Bernstein's Big Mistake

(This article was published in 2003).

Now-former-Kansas-coach Roy Williams is known, by reputation, as two things: a coach who can’t win the big one, and a coach who can’t hold back his emotions.

A week before Kansas’ loss in the national championship game against Syracuse, the University of North Carolina fired their head men’s basketball coach. Speculation had immediately turned to Roy Williams – that he would jump at the chance to accept his dream job with the Tar Heels. Williams had said, during the previous week, that he would not be speaking about the job at North Carolina.

Despite knowing all this – Williams’ reputation and his unwillingness to discuss Carolina – CBS’ Bonnie Bernstein decided to push forward with two questions about the job at Carolina, just moments after the most excruciating loss of Williams’ career:

"Look. I’m really sorry, but I hope you understand I have to ask you about Carolina," she said.

Have to? “I have to” means that she has no choice in the matter; that she can’t choose to pass on a question. Up goes the veil: we’ve all heard this lame “it’s not my fault - I had to do it” every time a reporter asks a question they know they shouldn’t be asking.

While she didn’t have to ask him the question, I can almost forgive her for it. There had been a lot of speculation about Williams’ future, she had the guy there, the opportunity for her to make more of a name for herself presented itself, so she went for it. While I might not like the first question, I get it.

About that first question, Bernstein writes in her online diary: “He wasn’t pleased, but I really feel he understood I had to do my job.”

OK, job done. Bernstein felt she had to ask the question, so she did. Williams, as he had said he would do the previous week, declined to answer.

Maybe she thought she was Helen Thomas, sitting there in the front row in the White House, and Roy Williams was George Bush who had just dodged a question about using a nuclear weapon against Iraq. For whatever reason, Bernstein felt it was necessary to follow up her first question with yet another question about whether Williams would be taking the head coaching job at Carolina.

Williams’ response:

"The guy in your ear that told you that you had to ask that question ... as a journalist, that's fine ... but as a human being, that's not very nice ... and I've got to think that in tough times that people should be more sensitive. I don’t give a shit about Carolina right now. I've got 13 kids in that locker room that I love."

You go, Roy!

Keep in mind that Bernstein is a sports reporter. She’s not a soldier going to war, on whose jobs lives depend. She’s not a scientist seeking the cure for cancer, knowing the lives that could be spared if she press on. She’s a sports reporter and, if she doesn't ask this one question of a coach who just lost a basketball game, the First Amendment will stay in tact and, at some point, Williams will answer her question.

She can hold back on a question, or a story. Eason Jordan of CNN, who last week admitted that CNN has sat on stories about brutality in Iraq for 12 years, is proof of that. How many journalists out there know a professional football player is gay and have sat on that story, in some cases for decades?

Good taste and personal values come into play when you’re a sports reporter. They can act human from time to time. They can be sensitive. They can pull back on a question they want to ask, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

Bernstein, by her own admission, knew Roy Williams well. She knew he was an emotional guy. Everyone knew he was an emotional guy. But, “Holier Than Thou” Bernstein just couldn’t leave well enough alone. She couldn’t let a question she knew wouldn’t get answered just sit in her head for another day.

At that point Bernstein made a huge mistake. She went from interviewing Roy Williams to making herself a part of the story – something I learned in Journalism Ethics classes that a reporter should never do. For the last week, the story has become, “Bonnie Bernstein: Good Or Evil.” She overstepped her bounds.

Of course, much of the journalistic community has taken the last week to defend Bernstein, and have attacked Williams for what they are calling everything from an “outburst” to “vulgarity.”

Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times, praised Bernstein’s questioning, thanking her “for defending journalism.”

Rudy Martzke of USA Today said Williams’ “outburst” was uncalled for, and “unfairly called into question her ability to do her job in a proper journalistic manner.”

Defending journalism? Are you kidding me? Reinforcing the jackalesque perception most of America has of the press, maybe – but defending journalism?

Why is asking a guy a question you KNOW you’re not going to get an answer to “proper journalistic manner?” And, when the guy declines to answer the question, how is it “proper journalistic manner” to ask him the question – which, again, you know you’re not going to get an answer to in the first place - again?

Proper journalism has to take into account a reasonable possibility that you might get an answer to your question. Roy Williams said he’s not going to be talking about the Carolina job. Did Bernstein think that, as the final shot fell short of the basket, Williams hopped on a phone to talk with Carolina Athletic Director Dick Baddour to tell him he’d be taking the job? And, even if he had, did she think he’d just say, “I’m going to Chapel Hill.”

Bernstein had to know what she was doing. She had to know she was putting herself in the story. She had to know she was overstepping her bounds. She had to know she was asking a question – twice – that maybe shouldn’t have been asked at that time. And if she didn’t, she has no business as a sports reporter for CBS.

Bernstein wasn’t the defender, or victim, of proper journalism; she was the perpetrator of bad journalism. And bad taste.

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