The media drive to score on the Isiah Thomas story
In the rush to break the Isiah Thomas “gambling investigation” story, did reporters violate basic rules of fairness?
By John T. Wark
John T. Wark is a staff writer for The Detroit News.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 5 (August 1990), 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.
As the Detroit Pistons battled the Portland Trailblazers in pursuit of a second world championship in June, the Detroit media pursued a hot tip: Isiah Thomas, the Pistons’ star player, had reportedly attracted the attention of a federal grand jury investigating an illegal sports betting ring.
It was investigative reporter Vince Wade of WJBK-TV2 who broke the story first. The ensuing public backlash made some of Wade’s competitors happy, if only for a moment, that they had not been first.
The story’s fairness and accuracy were attacked on radio talk shows, on the editorial page and in letters to the editor. Angry viewers called Wade’s newsroom demanding the station apologize to Thomas.
The U. S. Attorney issued a news release expressing sympathy for Thomas, and saying Thomas was not a target of the investigation nor “the object of any federal criminal charges of any sort.”
Wade’s report said that a grand jury had subpoenaed checks totalling about $100,000 cashed by Thomas at a supermarket owned by a neighbor.
And that the neighbor was suspected of laundering gambling money.
Thomas’s checks were apparently peripheral to a broad investigation focused on the neighbor and a man Wade described as a “premier bookie in Detroit.”
But then, having linked Thomas to a “reputed” money launderer, the report went on to suggest that Thomas was a gambler.
Mark Aguirre, another Piston player, had told a former FBI agent that “Thomas had been involved in some high-stakes craps games, and Aguirre feared Thomas would become entangled” in the federal investigation, Wade reported.
“If Isiah Thomas was playing high-stakes craps, he may face state misdemeanor charges,” Wade added. “But his fellow Pistons and his fans have to hope Thomas has not engaged in illegal sports gambling.
“If he’s bet on NBA games, that’s a clear violation of NBA policy, like Pete Rose. In that case he could see his pro sports career come to an end.”
These last assertions begged the question: If Thomas was not a target of the investigation, if the only indication of gambling was Aguirre’s alleged comment about dice games, what had Thomas done to risk his basketball career?
The report also raised questions about the source of this information. Was it an investigator? One of the gamblers targeted by the grand jury? If it was an anonymous source, why not say so?
Wade’s 5 p.m. newscast on June 15 contained only one attribution: An attorney for Thomas said Thomas “admits cashing the checks” at the market.
By the 11 p.m. newscast, Wade was reporting that “Isiah Thomas, through his attorney, John Caponigro, had admitted cashing checks that have been subpoenaed by the grand jury.”
Caponigro, however, claims neither he nor Thomas knew that the checks were subpoenaed until WJBK called him on the day the story aired. At
WJBK’s request he said he contacted Thomas, reaching him on board the team’s jet as the Pistons were flying to Detroit from Portland and the two “had a 20-second conversation.”
After talking to Thomas, Caponigro asked WJBK to delay the story until 11 p.m. or the next day.
“They asked me for a response and I said we’d be pleased to give them a response when I have the facts,” he said. “They were going into a story
about an FBI investigation with facts we had no knowledge of . . . I was extremely concerned that they were going to report this story without an opportunity to delve into it from our side.”
Only hours after the television report aired, Thomas and his attorney met with FBI investigators. The next day Thomas met with reporters, as his attorney suggested he would do, and said the checks were issued by his accountants. The supermarket owner, who lived next door, cashed them as a personal favor. He denied any involvement in gambling, though he said he had played craps a few times, wagering $10 bets.
Wade said he and news director Mort Meisner agonized over the decision to air the story, agreeing first that it should not run until the championship games were concluded so that the news would not affect the games.
“Secondly, we needed input from Isiah Thomas, out of a sense of fairness and balance,” Wade said.
Weekend sports anchor Virg Jacques, already in Portland to cover the games, was sent to interview Thomas and Aguirre.
Jacques could not get Thomas alone, however, and “thought it inappropriate to bark out a question in front of a group of people,” Wade said.
Jacques succeeded in confronting Aguirre about going to the former FBI agent. Aguirre “wouldn’t admit anything but kept asking Virg pointed questions about what we knew and about whom,” Wade said.
“We felt that was a totally unsuccessful attempt on both guys,” Wade said, explaining why no mention was made in the report of the attempted interviews.
Meisner then called Caponigro and once Caponigro confirmed that Thomas cashed checks through the supermarket, “we felt we had as much input from the Isiah Thomas camp as we were going to get,” Wade said.
Wade and Meisner also said they heard footsteps. Sources they consulted said other reporters were close to breaking it.
“We’re in a competitive business. But it’s more than being first,” said Meisner. “It’s accuracy and fairness that count. We accomplished both of these.”
Reporters for The Detroit News were told by editors their piece could not be published until the information had been confirmed through documents or on-the-record interviews.
The Detroit Free Press, which published a similar, follow-up story the next morning, June 16, based its report on “people familiar with the investigation.”
The use of anonymous sources led the Free Press to publish an editorial the next day criticizing its own report and Wade’s.
The editorial said Thomas was entitled to “the presumption of innocence and to be based on more solid information.”
Wade calls such responses “sanctimonious posturing.” But he also acknowledges he is now in a position of having to do more reporting to surmount the skepticism his original report generated.
“The story is not over. There is more that will come out,” he said. “We will be vindicated.”
For a related view, see “Foul play.”