarre."