Wrongs win out over rights in Stevenson saga


July 06, 1999|By Milton Kent

The just-completed Independence Day holiday gives us the annual license to think about how great this country is and to wax rhapsodic on all the freedoms and rights its citizens enjoy.

But we are constantly reminded that the balancing of one entity's freedom against another person's right is a tricky one and that we still haven't learned how to pull it off effectively.

The latest person to be thrown on the pyre of the press' absolute freedom to publish what it wants at the cost of a citizen's right to privacy is budding tennis star Alexandra Stevenson, whose paternity was disclosed -- against her wishes -- to a global audience.

In case you missed it, Stevenson, a qualifier at Wimbledon who reached the semifinals, was unwittingly unveiled as the daughter of basketball legend Julius Erving, after the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida published the contents of her birth certificate.

Erving initially denied that he was Stevenson's father, but acknowledged on Friday that he had had a relationship with free-lance journalist Samantha Stevenson, Alexandra's mother, in 1980.

While this is certainly a topic that gets conversations going at the water cooler and at the watering hole, three very nagging questions haunt this revelation.

First, why was it a story? Second, whose business was it, besides the Stevensons and Erving and his family? And third, what does it say about the media and their customers, that the story came to light in the first place?

Fred Turner, sports editor of the Sun-Sentinel, said last week that his paper had been working on this story for about a year. But because Alexandra Stevenson -- who became the first female qualifier to reach the Wimbledon semifinals -- was an unknown outside of tennis circles, the original peg to the story centered solely around Erving.

But as she made her way through the draw and because her mother made controversial statements about racism and lesbianism on the women's tour, the player herself became more of a legitimate focus, in Turner's mind.

Plus, Turner said, the always-contentious British press corps had begun to ask questions about Alexandra's parentage, and the Sun-Sentinel moved to publish, under the byline of Charles Bricker, who covers football and tennis for the paper.

The original story, which ran Wednesday, was more a profile of Samantha Stevenson, who covered the Philadelphia 76ers as a free-lance journalist in the late 1970s and early 1980s, than an expose of Alexandra.

Journalistically, the Sun-Sentinel did everything right. It gathered the information, verified its accuracy, then sought comment from Erving -- both by phone and by letter -- over the course of the year.

In addition, the bombshell material appeared about a third of the way through the article, not at the top, which would have given the piece more of a sensational feel.

"I really wanted to get Julius Erving's side of this. I just feel better when we have both sides of the story," said Turner, who has more than 30 years journalism experience. "There are a lot of stories that have just one side of them."

To his credit, Turner said he and his staff agonized over what they were doing, and wrote the initial article in such a way so as not to pass judgment on Erving or Samantha Stevenson, with the approval of the paper's attorneys.

But all of that doesn't change one single fact: There was no reason for this story to appear in print or on the air, besides to serve a hungry press' desire to scoop and to fuel a probing public's need for titillating material.

By all accounts, Alexandra knew who her father was and was comfortable with the relationship. Erving, whose name appears on her birth certificate, had made financial arrangements and had apparently settled the matter with his wife of 27 years and with their four children. No one outside of that circle of eight people needed to know about this.

There are some who suggest, and not so subtly, that Samantha Stevenson, through her rather vocal charges about the women's tour or the fact that she slept with a subject -- a serious violation of journalistic ethics that cannot be ignored -- somehow had this coming.

That treads awfully close to blaming the victim, from this perspective. And it certainly doesn't explain why Alexandra Stevenson had to get caught up in this.

The younger Stevenson is a totally innocent bystander whose right to privacy got trampled under the weight of the press' freedom to publish and broadcast. Now, thanks to an overzealous Florida newspaper and a press corps only too willing to join in the feeding frenzy, Alexandra Stevenson is going to be served up to the ferocious New York press during the U.S. Open for something other than her tennis.

At some point, every one of us who carries a pen, a microphone or a camera is going to have to look at himself in the mirror and decide where the line for the invasion of a person's privacy is to be drawn before someone else draws it for us -- against our will.

And you, the public, are going to have to make the call on what you need to know, as opposed to what you want to gossip about, because the media have shown, time and time again, that we take our cues from you.

Pub Date: 7/06/99

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