Rush to Judgment


Does the end justify the means, in reporting as in sports?

Sides are already being chosen in the matter of Court of Public Opinion v. Rush Propst. The head football coach of Hoover High School has been cheered as a rock star by his supporters, and held up as a symbol of everything wrong with sports by his detractors. When someone is that polarizing, it’s only a matter of time before he’s thrown to the wolves.

Rather than recap the story, I’ll send you here for a little background info. I’ll wait until you get back to comment.

Ready? Good.

Today’s Paul Finebaum show was exclusively devoted to the Propst matter, and the first hour was devoted to giving journalism lessons to newly-unemployed reporter Hunter Ford, who was in studio. Now let me say up front, I like Finebaum; I’ve been a fan for decades, was a long-time caller, and most importantly, I get Finebaum. He pulls listeners in by being a contrarian. So I don’t mind him taking shots at Ford while the reporter is down. But Finebaum has made no secret of his close friendship with Propst. If one were so inclined, one could question whether Finebaum has looked at the facts and found nothing worth reporting, or whether he has decided to sit this one out due to his ties to the coach.

Several years ago, Finebaum was breathlessly relating to his audience the allegations against then-coach Mike Price, which started as a rumor on an Auburn message board. Obviously, those rumors proved true, and I support his bringing the facts to light. But let’s save the lessons on journalistic integrity until you’ve run out of Rita Rodriguez jokes. If Hunter Ford was fired for spreading unsubstantiated rumor, I support that. But I don’t think Finebaum is the person to take someone to task for being incendiary or controversial.

Alabama TV sportscaster Rick Karle weighed in later in the show by saying even if the rumors were true, “what does it have to do with his job?” I don’t know; Mike Price’s romp in the hay didn’t affect his recent success at UTEP, and Mike Dubose was able to back into an SEC championship even after blaming God for his troubles. I can’t help wondering if a tiny bit of the animus toward Ford is not for the shoddy journalism, but for having scooped the big dogs.

As we all know, media outlets like the Finebaum show cynically cover such non-stories by ‘covering the reaction to the rumor,’ thereby spreading gossip while affecting a stance of journalistic detachment. (admission: I’m doing the same damn thing by writing this column. I know this.) It’s true that this story, if there even is one, is only beginning, and no real facts are in. However, in today’s media climate, facts are secondary. Being first trumps being right. This competition for readers and listeners perpetuates the same win-at-all-costs mentality being decried by Propst’s critics.

In 1999, I was listening to the Alabama/Florida game as I drove through Northport. I pulled my car to the side of the road to yell deliriously as Alabama beat the Gators in overtime. At that moment, it didn’t matter to me that Dubose was shaming the school, both in his personal life and his recruiting efforts; at that moment all that mattered was we had won.

The following year, we were “staring down the barrel of a gun,” to quote the NCAA Infractions Committee, and I’d have traded that win, as well as the repeat in the SEC title game, for the last several years of wandering in the probation wilderness. Seems the end doesn’t justify the means.