Rushing to Judgment in the James Jordan Murder Case
Leslie Kaufman is a New York Times reporter.
For weeks, James Jordan, father of NBA star Michael Jordan, was missing. On August 5, his sports car was found stripped in North Carolina; two days earlier, his then-unidentified body had been found in a South Carolina swamp. He had died of a single bullet wound to the chest.
Those were the facts. The story, if you read between the lines of some newspaper columns and early news accounts, was this: Michael Jordan's father killed by mobsters because of famous son's gambling debts.
There was no evidence of such a connection, but Michael Jordan's habit of wagering large sums on golf and cards is widely known. That was enough for some columnists. Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register offered this: "For now, we just know that there is evidence of the son's gambling problem, and there is suspicion of a son's paying problem. The father of that son has been murdered. Coincidence, anyone?"
While the majority of news coverage after James Jordan's body was identified dealt only with known facts, some opinion makers flatly stated their suspicions of a link to Michael's gambling. The FBI reported that it wasn't ruling out any motive for the murder; some took that to mean the agency was investigating a gambling link. Such guesswork was encouraged by Jesse Jackson, who denounced Jordan's death as "a highly calculated gangland-type killing."
After two teenagers were arrested and charged with killing Jordan in an apparent random act of violence, San Diego Union-Tribune ombudsman Gina Lubrano scolded columnists, commentators and talk show hosts who "added two and two and came up with five... Even if the speculation had been on target, Michael Jordan deserved better." Syndicated columnist Carl Rowan called the guesswork "disgusting."
Jane Shoemaker, executive editor of the Charlotte Observer, was also dismayed. "This was a hometown story for us," she says. "It is safe to say nobody knew more than we did. So we were really shocked when we began seeing allegations on the wires, especially from the sports columnists, that made no sense in light of what facts we did have."
A week after the arrests, Michael Jordan blasted the media for "pour[ing] salt in my open wound" and suggested that those reporters who "engaged in baseless speculation and sensationalism..should cause us all to pause and examine our conscience and our basic human values."
At the Orange County Register, Whicker says he feels little remorse about what he wrote. "I wasn't evil or paranoid to be thinking these things," he says. "People react as if I said it was Michael who killed his father."
Reporter Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle felt much the same way, writing in an August 15 column that although "all of us who were cooking up murky theories in the death of Michael Jordan's father have to feel pretty crummy today for having turned the murder into a parlor game,..I refuse to feel chagrined for having played 'Who Murdered James Jordan.' "
He gave three reasons. "One, even though the cops have assured us it was those teenagers who did the deed while on a senseless spree, the suspects are still suspects. Two, for the past year Michael Jordan has carried on a one-man campaign to cast shadows all over his reputation, to link himself with gambling, crime, fibs, bad golf and really bad judgment. Three, when it comes to being intensely curious about Jordan, there is no on-off switch. You can't love the hoops part and ignore the other stuff. He is too big." ###