Foolishly, ESPN Employs Its Own Worst Enemy

What if I told you that ESPN employs a writer on its payroll who might cost the network millions in a legal settlement? What if I told you that Jason Whitlock, while working for Fox Sports before ESPN hired him as his Fox contract was expiring, was so hypercritical of ESPN and its questionable reporting on the Bernie Fine story that his columns swayed sentiment in the case? What if I told you that a judge in Albany, N.Y., this month denied ESPN’s request to dismiss a libel/slander suit against the network filed by Fine’s wife? What if I told you that Fine, the former Syracuse University basketball assistant coach, never was charged by the U.S. attorney’s office after a series of child-molesting allegations that cost him his job in 2011?

And what if I told you — OK, that’s how an annoying voice launches promos for ESPN’s “30 For 30’’ series — that higher-ups at Disney Co. didn’t realize Whitlock had thrashed their sports network for “irresponsible’’ Fine coverage until after he was hired by ESPN? And that, all of a sudden, people in the company are asking why ESPN president John Skipper actually would hire someone whose Fox Sports columns ripping ESPN reporter Mark Schwarz and producer Artie Berko were damning enough that Laurie Fine’s attorneys have used them for guidance and background?

Think about it: A network president hired the network’s own worst enemy, a commentator who had provided the impetus for the network to lose its ass legally.

ESPN makes some dubious hires. None was more dubious than Whitlock. Not only has a strong, fearless voice in sports media been systematically quieted by the ESPN machine — I rarely see his content on the site — but when he does write a piece, it’s usually about an African-American-related subject. I would not appreciate being pigeonholed on topical matter, especially pertaining to race, and I wonder if ESPN hired Whitlock simply to silence him about ESPN issues. Because no one — and I mean, no one — has been more critical of ESPN than Whitlock.

When U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn sided with Fine’s wife, saying he isn’t certain that ESPN’s reporting was “fair and true,’’ I immediately thought back to Schwarz’s report of Nov. 17, 2011, in which two former Syracuse ballboys accused Fine of molesting them over a period that allegedly stretched from the late 1970s to the 1990s. Here is what Whitlock wrote on the Fox Sports website — the piece was titled, “A Fine mess ESPN has created’’ — on Nov. 23, 2011:

 The emails and tweets from Penn State supporters are trickling in, the ones asking why the media are not clamoring for Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim to resign and his longtime assistant Bernie Fine to be jailed.

This one, from reader Jason Devitt, arrived Monday morning:

“I find it interesting that Joe Paterno absolutely had to be immediately fired, could not coach a single game more, 60 years of reputation means nothing. Yet with Bernie Fine everyone is taking the let’s-wait-until-all-the-facts-are-out-to-pass-judgment approach. Maybe people just aren’t as disgusted by sexual abuse anymore.”

Or, maybe some of us are disgusted by the irresponsible “reporting” used by Mark Schwarz, Arty Berko and ESPN to unfairly smear Bernie Fine and boost ESPN ratings.

Schwarz, Berko and ESPN remind me of Paterno, Mike McQueary and Penn State in one respect. When confronted with a difficult choice, they all did the bare, legal minimum to protect their self-interest. They failed their moral obligation.

This column is not meant to exonerate Bernie Fine, whom Syracuse put on administrative leave pending an ESPN-driven police investigation into whether he sexually molested step brothers and former SU ball boys Bobby Davis and Mike Lang in the 1970s, ’80s and ‘90s. I do not know Bernie Fine. I do not have any insight into what did or did not transpire between Fine and his two accusers.

What I do know, based on Schwarz’s juvenile “reporting,” is the Worldwide Leader didn’t have nearly enough evidence to air such a reputation-damaging story. Schwarz acquired just enough information — two vague, mumbling on-camera interviews from Fine’s accusers — to protect ESPN from a lawsuit. Schwarz did the legal minimum.

Was his story sound journalism? Was his story remotely fair? No, and hell no.

Let me repeat: I’m not exonerating Bernie Fine. I don’t know him. I don’t know what he’s capable of doing and/or hiding.

What I know is you don’t destroy a person’s reputation with two highly flimsy accusations. The accusations against Fine are nothing like the accusations against Jerry Sandusky. There were multiple eyewitnesses — including a Penn State assistant coach — to Sandusky’s alleged criminal behavior. There was a three-year investigation into Sandusky, a grand jury indictment, an arrest and a public statement by the Pennsylvania state police criticizing Paterno and McQueary for failing to meet their moral obligation.

Are police, prosecutors, grand juries and eyewitnesses infallible? No. They get things wrong all the time. And maybe they screwed up the Sandusky investigation. And maybe Sandusky’s repulsive interview with Bob Costas was just another big misunderstanding.

But, for now, journalists and broadcasters were/are on solid ground condemning Sandusky and his Paterno State enablers.

There is no solid ground when it comes to the Bernie Fine investigation.

The police, ESPN, The (Syracuse) Post-Standard and Syracuse University all looked into Bobby Davis’ accusations years ago. His allegations couldn’t be corroborated or proved. His relationship with Fine appeared to be quite complicated. In 2001 — a year before Davis, now 39, told Syracuse police Fine had molested him from age 12 to 27 — Davis cut off all contact with Fine because Davis said Fine choked him over a $5,000 debt, according to The Post-Standard. Lang, now 45, was interviewed by The Post-Standard in 2003, and, according to the newspaper, Lang did not corroborate Davis’ story then.

Lang was a Syracuse ball boy years before Davis. So we’re now to believe Lang was molested by Fine but told his younger stepbrother to be a Syracuse ball boy and it was cool to hang out with Bernie Fine. Really?

In the brief snippet of interviews ESPN has aired of Davis and Lang, why didn’t Schwarz ask any probative questions? Davis and Lang are grown men who mustered the courage to go on national television and talk about being fondled by another man two decades ago but they can’t handle a few clarifying questions? Really?

Oprah Winfrey would’ve asked more difficult questions than Schwarz did.

It’s morally criminal what Schwarz and ESPN did to Bernie Fine. Even if other, more credible accusers against Fine surface, it does not justify what Schwarz did to Fine. This can’t be the standard. The mainstream media can’t simply throw out crippling, salacious rumors and then let the proof of those rumors filter in. If that’s the standard, a lot of people — including members of the media — are going to get hurt.

Months later, on April 23, 2012, after the reporting of additional elements made the Fine story more complex, Whitlock published another piece on the Fox Sports site that excoriated ESPN. It was titled, “Bernie Fine fallout illustrates dangers of vigilante journalism.’’

The recent developments in the Bernie Fine fiasco — recantations from the third accuser and the release of a decade-old audiotape more credible and enlightening than the infamous one — further illustrate that vigilante journalism is just as dangerous as vigilante justice.

ESPN neighborhood watch captain Mark Schwarz, armed with a microphone and camera and inspired by the Jerry Sandusky controversy, profiled and then assisted in the destruction of the reputation of Jim Boeheim’s longtime assistant coach.

Based on the content of the infamous, vague and secretly recorded Bobby Davis-Laurie Fine conversation, the sports media’s good-old-boy network quickly confirmed Schwarz’s work as justifiable and excellent stand-for-ratings TV journalism.

It wasn’t. It was premature character assassination, a crime that should have Schwarz standing in the unemployment line.

Again, I’m not trying to exonerate Bernie Fine. We still don’t know what really transpired between Fine and his primary accuser Bobby Davis, who claims Fine sexually molested him from age 12 to 27.

What we do know now is that the corroborating victims used to legitimize Davis’ allegations told outright lies and/or highly suspect stories. And, in my opinion, Schwarz and his co-conspirators at the Syracuse Post-Standard should have turned the Bobby Davis-Laurie Fine audiotape over to the police and allowed trained professionals to get to the bottom of Fine’s complicated relationship with Davis.

We know this now because most objective people realize what should have been obvious from the get-go: You don’t publicly destroy a person’s reputation based on the words of a career criminal serving a sentence of 16 years to life (Floyd VanHooser), a confessed child molester (Zach Tomaselli), a mumbling, 45-year-old stepbrother who swore 10 years earlier that Fine never did anything inappropriate to him (Mike Lang), and a 40-year-old former athlete (Bobby Davis) who claims he slept with a chubby old man’s wife and that he couldn’t stop the chubby old man from repeatedly touching his genitals even as an adult.

Three months ago, VanHooser, in writing, admitted he lied about Fine. Ten days ago, Tomaselli, in writing and in interviews, admitted he fabricated his entire story about Fine and said Davis helped him concoct the lies. Davis, perhaps in a bit of panic, disputed he assisted Tomaselli, but Davis did state that Tomaselli’s story always sounded bogus to him.

Yes, I’m aware that Tomaselli recanted his recantation just before entering prison. But at some point, a self-admitted sociopathic liar loses the right to have his lies taken seriously. Tomaselli reached that point in January when he was busted altering police emails intended to fool the media into believing his lies about Fine.

And now, just last week, the good folks at the Syracuse Post-Standard pretended to be fair-minded journalists and revealed a bit of the truth about Lang, including a 10-minute, 2002 recording of Lang rather forcibly and persuasively stating Fine never molested him.

Vigilante journalism is just as grotesque as vigilante justice.

Now that the wheels of justice are moving for Trayvon Martin, someone needs to start protesting in Syracuse on behalf of Bernie Fine.

Schwarz has some serious explaining to do, and he shouldn’t be allowed to do his explaining to his friends inside the good-old-boys network.

Schwarz assisted Davis in reigniting a decades-old, thrice-investigated, impossible-to-prove child-molestation case. In the rush to duplicate the coverage of the Penn State tragedy, Schwarz allowed Davis and Lang to air flimsy allegations against Fine on national TV before the Syracuse police had a chance to speak with Lang. Schwarz then injected Tomaselli into the story, introducing Tomaselli to Davis before Syracuse police and federal investigators had ever heard of Tomaselli’s possible connection to the case.

Tomaselli reportedly justified the federal search warrants used to invade Fine’s home. What if during their search the feds found proof of Davis’ claims? That evidence could have been jeopardized because Schwarz wanted to play vigilante journalist.

Tomaselli also justified ESPN’s release of the Davis-Fine audiotape. Here’s what ESPN executive Vince Doria said to an ESPN website after airing the tape:

“When the Syracuse Post-Standard story broke over the weekend of a third alleged victim (Tomaselli), a victim whose sworn affidavit had reportedly triggered the house search that had taken place by federal investigators earlier last week, we felt the story had now risen to the level where we were comfortable putting the tape out.”

Tomaselli contacted Schwarz. Under the pretense of vetting Tomaselli’s story, Schwarz then introduced Tomaselli to Davis.

“(Schwarz) wanted to get Bobby Davis’ take on Tomaselli to see if his description of his relationship with Bernie Fine offered more credibility,” Doria told CNN’s Howard Kurtz on Dec 4.

Four months ago, Schwarz was vetting Tomaselli’s story through Davis. Here’s what Davis told Schwarz in reaction to Tomaselli’s claim that Davis helped concoct Tomaselli’s tale of abuse:

“I asked him all the questions. I asked him to describe Bernie’s house, to describe the arena, to name the players on the team at that time. He kept changing his story with me. He couldn’t name the players, couldn’t describe the house.”

Before last week, can you find or can ESPN provide one piece of video, audio or writing where Schwarz reports that Davis had doubts about the credibility of Tomaselli’s story? Schwarz is a reporter? His job is to report the facts in a timely, unbiased manner?

Schwarz allowed one of Davis’ former girlfriends and a former Fine babysitter to speculate on TV about the creepy feelings she had because the Fines kept their blinds closed and whatnot. But the bogusness of Tomaselli’s story isn’t newsworthy until Tomaselli claims Davis played a role in the bogusness?

In my opinion, Schwarz and ESPN have suspected all along that Tomaselli’s story was fraudulent. They used Tomaselli as an excuse to air the audiotape. Tomaselli said repeatedly that ESPN felt his story didn’t meet their standards. Tomaselli also said Schwarz intentionally leaked the story to the Syracuse Post-Standard. The timing of the release of the Tomaselli story always struck me as odd. The Post-Standard posted the story on its website on a Sunday morning. Within a few hours of the Post-Standard posting Tomaselli’s allegations, ESPN aired the Laurie Fine-Bobby Davis audio.

The salaciousness of the audiotape stopped everyone from singularly focusing on the sketchiness of Tomaselli’s accusations. The audiotape was Schwarz’s trump card. He dealt it from the bottom of the deck. I think the tape suggests that Davis is manipulative and Laurie Fine is sleazy, inappropriate, has questions about her husband’s sexuality and is a potential cast member for “Jersey Shore.” There’s absolutely no proof on the tape that Fine sexually molested anyone. ESPN knows this. The Post-Standard knows it. Both organizations have publicly admitted it.

“Many critics have suggested that the tape of Laurie Fine should have been enough for ESPN to go public,” ESPN’s ombudsman wrote. “It’s not. Nowhere on the tape does she describe firsthand knowledge of her husband abusing children.”

Lang’s alleged corroboration didn’t justify Schwarz’s actions, either. Lang is either lying now or he was lying 10 years ago when he told the Post-Standard that Bernie Fine “didn’t do nothing but help me out.” There’s a fascinating and compelling 10-minute tape recording of an interview Lang did with a Post-Standard reporter. I’m not sure why the PS waited until last week to make the interview available. Listen to it. … Lang sounds more credible in this interview than anything he has said talking to Schwarz or standing next to lawyer Gloria Allred. And the story points out Lang’s virtual disappearance from the Allred-led defamation lawsuit against Jim Boeheim.

I don’t know whether Bernie Fine molested Bobby Davis when Davis was a child or whether this is a strange, bitter adult love triangle that has spun off the rails because of money, hurt feelings and betrayal. I don’t know what — if any — evidence federal investigators have unearthed. The feds work on taxpayer dollars and have a lot of freedom. The feds investigated Lance Armstrong for more than two years before finally walking away with nothing. It’s impossible to discern the meaning of the “continuation” of the federal investigation into Fine, other than our tax dollars are being spent.

“The senators I have spoken with,” Davis bizarrely told Mark Schwarz in response to a question about Tomaselli, “say that there is quite a bit of false reporting and I have always thought you could prove if somebody is lying or telling the truth.”

Bobby Davis is important now. He talks to senators. Everybody in America wants to be important now. It’s not enough to take care of your family, raise your kids and handle your job. Too many of us want to moonlight as all-powerful neighborhood watch captains.

We’re living in a dangerous time. As people lose faith in the institutions created to sustain and protect us, we’re giving in to vigilantism. We’re all vulnerable, regardless of race, community status or even wealth.

Vigilantism killed Trayvon Martin, and it ruined the career and life of Bernie Fine. Martin and Fine were not perfect; no human or victim is. They likely made mistakes in judgment that contributed to their demise. But, in my opinion, they did not deserve their fate.

Whitlock’s powderkeg columns drew nationwide attention to the flaws in ESPN’s reporting. Two and a half years later, a judge in Albany continues to doubt that ESPN was “fair and true’’ in its coverage. It’s all adding up to a potentially lucrative settlement for Laurie Fine and her legal team, the sort of embarrassing payout ESPN likes to do on the lowdown and hush up.

Without question, Jason Whitlock did his job and did it well in breaking down ESPN’s reporting mistakes. Problem is, the people he derided as a “good-old-boys network’’ now pay his salary. How utterly stupid can they be to have hired him? And, if they lose their tails in a settlement, how much longer before he is un-hired?