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Did The Paul Finebaum Show Jump The Shark With Danny Sheridan Interview?

Odds that Paul Finebaum jumped the shark with Sheridan's bagman bait 'n' switch? 50/50.

I feel like I should write something about the Danny Sheridan debacle from a sports media perspective.  But to be honest, I do not listen to Finebaum.  Check that: I sometimes do listen to him for the four minutes it takes me to get from the Comer Hall parking lot to my home behind Auburn High School.  (And since I usually leave around 4, to miss the local school traffic, that means I hear a LOT of Tim Brando.)

So I caught only a little of the show.  And I have no intention of listening to the podcast to catch up.  Even I have too much of a life to waste it on that.  I understand that Sheridan refused to name the name at this point, on his attorney’s recommendation.  The various fan comment boards filled in the blanks a little, in a lot less time.

A few observations:

1) First, some basics of libel law. The six elements of libel are publication, identification, defamation, falsity, fault and damage.  We will talk about four of these.

In terms of publication, Finebaum would definitely be on the line for a libel suit if Sheridan named the bagman, because he allowed Sheridan to say it on his show.  Callers can run on at the mouth; invited guests do have a higher level of responsibility.

If Sheridan were sued for libel (radio being a “fixed medium” like print, so it’s not slander), he would be expected to prove that his story is true.  Truth is an absolute defense, and is typically a slam-dunk.  Without that, the plaintiff can argue the falsity of his claim.

At the “actual malice” level of fault, typical for public figures, the plaintiff would have to prove that Sheridan knew the information was false when he reported it, or went ahead even though he had these doubts.  The discovery process reveals anonymous sources so that their credibility can be judged.  For Finebaum, as the “publisher,” his level of doubt would also be an issue.

(Obviously, the nutcases and jackwagons who populate most of his universe of callers are not subject to the same level of truth, but their calls are mostly taken as hyperbolic insults anyway.  In other words, the legal system does not take them seriously, either.)

Now, if Sheridan named as the bagman some heretofore unknown Auburn fan who lived a quiet, private life until now, that person could be named a “private citizen” who by definition has less access to the media.  The level of fault there is much lower — negligence, or “departure from the accepted standards of journalism.”  That is a much easier level of fault to prove.

Finally is the issue of damage.  It is hard to assess the damage to a reputation, but juries love to try, especially when the defendant (Sheridan/Finebaum) has been found to be playing fast and loose with a person’s good name.  That’s when we start talking in the millions.

Just think about those factors weighing in on Sheridan opening his mouth, assuming he does have a name.

2) In the four minutes I was listening, a friend of Sheridan’s from Atlanta called in and tried to defend him, saying Sheridan has the trust of hundreds of people who subscribe to his service.  All I could think about is what Bernie Madoff’s clients thought about him the day before he was arrested.

3) Who knows.  Maybe someday something will come out.  But so far this week we learned that the NCAA poking around Miami was related not to an investigation of Auburn recruiting in Miami, but the U; that the bingo trial tapes had no mention of Auburn football, as some crowed; and now that Danny Sheridan does not have evidence that he claimed.  From an Auburn media relations perspective, I would call that a great week.

4) The Paul Finebaum Show might have “jumped the shark” this time.  The expression refers to a program that takes a fatal turn from a bad decision.  It got its name from a “Happy Days” episode where Fonzi jumped his motorcycle [Correction: make that his water skis] over a shark tank.  People identify that as the beginning of the program’s decline.  Since then, TV critics look for similar moments in popular TV shows — when Delta Burke left “Designing Women,” for example, or when “Dallas” brought back Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) and claimed the previous season was a dream.

It will be interesting to see where Finebaum’s program goes, in terms of public perception, in allowing something like this to come off.  A lot of folks think it will be business as usual, that today was no less moronic than most.  I will wait and see.

Not listen, just wait and see.

Photo via.

John Carvalho, associate professor of journalism at Auburn, blogs about the sports media at johncarvalhoau.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter at @johncarvalhoau. Read his previous columns here.

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