So, readers keep asking: What do you think of the current Mississippi State/Clarion-Ledger controversy?
Can’t say I didn’t expect the question. I worked at the Ledger for 33 years, first as a beat reporter, then as a sports editor/columnist and finally as a columnist.
I wrote or edited scores of stories about hirings and firings, NCAA investigations and other news stories, many containing unnamed sources.
We’ll get to that. But first, in case anyone reading this does not know of the current hubbub, a brief description follows:
Mike Bonner, the Ledger’s MSU beat reporter (and a guy I like and respect), Wednesday broke a bombshell story that State will promote baseball coach John Cohen, also an associate athletic director, to athletic director to replace Scott Stricklin, who has taken the job of athletic director at Florida.
Bonner cited unnamed sources who said the hiring will be made public at a press conference Tuesday. Not long after the story appeared on the newspaper’s website, MSU President Mark Keenum issued a statement scathing in its criticism of Bonner and the newspaper.
Keenum: “The report today by The Clarion-Ledger’s Mike Bonner indicated that a decision has been made in that process was inaccurate. I’m extremely disappointed that a reputable newspaper and reporter would make such a report without seeking basic confirmation of the facts of the story being circulated. Doing so is irresponsible and in some ways may interfere with the process. It’s unfair to the candidates seeking the position who have not yet been interviewed.”
The Clarion-Ledger immediately responded that it stands by the story. Indeed, it still does.
Full disclosure: I have good friends and a son on the staff at the CL. I also have friends involved in this at Mississippi State. The goal is always to make a column as balanced as possible. That’s especially so in this case.
Probably the best way to address this is by answering many of the questions folks are asking.
Q. In general, what do you think of using unnamed sources in news stories?
A. You always prefer not to use them. At one time, we had a policy at the CL that we would not, under any circumstances, use unnamed sources. That policy did not last long. We missed on many important stories because we could not get critical sources to go on the record. Our policy became that we would exhaust every effort to get named sources. If we could not, we would have at least two reliable unnamed sources, corroborating one another, before we would go with a story.
Mississippi Today, which carries my column now, has a policy not to use unnamed sources except in exceptional circumstances. If a story can be published only by relying on unnamed sources, two such sources are required and the editors must know the names of the sources and the circumstances around which they would have access to the information being discussed in the story.
Q. What about Bonner’s story? Did he get it right?
A. I honestly don’t know. I have thought all along that John Cohen is the odds-on favorite to get the job. He has much support. That said, Keenum and everyone else I talk to at State, including MSU Chief Communications Officer Sid Salter, my former Clarion-Ledger colleague, says no hire has been made and several interviews are scheduled.
Q. Do you have any problems with the way the story was handled?
A. Just one, assuming Bonner’s sources are knowledgable and reliable. We always had a policy that on news stories like this one, we would give the institution the opportunity to confirm or deny – and comment – on the story. That didn’t happen in this case. I asked sports editor Hugh Kellenberger (Bonner’s boss) about whether or not that policy is still in effect at The Clarion-Ledger.
His answer: “Yes, that’s the policy. No, it did not happen in this situation before publication. But with the sources Mike had on it, I still feel comfortable with the reporting.”
Why did the CL not follow policy on this story?
Kellenberger’s response: “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to go into that.”
So, I asked Kellenberger if he had any comment on what Keenum said about Bonner and the newspaper.
“Mike has been consistently ahead of the pack on his reporting throughout this situation, including before Scott Stricklin left for Florida,” Kellenberger answered. “I have full confidence in his reporting.”
He surely must. Bonner’s story also said the same unnamed sources said Cohen “is expected to be introduced as athletic director next Tuesday.”
“That’s just not so,” Sid Salter said. “We would not schedule a press conference to announce the hiring of someone who has not been hired.”
Quite obviously, this one is not over…