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Living With A Lie
Michael Bamberger
December 04, 1995
When CBS decided to defend announcer Ben Wright, it attacked the truth
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December 04, 1995

Living With A Lie

When CBS decided to defend announcer Ben Wright, it attacked the truth

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The story had a short shelf life. It was a national story for a day or two, then interest sagged. Ultimately, the Wright-Helmbreck escapade proved to be an unsatisfying little saga, lacking a clear resolution. The interview wasn't tape-recorded. CBS put its word up against Helmbreck's and created reasonable doubt. "They could easily stomp on her," says Richard Sandomir, who covered the story for The New York Times, "so they did. Had it been a reporter they knew, Ben would have been gone."

In 1988 CBS fired Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder when he said on TV that blacks were physically better suited for sports than whites. In 1990 CBS suspended Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes for three months for making remarks that some gays and blacks found offensive. CBS was pressured into pulling Gary McCord from this year's Masters because the Augusta czars didn't like McCord's idea of humor. But Ben Wright stayed onboard. He didn't have to defend the opinions and quotations, which many people viewed as defensible, because, he said, they weren't his. LPGA officials gave him the benefit of the doubt. When gay-rights groups called for Wright's head, or at least an apology, he ignored them; in his view there was nothing to apologize for. He said the story was a "pack of lies"; his network supported him; and the duo of Bentley and McCord, a team valued by CBS, was saved. Later, Wright received a four-year contract extension. The only victim was Helmbreck and her reputation as a reporter, and no one at the network seemed to care about that. "The woman has disappeared, as far as I know," Wright said recently.

Then Ben did a silly thing. The great raconteur didn't stick to his story. On June 13, a month after the incident, at the summer home of Nancy and Jack Whitaker in Bridgehampton, N.Y., during the week of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Wright attended an elegant dinner party. Barbara and Jack Nicklaus were there. So was Dan Jenkins, the sportswriter and novelist who helped Wright get his start with CBS in 1973. "I asked him, 'Did you say it?' " Jenkins, a former SI writer, recounted recently. "And he said, 'Of course I said it. But I was granted complete anonymity.' What I don't know is if he was joking. He'd had about two bottles of wine."

Details of the interview emerged in other places. Ken Doig, a veteran tour caddie and a part-time CBS employee, said he eavesdropped on the interview because he couldn't believe what Wright was saying to Helmbreck. Doig, the oldest son of a well-regarded Canadian golfing family, said he likes Wright but that Wright's response to Helmbreck's story was disingenuous. "Her story was accurate," said Doig, who works occasionally for SI as a photographer's assistant. "I heard Ben say boobs. I heard him say lesbianism hurts in getting sponsorships." Doig has worked odd jobs for CBS at the Masters, and at other tournaments, since 1977. Asked why he wanted to come forward in the matter of Wright versus Helmbreck and jeopardize his employment with CBS, Doig said, "I'm a golfer, and golf is a game of integrity. I believe in telling the truth."

When contacted by SI last month, Wright, an incorrigible talker, said that he could not discuss the Helmbreck story without permission from Kenin, and permission was not granted. ("I'm not going to give him the opportunity to talk and get himself in trouble again," Kenin said.) In a brief telephone interview on the subject, Wright characterized Helmbreck as divorced, involved in a custody battle, possibly a lesbian. It was, Wright said, his bad luck to run into her around Mother's Day, when Helmbreck was upset because she wouldn't be able to see her children. Wright described Helmbreck as having a feminist, gay-rights agenda, "I was totally misquoted. She put into my mouth words she told me," Wright said. "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."

But none of Wright's statements check out. Helmbreck is married—"happily married for 15 years," she says—to an assistant city editor at the News Journal. They have three children. She has been a reporter on the News Journal for more than a decade and has lived in Delaware most of her 43 years. She is currently a features writer and was formerly a TV critic, which is why she was assigned to write about the television coverage of the LPGA Championship. Helmbreck writes often about food and in October wrote a light piece comparing herself with her mock heroine, Martha Stewart, to whom she bears a resemblance. In her 12 years on the News Journal, she has been charged with misquoting someone on only one other occasion. That was in 1990, when actress Kathleen Turner was staying in Wilmington at the Hotel duPont. Helmbreck quoted the hotel manager as saying that Turner was not as attractive in person as she appears on the screen. The manager said he was misquoted; the News Journal backed Helmbreck. For her foray into golf, Helmbreck said her original plan was to write about the differences between women's and men's golf telecasts. Helmbreck says she took notes throughout the interview with Wright and that the entire session was on the record, except when Wright told her it was not. She declined to reveal what was not on the record. SI secured an internal memo from the News Journal that describes the part of the interview that was not on the record. According to the document, Wright said that Helmbreck could use, but not attribute to him, the "fingernail test." According to the memo, Wright said that players with short fingernails arc gay, and players with long fingernails are not. Helmbreck made no reference to the fingernail test in her story.

Wright has many supporters, JoAnne Carner among them. The LPGA Hall of Famer said Wright's line about women golfers and their breasts was originally her own, a joking way to explain the differences between men's and women's golf. Dottie Mochrie, an LPGA player, said she couldn't imagine Wright intending to say the things he was quoted as saying. Still, she was surprised by what Wright said at the Oct. 2 opening of a golf course, Cliffs Valley in Travelers Rest, S.C., designed by Wright. The ceremony, attended by 1,500 people, featured an exhibition by Mochrie and Jay Haas, among others. During the introductions Wright mocked Haas for his performance in the Ryder Cup. When he was through, Wright, according to people present, said to the crowd, "This is payback because at dinner last night Jay asked me about lesbians." There was nervous laughter. "I was a little disappointed that it was brought up again," Mochrie says. "I thought he could've been more sensitive."

At this point, more than six months after the interview, Chirkinian recognizes that Helmbreck's story must be at least partially true. "Something must have been said, for it to get into print," he says. Kenin's view appears to have evolved over the past half year. "CBS never said it was a pack of lies," he said recently. "There's a community element to it. She's outside the community. Ben didn't know that at the time. This was a case of one not understanding the other."

Chirkinian said Helmbreck did not understand Wright's sense of humor. "[But] whether Ben Wright was serious or joking, if he admits to [the quotes], he's fired," Chirkinian said. "With our corporate lawyers? Ben would have walked the plank. And to walk the plank for that? I don't think so."

Helmbreck is still in Wilmington, a working reporter. Sometimes when she calls people for a story, they recognize her name. They know she was involved in some messy thing with a golf announcer for CBS. It's frustrating for her. Wright, she says, is a man of his generation, that's all. She has had to live with the consequences. "In this business," she says, "you can be a nut, you can be a drunk, but the one thing you can't be is dishonest." Helmbreck stands by her story. Given the chance, she would write it the same way again.

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