Among the most explosive turns in the child molestation scandal involving former Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine was the release of a tape-recorded conversation between one of the alleged victims, Bobby Davis, and Fine's wife, Laurie. Not only does the recording appear to be quite incriminating but the timing of its release also raises key questions about the manner that ESPN covered this story.
In the recording, Davis and Laurie Fine have a frank discussions about the alleged abuse, with Laurie implying that she was fully aware of what had been taking place between her husband and the former Syracuse ball boy. Another stunning aspect of the recording -- and the interview with Davis that aired along with it -- was the claim that Fine's wife had engaged in a sexual relationship with Davis while he was in high school.
Davis had surreptitiously recorded the telephone conversation in October 2002 and shared the recordings with ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard in 2003. ESPN chose not to include the recording in the original "Outside The Lines" report on the allegations that aired Nov. 17 of this year.
Ten days after the initial "Outside The Lines" report, a third victim came forward to allege he had been molested by Fine. On that same day, ESPN aired the recording of Davis and Mrs. Fine. Within hours of ESPN airing the tape-recorded conversation, Syracuse University announced the firing of Bernie, who had previously been placed on administrative leave.
The Huffington Post contacted ESPN to inquire about the network's coverage of the scandal, including the decision to initially withhold the tape recording. ESPN PR Director David Scott directed us to a series of questions and answers pertaining to the Fine story posted at ESPN Front Row, a website hosting press releases for the sports media company.
Asked by his own PR staff about the decision to hold back the audio tape for more than a week after the original report, ESPN Senior Vice President & Director of News Vince Doria cited the need to confirm that the female voice on the tape belonged to Laurie Fine.
When we had the audio in the past we had never been able to confirm that it was Laurie Fine. Part of it was we had no independent video of her and her voice - something we could look at and say, "Yes, that's her and yes, that appears to be her voice." This time around when we re-engaged on the story we did in fact have a video we found on-line of her serving a meal to Bernie and a number of young men who may or may not have been Syracuse players. In this video you could clearly hear her. This allowed us to submit the audio to a voice recognition expert, which we did last week.
As Doria explains it, the key to identifying the voice of Fine's wife was the discovery of "a video we found on-line of her serving a meal to Bernie." For this timeline to make much sense, the video used to confirm Laurie Fine's voice must have been uncovered after -- or only shortly before -- the initial "Outside The Lines" report that included the interview footage with Davis and the second alleged victim, Mike Lang. With the timeline of the voice authentication remaining unclear, Jason Lisk of The Big Lead asks if ESPN purposefully omitted the tape from the first report to "create multiple news cycles?"
An article posted on ESPN.com accompanying the "Outside The Lines" video segment with the recorded phone call indicates that the hiring of the voice authentication expert to verify the recording was spurred by Lang coming forward earlier this month. The text of that story is credited to Mark Schwarz, the ESPN reporter who has helmed the network's coverage, and Arty Berko. During a subsequent interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, Schwarz indicated that he received a phone call from Lang while he was covering the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State.
"I was sitting in a satellite truck covering the Penn State scandal in State College and a man calls and says, 'Mark, I'm Mike Lang. Do you remember me?'"
A search of ESPN's website turns up a video dated Nov. 14 of Schwarz on the campus at Penn State reporting on the Big Ten's decision to remove Joe Paterno's name from the trophy to be awarded at the conference's championship game. According to Schwarz's own words (or those of Berko), a phone call during this visit to Penn State jumpstarted the dormant investigation. If this is indeed the timeline for the creation of the initial "Outside The Lines" report On Nov. 17 then Doria's published comments on the investigation seem to imply that three day's time was not enough to both find the video containing footage of Laurie speaking and to have it verified by an expert.
Of course, the question of what changed regarding the audio recording during the 10 days between the two "Outside The Lines" reports that have dominated coverage of this scandal overlooks the question of why nothing was done between Davis' coming forward in 2003 and this month. Writing in the Daily Beast, Allen Barra contends that the scandal Schwarz was covering when Lang called is what has really catalyzed ESPN's reporting in Syracuse.
Even if a genuine lack of voice authentication or allegation corroboration previously created a journalistic impediment to airing the story, many have still questioned why ESPN didn't at least share the recording with police or administrators at Syracuse. In the aforementioned interview with Anderson Cooper, Schwarz said that "journalists are not necessarily required or expected to hand over evidence that they did not obtain or create themselves to the police."
Speaking with Fox Sports, interim director of San Jose State University's department of journalism and mass communications Bob Rucker discusses the responsibilities of a journalist in such a situation.
"Since we are covered by the First Amendment, we don't have to turn over anything," Rucker told FOX. "Still, it's not always that obvious, especially when it comes to protecting the interests of children. I know I'd be hard-pressed not to go to my bosses and tell them I need to talk to the police."
Regardless of their rationale for rolling out the audio recording 10 days after the initial report, ESPN is not the only media outlet that had been aware of Davis' tape for some time. The Syracuse Post-Standard also admits to having been given a copy of the tape several years ago. According to the Post-Standard, Laurie Fine even confirmed for the paper that it was her voice on the recording during an interview in February 2003 while suggesting that portions of the recording were unauthentic.
After ESPN aired the recording, her nephew Matt Govendo echoed those sentiments, telling CNN that the voice on the recording belonged to his aunt but reaffirming the accusation that segments of the recording were "all tampered with."
During his appearance on CNN with Anderson Cooper, Schwarz claimed that Davis was "stunned" by the accusation that he edited the audio tape. Considering Doria's statement about the audio provided by Davis, it seems that ESPN was far more concerned with Fine being the woman in the recording than the possibility that tape was doctored.
That ESPN and the Post-Standard had to choose how to handle the recording distinguishes those parties from Syracuse University and the Syracuse Police, neither of whom had been provided the tape. A spokesperson for Syracuse University admitted that they had not had access to the recorded when they performed their own investigation into Fine back in 2005. Likewise, Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler said this department had not been aware about the audio tape or the university's investigation until this month.