In pursuit of scoop, media ride roughshod over athletes' rights

Media Watch

February 22, 1996|By Milton Kent

The recent disclosure that Tommy Morrison tested HIV-positive opens the latest chapter in the debate over when the public's interest in knowing details about the private lives of athletes runs smack-dab into the rights of those athletes to keep those things private.

Though Morrison has spoken courageously about his conduct since the story was first published in the Los Angeles Times more than a week ago, the heavyweight boxer did not voluntarily come forward, and spoke only after the story had reached the public.

ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann has, in a recent Prodigy column, excoriated the Los Angeles Times for breaking the story through a source, which leaked test results.

In Olbermann's view, the Times, the lead newspaper of the corporation that owns this newspaper, violated Morrison's right to determine and decide how and when such a sensitive issue would be announced -- if at all.

"This is not 'Gretzky May Be Traded'; it is not 'Nomo May Miss Start'; this is 'Boxer Has Fatal Illness; We Told You Before He Could,' " wrote Olbermann. "Tommy Morrison was not merely another story waiting for us to apply our source-mining and our writing and our file videotape to it. Tommy Morrison is a human being, and human being to human being, we spit on him."

Olbermann further indicted the rest of the media, including his network for jumping on the story after the Times broke it, and lumps himself into that same morass, calling himself "part of a system that has gotten so knee-jerk about processing RTC information that it no longer has time to evaluate the moral implications."

Olbermann said he got some solace in the fact that his bosses, after hearing his argument, didn't make him read the story, but the bottom line is that ESPN, along with every news organization in the country, ran with it.

This incident bears echoes of the 1992 disclosure that Arthur Ashe had contracted AIDS. Ashe, who had had the virus for some time before USA Today got wind of it, asked that the news be held a day, he wrote in his biography. When the paper refused, Ashe called a news conference to make the announcement.

It should be noted that USA Today did not publish the story on the day of Ashe's news conference because under its rules the paper did not have an on-the-record confirmation by one of the principals.

In this recent case, Morrison, unlike Ashe, was an active athlete and had refused an HIV-test one day, then took it the next. That status, and the possibility -- however remote -- that he could pass on the virus to another person in the ring, made this call different for editors and producers.

But, in the broader sense, Olbermann raises a valid point, that the humanity of athletes quite often gets lost in the pursuit of a scoop. Those of us who write and broadcast will always do well to remember that the people we cover are just that, people.

Sunday treat

WWLG (1360 AM) has snagged local rights to CBS Radio's Sunday night baseball package, except, of course, on nights when the Orioles are involved.

The CBS package had been carried sporadically by WBAL (1090 AM), the Orioles' rights-holder, over the last few years, but had become hostage to ESPN Radio, which does well for WBAL.

WWLG also has obtained the NBA radio package, and will air the conference finals and league championship series this spring.

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