Colorado media’s option play

Most passed; did they also fumble?

The alternative weekly’s story was called a “despicable” invasion of privacy. But the story was the area’s hottest topic.

By Sue O’Brien

Sue O’Brien, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder, is a former Denver television news director and Denver Post assistant city editor.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 8 (November 1989), pp. 1,8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Westword, Denver’s brash alternative weekly, gave it full front-page play: “CU Coach Bill McCartney keeps the faith  and gets a grandson fathered by his star quarterback.”

But University of Colorado quarterback Sal Aunese and McCartney’s 20-year-old daughter, Kristyn, were not married.

And the young Samoan football star was dying of cancer.

Talk-radio telephones buzzed with outrage. The story was the topic of loud debate in every newsroom. But few Colorado journalists were writing.

The university confirmed that Aunese was the father of McCartney’s grandson on Aug. 30, the day the Westword story broke. But The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Boulder Camera and two of Denver’s four commercial television stations maintained silence, refusing to chase a story they’d all known about for months.

The tone of the Westword story, which depended exclusively on unnamed sources, was ugly. Aunese came across as an uncaring lout, Kristyn as little more than a tramp. But the harshest treatment was of McCartney.

“They tried to make it a story by putting an angle on it that Bill McCartney, a very Christian-type fellow, can’t control the team, or even his own daughter,” said Rocky Mountain News Sports Editor Barry Forbis.”That’s a pretty weak peg.”

For Westword writer Bryan Abas, Kristyn’s pregnancy proved his central contention: “McCartney has lost the respect of his players, and some are retaliating in one of the most humiliating, intensely personal ways imaginable.”

Denver Post Managing Editor Gay Cook called that “cheap-shot journalism.”

“I don’t think the thesis of the article was substantiated by the reporting,” she said. “And I think it came very close to a gross invasion of Kristyn McCartney’s privacy.”

The mainstream media boycott of the story continued even after the 21 year-old Aunese died Sept. 23. Only the News, in Aunese’s obituary, noted that he had left “a 6-month-old son, Timothy.” No last name. No further identification.

But on Sept. 25, before 2,000 mourners at a campus memorial service, a somber Coach McCartney addressed his daughter and resolved a dilemma for worried editors who still hadn’t decided how to cover the story.

“Kristy McCartney, you’ve been a trooper. You could have had an abortion, gone away and had the baby somewhere else to avoid the shame, but you didn’t. . . . You’re going to raise that little guy and all of us are going to have an opportunity to watch him.”

The photo of Kristyn standing with Timothy by the casket was played prominently in all three dailies and on all TV newscasts.

The News also included an excerpt from a little-noticed June interview in which Aunese had proudly discussed his son with the sports editor of his hometown paper, the Oceanside, CA, Blade-Tribune.

But Aunese consistently refused or ignored requests to talk with Denver reporters. He never explained his reasons.

Except for Westword, Denver editors decided not to go with the story unless Aunese and the McCartneys were willing. McCartney opened the door at the memorial service. Until then, “he didn’t talk about it and we didn’t write it,” said Forbis. Few felt they needed to confirm what was widely accepted as truth.

Most editors’ reservations revolved around issues of taste and privacy. For some, the clincher was that Aunese was dying. Others refused to violate Kristyn’s privacy, rejecting the Abas argument that the daughter of a public figure is, per se, a public figure.

In conversation, several criticized Westword for playing to racial stereotypes by emphasizing Kristyn’s relationships with black and Polynesian players. Others objected to an implied double standard of sexual conduct for men and women students.

All worried about how the community would react to a distasteful story.

“If I were maybe 20 to 25 years younger, I’d say, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve got to do this story now’,” Barrie Hartman, executive editor of the Boulder Camera, said last month. But good sense for a paper of my size in a community like this says you put the brakes on it for a while.”

Denver Post Editor Chuck Green, who hadn’t participated in daily news decisions on the story, criticized his colleagues for failing to aggressively pursue Westword’s allegations that McCartney’s religion has intruded into the CU locker room.

At KMGH-TV, News Director Mike Youngren observed that a tendency to take the easy way out seems to prevail in Colorado newsgathering. It took Sports Illustrated to fully report the off- field problems of CU football players, he notes.

Westword Editor Patricia Calhoun speculated that the boycott had much to do with the area’s fondness for football.

It remained for the state’s most idiosyncratic daily to take the most independent path. Editor Clint Talbott of the Colorado Daily, which is based on the CU campus but has no formal ties to the university, decided Kristyn’s pregnancy was a private matter.

Even after McCartney’s memorial service remarks, Talbott refused to join other newspapers in the rush to print the story. “It didn’t matter that it wasn’t news,” he wrote in an editorial on Oct. 6. “It just mattered that the story was a good read, and the papers pounced on the first legitimate excuse to put it in print.”

McCartney says he really hadn’t planned his memorial service remarks. But his daughter had been publicly attacked and deserved public validation. He apparently decided that the story would be handled right.

“The mainstream media had this story before that magazine,” he said last month. “Obviously it was a tasty story, one that would have certainly garnered headlines, and the fact that they left it alone speaks volumes to me.”

 

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