Crimson Journalism? Let’s hope Evan Woodbery and his peers vow ‘never to yield’

Bammer Go Home?

Some sports page readers complain that Nick Saban has Bama beat writers intimidated to the point of compliance, but I’m wondering if more than a few Auburn fans wish that Auburn beat writers had the same approach.  Take the recent obsession with Evan Woodbery as an example.

The claim is that Evan, a Bama alum, has been using his position as the Auburn beat writer for the Mobile Press-Register (and, via al.com, the Birmingham News and Huntsville Times as well) to advance a pro-Bama agenda.  The centerpiece was a post on the Never to Yield Foundation calling for him to be replaced.  The writer of the post, by remaining anonymous, subjected Woodbery to treatment that the writer himself/herself was not willing to face.  But I will leave that for fans of irony.

I talked to Woodbery about this recently.  He said that the morning the post appeared, his email box was full — some hostile, some concerned, some supportive.  More than the usual day’s mail (which he says he always replies to).

Perhaps the post’s most curious and serious accusation was that Woodbery alerted the NCAA to violations related to the “Big Cat” recruiting weekend the summer of 2009, resulting in minor sanctions against the football program.  As he pointed out, Auburn turned itself in and the NCAA did not investigate but accepted Auburn’s self-imposed penalties.

Regardless, Woodbery taking such an active role in a story would have violated just about every ethical principle of journalism and I am certain he would have been fired.  That he was forced to point all these things out in a response to the NtY post is also a shame.

The NtY post also provides a selective sample of articles to support a charge that Woodbery consistently trashes Auburn.  Conceivably, a Bama fan could produce a list of positive articles and claim that Woodbery is a sell-out.  In either case, the mind is made up and seeks only the evidence that supports it.  The fancy word academics use for that is a “polemic.”

But such is the world we live in today. And that is what troubles me about this situation, including the post.  It’s not the tactics that NtY uses, deficient though they may be.  It’s the philosophy that powers the tactics.

Whether in politics or in college football, readers don’t want information; they want reinforcement.  They are interested in only a few aisles in the marketplace of ideas.  They don’t want information that challenges their biases; they reject such information as inaccurate and the reporter as incompetent.  And if an independent press sees its mission differently, they will go elsewhere, to media that pander to their biases.

Translated to sports, it can get even crazier in its own way.  As Woodbery noted, college football in particular produces a passion that is unmatched by other sports.  Would an Atlanta Falcons fan complain because a Falcons beat reporter grew up in Charlotte or D.C.?

For newspapers, it is yet another threat.  Circulation has been flat for decades — since television.  Economic downturns are always tough on newspapers that rely on advertising income, but this one is intensifying the existing challenges.  With readers flocking to the Internet–and publishers giving away their content for too long–some newspapers are struggling to find reader income.  (I would point out that al.com, the Web site that hosts the Press-Register, Woodbery’s paper, seems to be ahead of the curve on this.)

The rise of fan-related pay sports sites, such as AuburnSports.com (Rivals), Inside the Auburn Tigers (Scout/Fox), and AuburnUndercover has also changed the game.  These sites, many staffed by former sports page veterans such as Phillip Marshall, do a great job of reporting on recruiting and other team developments.  But relying on direct financial fan support, they take a slightly different approach than do the beat reporters from the daily newspapers.

But whether in sports or politics, it’s sad to see the direction things are going.  In both cases, an independent press serves an important function — to make sure the game is fair for the participants, whether it takes place on the field or in legislative chambers.  And if the audience seeks only the information that confirms its preconceived beliefs, and ignores the rest, the likelihood for misconduct is greater, because those in power know that they are not being watched as closely.

It’s even more ridiculous when the facts don’t come close to matching the accusations.  Many claim that the Press-Register holds an anti-Auburn bias and endorses Woodbery’s behavior.  But Managing Editor Dewey English was a classmate of mine at Auburn in the late 1970s and is part of strong, respected leadership at the helm.  And for all that the Birmingham News is supposed to be a Bammer stronghold, the current publisher, Pam Siddall, earned the enmity of Bama fans when her Twitter account at the time of her appointment included the confession that she was an Auburn fan.

On the sports page, many claim that the University of Alabama (i.e., Nick Saban) would never tolerate an Auburn grad covering its teams.  But I can think of three different situations where an Auburn grad does just that.  One of them, Rachel Baribeau (FoxSports), is no secret.  As for the other two, for the time being I will spare them the possibility of the shabby treatment being doled out on Woodbery.

So will the enraged masses get their wish?  Will Evan Woodbery trade in one crazy, passionate group of fans for another?  He told me he has no current plans, though anything can change.  I would hope that Woodbery, and any journalist, would never make a lateral move for that reason, because it would encourage such an attitude.

One group that endorses Woodber’s professionalism and ethics is his fellow journalists, both on and off the sports page.  I have chatted with them, and I have read their comments on message boards.  In their minds, his reporting is as solid as his professional ethics.

A final note: One such colleague reported writing such a defense of Woodbery and submitting it as a comment to the NtY page.  About a week later, it has not appeared yet.  That is fine; that is their business.  Thank goodness for newspapers that have the integrity to give space to their critics.  It’s not a matter of dishing it out vs. taking it.  It goes to a much deeper mission that means a lot more to journalism’s practitioners than readers realize.

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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