In the very political year of 2000, the Reality Check Award for Bamboozlement, Shameless Flackery and Concealment of the Facts - always previously bestowed on some politician - goes to an individual outside the political firmament who in a very brief time span has flummoxed, humiliated and tethered segments of the news media in ways that presidents and senators only dream about.
The name of the new spin king is Christopher Simpson and he is the public relations honcho at Indiana University. Serving as the PR man for an institution of higher learning, where you deal mostly with topics like the hiring of a new chemistry department chairman or the appointment of a new professor to the Elmore Grabasandwich Chair of Renaissance and Reformation History, is not a job one ordinarily associates with Washington-quality spin-meistering. But Simpson has overcome the obstacles of working for an organization whose presumed goal - the preparation of young people to be good citizens - would normally disqualify him for the coveted Reality Check Award.
The fact that Simpson has accomplished this, with all due respect to his obvious talents, tells us more about the state of sports journalism in the age of cable than the state of PR, or even the state of Indiana. Simpson's clients, for whom he loyally performed this award-winning service, include Indiana's basketball coach Bob Knight (also known as the General), who shares with William J. Clinton the unusual ability to turn a near firing for grossly inappropriate behavior into a triumphal march.
The PR/rehab problem faced by Simpson was one common in the field of political spin-doctors: Get your tiger booked into the most friendly forums possible to argue the case that he's not such a bad guy; and neutralize potentially dangerous media inquiry by stealth, sham and, where necessary, blatant intimidation. The journalistic term of art for the PR weapon employed in such a case is "access." Simpson (probably with some guidance from the General) played the access game with elan.
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Seven print reporters, chosen by Knight because their work had convinced him of their "fairness," were called in to sit beside the throne and hear his explanations. There has been some controversy among sportswriters over whether the chosen few were ethically correct to accept the invitations. Since this sort of spoon feeding to selected reporters is a commonplace of sports (and political) journalism, I have no quarrel with the reporters who went.
But let's not overlook the quiet elegance of Simpson's gambit. By means of the selection system he imposed on Knight's first rehabilitation press outing, he succeeded in inserting the issue of "press fairness to Knight" - a totally irrelevant point - into the discussion of the coach's problems, most of which had to do with choking and insulting people. Many people who read the stories by the Chosen Seven will come away believing, without a shred of evidence, that Knight has been a victim of a press lynching. This red herring is a tactic perfected by Richard Nixon and employed by his PR man, Ron Ziegler, then expanded upon by presidential candidate/Monkey Business crewman Gary Hart, who can now be heard exhorting, "Brilliant, Simpson."
Having given Knight a chance to practice on any tough questions by facing the handpicked (and therefore a little flattered) band of print reporters, Simpson then turned to the TV media, where the big audiences are. He booked Knight onto an ESPN special hosted by Roy Firestone and Digger Phelps.
ESPN was forced to do the show on Knight's turf in Indiana - score another for Simpson - and the Indiana flack, it is now clear, was a very busy beaver during the hectic minutes before the broadcast went on the air. Noting from the monitors on the set that ESPN had loaded up the famous 1997 tape of Knight grabbing the throat of a former Indiana basketball player, the PR man went into what any journalist would immediately recognize as "full intimidation mode," which is the "roundhouse punch" of spin-doctoring. Once he became aware ESPN planned to show the tape, Simpson told Richard Sandomir of The New York Times, he complained such a move would not be fair to Knight.
Reporters and their superiors face this kind of gamesmanship from PR-types every day and are trained to slough it off. But ESPN, fearing that Knight might walk off the set (a dubious fear given that he arranged for the program in order to show he won't be angry anymore) killed the tape.
It was one of those moments when I would normally be forced to admit I was a little embarrassed that such a thing could happen in my chosen field, television journalism. I am saved from that pain by the realization that what happened with Bobby Knight and ESPN was not journalism at ll. It was just a clever PR man and his client forcing a craven retreat by a TV crew that let itself be used - and forgot what its responsibilities were.