Reporter defends ESPN's coverage of Bernie Fine allegations
Mark Schwarz first spoke to Bobby Davis, an alleged Bernie Fine victim, in 2003
Schwarz and Vince Doria answered media attacks of ESPN's handling of the story
Schwarz kept in contact with Davis via e-mail since 2003 and now on a daily basis
ESPN's Mark Schwarz was sitting inside a satellite truck on the campus of Penn State when an unfamiliar number popped up on his cellphone. It was early evening on Nov. 11, a frigid night in State College, Pa., and the reporter was about to make his way toward the Old Main on campus, the site of a candlelight vigil and a moment of silence in support of the alleged victims in the child sex abuse scandal. Schwarz looked down at his phone. The area code was 315, for central New York.
"Mark, it's Mike Lang," the caller said, sounding a bit frantic. "Do you remember me?"
It had been a long time, but Schwarz did remember. Lang was the stepbrother of Bobby Davis, the former Syracuse ball boy whom Schwarz and his producer, Arty Berko, had interviewed repeatedly in 2003 after Davis had contacted ESPN's Outside the Lines with information alleging that longtime Syracuse associate head basketball coach Bernie Fine had molested him as a child.
The network ultimately opted not to run the story because, according to ESPN officials, there were no other victims who would talk, and no independent evidence to corroborate his story. In 2003, Lang was one of the men Schwarz and Berko interviewed at the behest of Davis. Then, according to Schwarz, Lang told the ESPN reporters that "Bernie grabbed my leg a few times but he didn't really do too much to me and I don't have anything to say to you."
But Lang, who had procured Schwarz's cell number from his stepbrother, now had a very different story to tell. After reporting from the candlelight vigil, Schwarz called Lang back. The two men spoke for some time and Schwarz recalls Lang as "frantic, tearful and emotional."
Said Schwarz: "Mike said, 'This is awful. This Penn State thing is horrible. What this guy is doing to kids, and it's just like Bernie did. My brother texted me after this started and said, "Mike, they are doing it again. It is the same thing. It's awful. Just like Bernie. Just like Bernie. It's eerie. It's weird. All the same stuff he did to me, this guy did. I can't deal with it." [Mike] said, 'This was my brother, and it broke my heart and I had to call somebody.' "
That call ignited a major news cycle, and the reverberations continue today. ESPN ultimately aired a story on Nov. 17 in which Davis, now 39, and Lang, now 45, accused Fine of molesting them, starting in the late 1970s and continuing into the 1990s. Ten days later, the network ran a story (and audio tape) from a 2002 phone call that Davis recorded with Fine's wife, Laurie. Davis told ESPN that he had made the recording without Laurie Fine's knowledge because he said he needed proof for the police to believe his accusations. (ESPN said it hired a voice-recognition expert to verify the voice on the tape and that it was determined to be that of Laurie Fine.)
In the tape, the woman ESPN identified as Laurie Fine said she knew "everything that went on." After a third man came forward to accuse Bernie Fine of molesting him, Syracuse fired the coach, an assistant to Jim Boeheim for 35 years. The U.S. attorney's office in northern New York is now leading the investigation of child molestation allegations against Fine. He has denied the allegations.
ESPN has faced criticism since the story broke, most notably for its decision not to give the authorities the Bobby Davis/Laurie Fine audio tape in 2003, as well as for introducing the tape 10 days after its initial report on the allegations against Bernie Fine. The network has been accused of being scoop-happy in the wake of the Penn State scandal.
The most prominent attacks came from FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock (who wrote of the "irresponsible reporting used by Mark Schwarz, Arty Berko and ESPN to unfairly smear Bernie Fine and boost ESPN ratings") and Boeheim (who advised the public to "read Jason Whitlock" when asked if the media had been premature to report Davis' and Lang's allegations).
The sports site Deadspin, a noted ESPN critic, ran a story by managing editor Tom Scocca headlined, "Eight years later, ESPN reports what it knows about the claims against Bernie Fine." Former ESPN anchor and current Sports Illustrated staffer Dan Patrick has hammered away at his ex-employer on his radio show.
Others have praised the network for its handling of the story, including one of Whitlock's colleagues, the respected Mark Kriegel, who noted that ESPN had reported a difficult story about a school with whom it has a business relationship as a major television rights holder in college basketball.
Asked how he would evaluate the coverage and reporting by ESPN regarding the Fine allegations, Kevin Quinn, the senior vice president for public affairs at Syracuse and the university's spokesperson on the story, responded via email that he was "going to politely decline direct comment." He referred SI.com to Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor's op-ed this week in USA Today, which addresses some of this.
Vince Doria, the network's senior vice president & director of news, used ESPN's public relations blog to explain ESPN's reporting and expounded on the topic during a recent interview with Sirius XM radio host Chris Russo.
"Why didn't we bring it [the tape] to the police?" Doria said. "It has never been our role as journalists doing that. I understand the argument, and it's a compelling one that people make right now that say, Forget about your journalistic principles here, what about the moral issues surrounding possibly endangering young people? I don't take that lightly, and it is certainly worth considering in these kind of stories moving forward.
"But anybody who has been involved in the journalistic process understands that it is not our role to supply evidence to the police. In fact, if that was our role, we likely would not get much evidence coming our way. If people thought we were working in concert with law enforcement, a lot of sources simply would not come forward and a lot of stories would never be revealed."
(It's worth noting that the Syracuse Post-Standard, which also spoke with Davis in 2003 and opted not to run a story then, addressed those same questions.)
Schwarz said "Outside The Lines" had dubbed a tape of Laurie Fine's call (it was on beta) and Berko kept the copy with his files on the case. The tape was transcribed in 2003 and OTL condensed the relevant material into a summary transcript. In 2011, ESPN transcribed the tape again, and enhanced the audio portion (Schwarz said the original was very scratchy) to better make out the audio.
An ESPN reporter since 1990, Schwarz is resolute in his belief of Davis and said his network has reported the story appropriately and made the right decision not to share the tape with authorities.
"Here is how I look at it: First of all, it was only one man's account, and secondly, the tape itself was supplied to us," Schwarz said during a 25-minute phone interview on Wednesday. "It was not as if we were party to recording it, vetting it, knowing how it was made, who was on the other end of the phone call. We had never met Laurie Fine. We didn't know her voice. And it was not a perfect recording, either. It was a little scratchy and you could hear it, but you had to strain to hear exactly what was said. We had to sweeten the audio quality to make sure we understood the words better.
"So, given the fact that you only had one individual making this claim and we only had his word that he recorded it and he had already gone to the police prior to making the tape, it wasn't as if the police did not know about Bobby Davis and Bernie Fine. Had he not gone to the police, it might have been an entirely different ballgame. We might have looked at Bobby and said, 'Bobby, this seems like a police issue to us. Do you agree with that?' We would never order or compel someone to go to the police. We would never go to police ourselves and say, 'Hey, we have this tape. We just came upon it. Someone handed it to us. You might be interested to hear it, too.' I know we have been criticized for that, but given that he had contacted the police and that we didn't know that much about the tape or how it was made, we really didn't have the tools to take it to the police ourselves. In fact, we could have gotten Bobby Davis in trouble if the tape was recorded illegally."