There are many criticisms to be made of modern, mainstream journalism, but one of the most salient is the way reporters and news-gathering operations seem so often to value access over accurate reporting. The reason is simple: reporters need access to sources to do their jobs. Lose your access, and that job gets much harder to do. As a result, many reporters feel pressure to pad their work with beat sweeteners and otherwise try not to offend.
In turn, sources sometimes try to hold the denial of access over reporters’ heads as a tool for avoiding unfavorable coverage.
That seems to be what Bobby Hauck, head coach of the University of Montana Grizzlies football team, tried recently with Montana Kaimin reporter Tyson Alger, who just broke the story of yet another alleged brutal assault by thick-necked Griz players on a fellow student—and the story of what appears to be a concerted effort by Coach Hauck to keep the incident out of public view.
Alger’s story ran in yesterday’s Kaimin, and it’s worth your time. Here are the basic facts, as Alger reported them in his lead paragraphs:
“Two University of Montana football players have been implicated by three Missoula men in the assault of a fellow student.
“Trumaine Johnson and Andrew Swink, who were both missing from Montana’s first game against Western State this fall, allegedly assaulted UM student Grady McCarthy after an altercation during a party at the Sigma Nu fraternity in March.”
I stopped by the Kaimin’s campus offices to ask Alger why an assault that allegedly occurred in March is only coming to light now. The short answer is that Coach Hauck has imposed what Kaimin sports editor Roman Stubbs calls—in an angry editorial that is also well worth your time—“a wall of silence” around the incident.
That wall started crumbling during the season opener against Western State on September 5th. Alger told me he was in attendance, covering the game, when he noticed that neither Johnson nor Swink were on the field. Alger says he thought that was strange, because both players started last season and seemed to be valuable players.
Alger asked Coach Hauck what the reason for their absence was and received this statement of the obvious: “They were both unavailable to compete.” Alger then asked Coach Hauck if he could provide more details. “If I wanted to, I would have,” Hauck answered, sounding like he’s been taking lessons in media relations from Donald Rumsfeld.
Alger followed up a few more times, finally receiving this response during Tuesday’s weekly football-team press conference:
“You’re done for the day,” said Hauck, while covering up [Alger's] tape recorder. “And you’ll be done for the season if you keep bugging me about this thing that I’ve answered four fucking times.”
Maybe Hauck was hoping Alger was the kind of patsy reporter I described at the beginning of this post, but no such luck for him. Reporter’s instincts tingling, Alger nosed around, identified the victim, and interviewed him, his father, and a witness. It’s all in Friday’s story.
I’m still waiting to hear Coach Hauck’s side of this story (he has yet to answer an email I sent him on Friday, shortly after reading Alger’s story), but—to me—the most interesting detail is Hauck’s apparent threat to withdraw a campus sports reporter’s access to the team because that reporter was demanding answers about the extremely disturbing behavior of two of its players.
How disturbing? If you want details, you’ll need to read Alger’s article, but this wasn’t just a high-spirited dust-up: after the victim ended up unconscious, his head on the curb, one of Hauck’s players is alleged to have kicked him in the face. The police were never called, and neither the victim nor his father—”a big Griz fan”—seem too worked up about it, but based on Alger’s reporting it seems mere chance that this incident didn’t result in severe injury or even death. I mean, on the field, these guys wear helmets for a reason, right?
Reasonable people may differ about Hauck’s right to keep a lid on all of this. To be fair, the Missoulian reports today that the secrecy around this incident may have resulted at least in part from the victim’s wishes. The student’s father says his son “doesn’t want [the incident] blown up,” and—according to UM Athletic Director Jim O’Day—it was at the victim’s stipulation that no university incident report was ever filed.
If these claims are true, however, it seems strange that the student sat for an interview with Alger. And true or not, Kaimin Sports Editor Roman Stubbs makes an excellent point about what he sees as Hauck’s duty to respond to questions about these allegations—and about the UM community’s right to learn not only what happened but what is being done about it. (According to Alger’s reporting, the sidelining of the two players seems to have lasted for only one game.)
“[T]his isn’t Hauck’s football program…. It belongs to the University of Montana…. Students have the right to this information. It is their school, and what happens with Hauck’s team is their business. Without UM students, Hauck doesn’t have a job here and UM doesn’t have a football program. It is that simple.”
Either way, we only know about this story because of the strong instincts and doggedness of a student reporter on the Kaimin. Congratulations to Tyson Alger on a job well done.