The volatile presidency of Donald Trump has, among other things, focused attention on the news media’s use — and overuse — of anonymous sources.
Although most of Trump’s attacks on the news media are baseless, diversionary and potentially threatening to the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press, the Republican does have a point when he questions the fairness of running stories based largely or solely on anonymous sources.
Anonymity is most common in reporting from Washington, where those who cover the federal government claim that granting it is the only way they can get the stories. It also seems, however, to be creeping ever more steadily into other investigative reporting as well.
Case in point is an article, written by USA Today, that was published this past Sunday as the lead sports story in The Clarion-Ledger, the Jackson sister paper of USA Today.
Continuing with its aggressive coverage of the scandal and downfall of former Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze, USA Today reported that three women who were students a couple of decades ago at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis believe he acted inappropriately in disciplining them when Freeze worked there.
Of the three, two spoke to the reporter on the condition that their identity would be withheld, claiming they feared reprisal. The one woman who was identified in the story acknowledged that Freeze didn’t do anything sexual to her but believes he violated her privacy when she was an eighth-grader by making her change in his office, while he was present, a T-shirt that apparently broke the Christian school’s dress code.
The implication of the story was clear: that Freeze, who lost his job at Ole Miss at least in part over a sex scandal, has a longstanding pattern of sexually inappropriate behavior that contradicts his Christian prosletyzing.
Freeze, through an attorney, has denied the women’s accusations. It wasn’t fair, though, for the newspaper to even ask him to respond to them without something more solid.
This “fear of reprisal” excuse is a cop-out. All of these women are at least in their late 20s. They aren’t kids any more. If they honestly believe that Freeze acted inappropriately toward female minors over which he had supervisory control, they should have the courage to identify themselves so their accusations can be more fully vetted. A person accused of misbehavior deserves to know who his accusers are.
There is a lot to the Freeze story that merits continuing coverage. The NCAA investigation into cheating during Freeze’s tenure is ongoing, as is the lawsuit of his predecessor, Houston Nutt, who accuses Freeze of defaming him. Plus Freeze’s bosses, including athletic director Ross Bjork, still have some answering to do over whether they properly supervised their former star coach.
Freeze deserved to be fired. Whatever his professional or personal indiscretions, though, he still deserves to be treated with fairness in what is reported and what is withheld. Stories such as the Briarcrest one are, at least at this point, gratuitous.
These accusations should not have been aired without more substantiation and without less anonymity. Maybe that will come now that the story has been put out, but that’s not the way journalism is supposed to work.
Unscrupulous politicians might throw unsubstantiated allegations against the wall to see what sticks. Journalists are not supposed to.