SI revisits Wright LPGA story, and finds reporter was right

Media Watch

November 29, 1995|By Milton Kent

All things being equal, Wilmington News-Journal feature writer Valerie Helmbreck should be taking the entire day today to shout from the highest available platform in her hometown that she told the truth about CBS golf analyst Ben Wright.

But Helmbreck, who wrote that Wright said women's golf was "going to a butch game," that lesbianism on the tour was "paraded" and hurt sponsorship, and that women's golfers are "handicapped by having boobs" during a May interview, is taking the high road.

"I've told the truth all along. I wrote the truth. None of this was news to me," Helmbreck said yesterday.

Her version of the story receives substantial corroboration with the publication of a Sports Illustrated story today in which Wright told the magazine's Michael Bamberger that he had been "totally misquoted."

"She put into my mouth words she told me. She granted me anonymity. She chose to nail me. It's hurt me terribly. It's aged me 10 years. She's a very unhappy woman," Wright told SI.

In addition to Wright's own words, the magazine quotes former SI writer Dan Jenkins, who said Wright admitted making the statements during a dinner party one month later. Also, a caddie who works part-time for both CBS and SI said he eavesdropped on the original interview between Wright and Helmbreck and heard Wright make the remarks attributed to him.

Unfortunately, the piece won't be available to the general Sports Illustrated populace, but only to the 450,000 subscribers who get the "Golf Plus" addition to the magazine.

Art Berke, an SI spokesman, said while the story "transcends golf," the magazine's editors decided to leave the piece in the golf supplement to "increase the scope of what Golf Plus offers."

Wright's comments to SI appear to be a contradiction of a two-page statement he issued through CBS the same day the News-Journal story was published, in which the British native stated that he did not discuss lesbianism or a corporate backlash, did not use either of the inflammatory terms for women and breasts and didn't say that breasts affected the women's game.

Wright also allegedly told Bamberger that Helmbreck -- who has been married for almost 16 years to an editor at the News-Journal and is the mother of three children -- was divorced, involved in a custody battle, and possibly a lesbian.

Wright is alleged to have told Bamberger that it was his "bad luck" to have run into Helmbreck around Mother's Day because she supposedly was upset because she wouldn't be able to see her children, and that she had a feminist, gay-rights agenda.

In a statement issued late yesterday, CBS Sports President David Kenin, who met with Wright and attorneys for six hours in May, said the network "regrets the additional statements" attributed to Wright, adding that CBS has "historically stood out against bias of all sorts and Wright has been advised that any comments contrary to the network's policy will not be tolerated."

Remarkably, though, after all of the fallout, the network not only continues to employ Wright, but also gave him a four-year contract extension after the LPGA Championship and the resulting flap, according to a network spokeswoman.

Through it all, Helmbreck, who has worked at the paper for 12 years, has been silent until now, even in the face of a campaign to discredit her and her work, which manifest itself through an on-air parade of women golfers testifying to Wright's virtues at the beginning of each day of the two-day LPGA tournament.

"The only news in this to me was his admission that he said it," Helmbreck said. "For some reason, to hear his words after he had spent so much time and energy constructing this elaborate version of reality was very startling."

Helmbreck has taken a beating, including from this column, which erroneously in May alleged that she had violated journalistic ethics by reporting an off-the-record comment, but she wouldn't defend herself, saying it would have been "indulgent."

Her only worry during the last six months was the damage done to her family, which had to listen to the rumors and innuendo about her lifestyle and her veracity. In fact, a legal action could be forthcoming, she said yesterday.

Helmbreck, who did not use a tape recorder that day, says that even in the face of this firestorm, she still won't record her interviews.

"I take good notes, I'm honest and I have a good memory," she said. "When that's not enough, then it's time to find something else to do. The people I care about and work for know I don't lie. Anyone else, I don't care about."

In his statement last May, Kenin said that anyone who read Wright's statement would agree . . . "that this man, as well as CBS Sports, has been done a grave injustice in this matter." It seems as though that designation should belong to Valerie Helmbreck, not Ben Wright.

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