A Window into Yahoo!’s Investigative Process

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Vishnu Parasuraman (aka 2003alumgocanes) Follow on Twitter and Facebook

One of the things that happened when I shone the spotlight on Yahoo!’s investigative practices is that random fans from around the country have pitched in, sending me evidence, asking me to look into certain aspects that seemed inconsistent.

But, for an obvious reason, a disproportionate number of those e-mails came from Missouri fans.  They wanted to know if their new basketball coach was dirty.  I will say a lot of things about Frank Haith’s coaching performance at Miami, but I never had any inkling that he was dirty.  He was a great recruiter at multiple schools before coming to Miami, and his recruiting performance here, while good for Miami, was nothing so outlandish that it would cause alarm.  One Missouri fan, who asked to remain nameless (for reasons I cannot discuss, but they are legitimate reasons), sent me this e-mail.  I am going to run it as is, and put some comments on the end.  The e-mail uses a report out of the Miami Herald and a report out of St. Louis Today to show how far Yahoo! went to corroborate their stories. I’ll let the Missouri fan take over from here:

As the weeks have gone by since the publication of the Yahoo story on Nevin Shapiro’s allegations against athletes and coaches at Miami, reporter Charles Robinson and Yahoo have received a great deal of praise for the thorough job they did in putting together the story. But a closer look at one of the major allegations — that Shapiro gave a Miami basketball assistant coach $10,000 to get recruit DeQuan Jones to UM and that head coach Frank Haith knew about it — shows that Yahoo was guilty of some questionable actions and of failing to do even the most basic of investigating of the circumstances about the player involved.

This story from the Miami Herald http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/09/02/2385623/um-hoops-player-dequan-jones-mom.html includes an interview with Jones’ mother. Her impassioned defense of her family, the details she gives on her role in her son’s recruitment and his commttment plus some background on the family by Jones’ other coaches show just how implausible Shapiro’s story about the payoff has become. This story also reveals that Yahoo did not attempt to contact the mother or coaches and made only the most halfhearted attempt to obtain more information about Jones and his recruitment, information like that contained in this story that would have rendered Shapiro’s story unbelievable.  The only attempt Yahoo made to get comment on this side of the allegation was to leave phone and Facebook messages with Jones, messages that had to strike him as odd since we now see he would not have known what Yahoo was talking about.

If Yahoo had started with the simplest bit of searching of the Internet, then contacted Jones’ mother and his coaches,  they would have found that when the alleged payoff was supposed to have been obtained from Sharpiro that Jones not only had already signed a letter of intent, but that he was even attending school at Miami that same summer.  Not exactly the kind of circumstances under which a player needs to be offered money to go to a school. They also would have learned about the mother’s heavy role in the process and been given background about the family that further shows Shapiro’s story is full of holes. Without Jones or his family receiving this inducement, we are left with the rest of Shapiro’s story — that assistant coach Jake Morton took $10,000 and later gave it back. After lying about the reasons behind supplying the $10,000, believe the rest of Shapiro’s story at your own risk. But even if true, keep in mind that such a private transaction is not an NCAA violation.

Thus we have Yahoo bragging about how extensive its research was into corroborating Shapiro’s allegations but doing virtually nothing to take a closer look at the recruitment of the player named in one of the major allegations. This seems to indicate a desire on Yahoo’s part not to find out whether what Shapiro was saying about the Jones allegation stood up to strong scrutiny but rather to build on its list of NCAA violations by seeing if there was a way to confirm Shapiro’s story without digging too deeply and potentially exposing it as untrue. Instead of even attempting to talk to family members of Jones, Yahoo relies on someone close to Shapiro, his unnamed bodyguard, to act as its source confirming Shapiro’s story.

Another recent newspaper story http://www.stltoday.com/sports/college/mizzou/article_30dda4d8-768c-5771-b7a9-b8baef5a514f.html reveals that Robinson engaged in some shady practices when he sought a comment from Haith on the allegation.  Despite knowing about this allegation for weeks perhaps even months, Robinson waited to contact the University of Missouri to seek a comment from Haith until the day before the story was published. This is a rather obvious attempt to give someone that you’ve caught off guard little time to respond or make them rush into a weak response. Further, instead of fully revealing the allegation that had been made against Haith, Robinson gave a vague description of what he was seeking comment on — “Miami basketball’s involvement with Nevin Shapiro regarding allegations of NCAA violations.” Most likely this was another deliberate ploy to prevent Haith from being able to mount a specific defense against what he was being accused of.

That Yahoo didn’t engage in a better job of investigative reporting that would have shown the Jones allegation to be untrue is unfortunate. That’s because of all the allegations made in the Yahoo story, this one carried with it the heaviest potential consequences for those named as having taken part. Former Miami football players will receive no repercussions for having been named as being part of Shapiro’s breaking of NCAA rules. The harshest penalty received by a current Miami player — a suspension of six games or half a season — was for receiving benefits deemed to be worth $1,200. Therefore, it’s logical to conclude that what Shapiro alleged and what Yahoo chose to publish would have carried with it a season-long suspension for Jones, thus ending his college career. And Haith’s career could have been ruined. Fortunately, the powers that be at Missouri did not decide to act in a rash fashion and part company with Haith based only on allegations that haven’t stood up to scrutiny.

With consequences that heavy, Yahoo should have exercised more diligence in looking into the basketball allegation and engaged in sounder journalistic techniques before publishing such an allegation.

To summarize what we now know:

  1. It’s been previously publicly reported that Yahoo! didn’t bother to talk to the owner of Lucky Strike bowling alley to corroborate their allegation that Shapiro paid for bowling for several of the players.  The owner claimed to have never seen Shapiro pay for the players.  Charles Robinson responded by saying that the owner was trying to protect his business, and that just because the owner didn’t see it doesn’t mean that it did not happen.  This might all be true.  But it still doesn’t explain why Robinson did not bother even trying to talk to the owner of the bowling alley (or any other employees at the bowling alley).  For all he knew, the owner might have backed up his allegation.  He didn’t even bother asking.
  2. We previously reported that (and the Herald article referenced by the Missouri fan also backs this up) the Daquan Jones payment doesn’t make sense from a timeline perspective.  Jones signed his Letter of Intent with Miami in November of 2007.  Yahoo! alleges that Nevin Shapiro arranged for a $10,000 cash payment in the Summer of 2008 to entice Jones to sign with Miami, several months after he had already signed.  That makes no sense, obviously.  In addition to that, we now know that the only attempt at getting the Jones family’s side of the story was to contact Jones directly via Facebook and phone.  No one tried to talk to the family (who the payment was allegedly for).  And, obviously a college student is not going to out of context respond to a reporter about an allegation he knows nothing about.
  3. Finally, the reporting from the St. Louis Today shows that while Robinson spent 11 months working on this report, he waited until the DAY BEFORE the story was published by Yahoo! to seek comment from Haith and Missouri.

I’ll let you be the judge if proper due diligence and proper journalistic integrity was exercised here.

 

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