Sunday, January 20, 2008

Tabloid Journalism or Freedom of the Press – the firing of Golfweek’s editor


Friday the publisher of Golfweek decided they had had enough. Less than 48 hours after the publication of the magazine’s January 19 issue showing a noose to illustrate a controversial comment by Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman about Tiger Woods; the publishers of the magazine did what they had to do – they fired their Senior Editor and Vice-President Dave Seanor. As the Senior Editor, Seanor ultimately bore direct responsibility for the decision to feature the humorless cover. Jeff Babineau replaces Seanor.

“We apologize for creating this graphic cover that received extreme negative reaction from consumers, subscribers and advertisers across the country,” said William P. Kupper Jr., president of Turnstile Publishing Co., the parent company of Golfweek. “We were trying to convey the controversial issue with a strong and provocative graphic image. It is now obvious that the overall reaction to our cover deeply offended many people. For that, we are deeply apologetic.”

Golfweek devoted four pages of news and commentary on the Tilghman/Golf Channel situation. Tilghman was suspended for two weeks as a result of her comment.

Babineau, 45, has been with Golfweek for nine years, and has filled a number of roles with the magazine, including editor, deputy editor and senior writer. In his new role, he will report directly to Kupper.

“We know we have a job ahead of us to re-earn the trust and confidence of many loyal readers,” Babineau said. “Our staff is very passionate about the game. Our wish is that one regretful error does not erase more than 30 years of service we’ve dedicated to this industry.”

In a timely interview Seanor spoke with Yahoo! Sports golf editor Michael Arkush (great job Yahoo) hours after he had been fired. Seanor’s offered a number of insightful comments which included the decision to feature a tasteless noose on the cover and if there where any real objections from members of Golfweek’s staff to the decision to run the noose on the magazine’s cover.

“There wasn't that much else, really. We put together two or three different images of either Kelly or a noose. We did rough mock-ups that sat taped to the outside of a cubicle for a couple of days. They had either different photos of nooses or Kelly's picture.

“Not so much that people were offended by the image because they knew where we wanted to go with it. But people raised flags that this could stir something up among a certain element of people who might read it one way or the other, and we tried to mitigate that, we thought, with the headline.”

While Seanor pointed out there weren’t much reaction from his staff the racial makeup of Golfweek’s staff only includes three African-Americans. Seanor did acknowledge to Yahoo Sports that when it comes it issues of race and golf – the potential for creating a fire keg is very real.

“When race and golf are in the same sentence, people want to change the subject as soon as they can. People in golf don't want to talk about that stuff. I was on the floor at the PGA show, 20,000 people were milling around, maybe 30-40 of color.”

Seanor may have been less than honest when it came to his opinions concerning the options the publishers of Golfweek had regarding the January 19 cover that depicted the noose as Babineau told Dan Patrick on his radio show Friday.

“You can't say 'Sorry' enough," Babineau told Dan Patrick. "We had several mockup covers. One had Jason Day on it. If we had to do it over, we wish we could put that one out ... I don't think enough thought was put into it. The noose was there to depict Golf Channel's tough situation. More of us connected the image of the noose to that."

Asked about the editor's firing, Babineau said, "It was something we had to do to show people we're very sorry. A very good friend of mine lost a job and it's a tough pill."

The story took on a life of its own Thursday. The release of the January 19 issue timed with the annual merchandise show in Orlando created a perfect storm. The media and the golf industry converged in Orlando last week. Putting the media and the leaders of the golf industry together along with an incredibly poor decision offered a made for the media golf industry controversy. The media didn’t have to chase down the story; the media didn’t have to chase down leads for quotes – the story chased down the media. Making it that much more enticing, the story touched Tiger Woods and touched a media publication. Nothing seems to create a bigger media feeding frenzy than an opportunity for the media to eat its own.

The Tour's commissioner, Tim Finchem, criticized the publication.

"Clearly, what Kelly said was inappropriate and unfortunate, and she obviously regrets her choice of words," Finchem said in a statement. "But we consider Golfweek's imagery of a swinging noose on its cover to be outrageous and irresponsible. It smacks of tabloid journalism. It was a naked attempt to inflame and keep alive an incident that was heading to an appropriate conclusion."

The story began during the Golf Channel's broadcast on January 4 when analyst Nick Faldo joked that the young players of the PGA Tour may have to gang up on Tiger Woods to compete with him. His co-anchor, Kelly Tilghman, agreed and suggested with a laugh that Tiger's young rivals "lynch him in a back alley."

Tilghman later apologized on the air and directly to Woods. Mark Steinberg, Woods's agent at IMG, dismissed the incident, saying that Woods and Tilghman were friends and the comment was not malicious. Still, the network suspended Tilghman for two weeks after the controversy became a story outside the golf world and the Rev. Al Sharpton called for her dismissal. As is so often the case when it comes to Sharpton – the man never misses an opportunity.

The incident should have ended after The Golf Channel’s decision to suspend Tilghman. She apologized directly too Woods, Woods agent made it clear Tiger had no issues with the comment and the Golf Channel had taken appropriate action. Tilghman’s comments where nothing short of being ‘inappropriate’ but thankfully the owners of The Golf Channel took Sharpton’s comments with the grain of salt it deserved to be associated with.

Late Thursday soon after Finchem’s comments Seanor began to realize how much trouble he was in and began to appreciate he might have made a mistake.

"I was a little shocked by the commissioner's reaction," he said. "It was rather strong, particularly from someone who rarely comments on things on his own tour.

"I wish we could have come up with something that made the same statement but didn't create as much negative reaction," he said. "But as this has unfolded, I'm glad there's dialogue. Let's talk about this, and the lack of diversity in golf."

But Seanor choose to throw more gas on the fire by bringing up the long systemic issue of race and professional golf.

"Look at the executive suites at the PGA Tour, or the USGA, or the PGA of America. There are very, very few people of color there," he said. "This is a situation in golf where there needs to be more dialogue. And when you get more dialogue, people don't want to hear it, and they brush it under the rug. This is a source of a lot of pushback."

In an editorial in the magazine, the editors of Golfweek in the January 19, 2008 issue: "Like it or not, Tilghman's 'Lynch him in a back alley' remark about Tiger Woods was national news. The debate about the severity of her punishment -- at this writing a two-week suspension -- fueled heated debate on Web sites, in newspapers and on national TV. The furor begs rational analysis."

Democrat Presidential candidate Illinois Barack Obama speaking on American Urban Radio Networks commented Thursday on the Golfweek magazine "noose" cover controversy, saying that it showed "a lack of sensitivity to some of the profound historical and racial issues that are involved here and are obviously significant."

"We have to have a culture that understands that there's nothing funny about a noose. That's a profound history that people have been dealing with and those memories are ones that can't be played with."

Obama unlike Shapton’s January 9 comments didn’t call on anyone to be fired focusing his comments on the hurtful images associated with the cover and the comments.

Award-winning Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock shared his insightful opinions through a recent Foxsports.com column: “Al Sharpton compared Tilghman's on-air remarks to Don Imus's "nappy-headed ho" controversy. Sharpton, as is normally the case, is wrong.

“What Tilghman did, despite her 12-year friendship with Woods, was much worse than what Imus did. Imus, a radio shock jock known for crude attempts at humor, cracked a bad joke on a morning radio show. Tilghman is an anchor on the Golf Channel. No one expects her to be racy, controversial or stupid.

“Also, Tilghman can't argue that she picked up the notion of "lynching Tiger in a back alley" from black popular culture. She came up with that nonsense all on her own.

“Do I think Tilghman is some bigot extremist? No. I think she's incredibly stupid and perhaps unqualified for her job. She's in good mixed company in that category.

“Should she be fired? No. She made a mistake, apologized to Woods privately and publicly and should be granted the opportunity to rebound. We all make mistakes. A decade ago, I screwed up in a New England press box, cracked a joke about Drew Bledsoe that made me appear homophobic. I apologized, sat out a two-week suspension and moved on.

“It is possible for people to learn from their mistakes. There is nothing positive to be gained from throwing a gigantic pity party for Tilghman or trying to bury her.”

Kevin Hench a contributor to FOXSports.com offered a much more pointed view in his column late last week: “The difference between the two incidents is as stark as that between manslaughter and premeditated murder. The adults at Golfweek — who know what a noose symbolizes in America — decided that it was worth offending, sickening even, a once-terrorized portion of the population because, even 10 years after Tiger's arrival, they are not a significant constituency in the golf community.

“The cover is a taunt: "So what's going to happen, we're going to lose all of our African-American subscribers? We'll survive."

“But who exactly is caught in Golfweek's noose?

“The subhead reads, "Tilghman slips up, and Golf Channel can't wriggle free."

“So you see, it's the Golf Channel that got caught in the noose. And what noose is that? Ah, that old chestnut, the asphyxiating chokehold of political correctness, which people at Golfweek — no doubt like many of their subscribers — see as a much more serious problem in America than racism.

"Was it an arresting image? Yes, it was," Seanor told USA Today. "We chose it because it was an image we thought would draw attention to an issue we thought deserved some intelligent dialogue."

“And what better way to spur intelligent debate than with the preferred method of murder by the Ku Klux Klan? I know when I saw the noose on the cover, my first impulse was, "OK, who wants to have a thoughtful debate on race and free speech?"

How disingenuous can you get? No, Mr. Seanor, your hope was not for intelligent dialogue. Your race-baiting cover was dangled out there in the hopes of attracting genuine, contemptuous fury. And I suspect you'll get some. So congratulations on that.”

Jim Thorpe, one of two black players on the Champions Tour, told The Associated Press the actions of a magazine editor "absolutely stupid'' for displaying a noose on the cover of Golfweek.

"That was absolutely stupid. That was just throwing fuel on the fire,'' Thorpe said in the AP report. "Why would you do that? He knew better.

“We know there was no racist intent,'' Thorpe said, referring to Tilghman. "It was just a bad choice of words. But the guy from Golfweek? Let him get barbecued. That's just a major mistake on his part.''

Thorpe reiterated to the Associated Press that Tilghman does not to be deserved to be fired but understands the strong reaction to her comment.

"I do understand the point from a minority standpoint or an African-American standpoint that things like that has to be approached because we need to leave the past in the past,'' he said.

Thorpe called golf a "gentleman's game'' and said he's never felt discriminated against in the sport.

"If you could play golf, you were going to get paid,'' he told The Associated Press.”It made no difference what color you were, what religion you are. If you can go out there and play, they're going to write you a check and pay you. That's the bottom line.''

Did the now fired Senior Editor and Vice-President Dave Seanor pay too high price – absolutely not. He deserved to be fired. As he told Yahoo Sports he’s been a journalist for 34 years the last 17 spent reporting on the golf industry. Freedom of the press remains a cornerstone of the life Americans fight so hard to not only preserve but it remains a mantra American society is based on. But as Don Imus learnt in April with freedom comes a responsibly – you are free to report whatever you wish but with the sense of freedom should come a set of rules that must be acceptable to the publishers of the publication the material is associated with.

In wasn’t the court of public opinion that led William P. Kupper Jr., president of Turnstile Publishing Co., the parent company of Golfweek to fire Seanor, it was Kupper’s belief that Seanor’s decision didn’t meet the beliefs that he felt needed to be associated with Golfweek.

Seanor told Yahoo Sports he hopes his 34-years of experience help him land another job. Everyone deserves a second chance, especially those whose decisions are as bad as Seanor’s was last week. Why – because if nothing else one has to hope not that Seanor will pay a price for his egregious error, but that he’ll never forget the price he made and the mistake he made last week. Maybe we’ll all learn a lesson from the mistake that was made and if we do maybe those working in the fourth estate will make sure the next time they’re faced with the choices Dave Seanor made consider all of the implications of their decision.

A fair question to ask Seanor – just what were you thinking when you decided on a cover that Seanor had to believe would generate a great deal of controversy?

“It's an easy question for someone to ask who has never sat in an editor's chair or worked in journalism. We were thinking, as unbelievable as that might seem to people. Perhaps we overthought it in a way. We weren't trying to be sensational. It's interesting that a lot of the objection, 'Oh, they're just trying to sell magazines.' We're 99 percent subscriptions. We're not even on the newsstand”

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: Foxsports.com, Yahoo Sports, Associated Press, ESPN

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