When Sports Journalism Is An Oxymoron

media bias

Earlier this week the University of North Dakota made national headlines when they suspended a play-by-play announcer, Paul Ralston, for telling the truth when the university’s basketball team pulled off a “choke job” (his words) at the end of a game.

Now, it’s undeniable that the team choked. The fans knew it. The coach admitted it. But it was all too much for the thin-skinned ninnies at the University of North Dakota, so Mr. Ralston got a two-game suspension. For obvious reasons having to do with punishing somebody (even a UND employee, as Ralston is) for telling the truth, the university got a lot of criticism for the move.

Except from Grand Forks Herald reporter Tom Miller who, a competent practitioner of the North Dakota journalism tradition of trading deference for access, defended the university’s move in a column published yesterday.

“I was baffled when the story of Ralston being suspended two games for his comments following last Saturday’s loss to Northern Arizona went viral, landing on the front pages of the Sports Illustrated and ESPN websites,” wrote Miller. “This is not about athletic director Brian Faison or Jones having thin skin or the university hushing a critic.”

Well, yeah it kind of is Tom. Ralston was critical, and he got hushed. That Ralston is an employee of UND doesn’t make the punishment for truth-telling any less odious.

Maybe I wouldn’t be so sensitive to this if my friend, reporter Brian Howell, hadn’t gotten yanked off the Dickinson State University “diploma mill” story after former ND university system chancellor Bill Goetz paid a visit to his bosses. Or if my friend, Valley News Live anchor Chris Berg, hadn’t gotten pulled from a sideline reporting gig at NDSU football games after NDSU officials made it clear that they didn’t want a critic of higehr ed policy covering their games.

In these matters, I feel that the truth is always the best defense. The university system loves to bully anyone critical of the university system. Heck, I’ve spoken with a state legislator who, after questioning some of the fiscal decisions made by one of the universities in the state, saw that university’s president pay a visit to that legislator’s employer suggesting that the legislator in question wasn’t being sufficiently supportive of the university.

What happened to Mr. Ralston is just one example of a much larger issue. An issue that’s allowed to exist when the media, the fourth estate that is supposed to hold government entities like the university system accountable, is uncritical.

The reaction to what UND did to Ralston, indeed what was the reaction from most in the national media who picked up the story, should have been righteous indignation. But the way the NDUS operates, that would be bad business for North Dakota reporters.

And that’s the problem.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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  • SportsDoc

    Oh yeah, a bastion of free speech, these Universities are, if you are one of their liberal tenured Professors, but any dissent from others is squashed, like this one, or labeled “hate” speech on the political front.

    University indoctrination continues, and this is not limited to North Dakota, just look across the river and check out some of the sensitivity and diversity “requirements” for an Education degree in Minnesota. Just Wow!!!

  • Matthew Hawkins

    Mr. Ralston is not a member of the fourth estate in his duty as a play by play announcer. He is an employee of the University.

    I guarantee you that UND tells there student athletes not to make the choke gesture during games. It would not shock me if Ralston had been briefed not to use that phrase.

    University athletes get a lot of perks, many I don’t agree with. But there are also drawbacks. The biggest is that fans are vicious. I think that UND feels that it has a slight responsibility to protect their students and they don’t need their own employee egging the fans on.

    This is not a free speech issue. If Ralston wants free speech go work for a different employer.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      The man was suspended for saying “choke job.”

      Choke job

      Let’s live out here in the real world, Matthew.

      • SportsDoc

        You don’t get it Rob. The words “choke job” are hate speech!!!

      • Matthew Hawkins

        That is about the worst thing you can say about an athlete.

        He is an employee of UND. In this capacity he is not a journalist. He is accountable for what he says.

        This is not a free speech issue.

        You need to live in the real world where you are accountable to your employer.

        • SportsDoc

          I played at UND, and this is nowhere near the worst thing you can say about an athlete! Now, if you want to use the employee-employer relationship, fine, but you better use it across the board, and the Universities do not. That’s the real hypocrisy here.

          • Matthew Hawkins

            If you really don’t think there is a difference between faculty, who have to have freedom to do their job, and a play by play announcer, than you really don’t understand a university’s mission.

        • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

          He is an employee of UND. In this capacity he is not a journalist. He is accountable for what he says.

          This is not a free speech issue.

          The guy got punished for saying something that was truthful.

          People talk about teams choking all the time, Matthew. This is all about a university that doesn’t like criticism. From anyone.

          • Matthew Hawkins

            Fans talk about choking all the time.

            Ralston probably has a job at a newspaper or a radio station where he is a journalist.

            But if you want to keep your journalistic integrity, don’t work for the people you cover.

            Choking is an opinion. Maybe the other team just beat them.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            Even the coach agreed that the “choke job” term was accurate.

            You obviously know nothing about the situation.

          • abcabc

            Did you actually hear the broadcast and know something about the situation yourself? Or are you going of of internet reports?

          • Dumb Luck

            espn has way more credibility then gf herald aka UND pr machine could ever dream! are you accusing espn of inaccurate internet reporting?

          • abcabc

            Considering the writers for the Herald actually heard the audio and I highly doubt anyone else has, including ESPN or Rob, I’m willing to side with them. And I hope you were kidding with ESPN and accurate reporting? What possible avenue could they have used to get more information than the GF Herald on this? Not saying the Herald is perfect (far from it), but using ESPN as the benchmark for accuracy, particularly in this case, when all they did was pick up the AP story really discredits you.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            Oh who are you kidding. The most the coach has is a semantics argument. The team folding at the end of the game is everyone’s definition of choking.

          • abcabc

            So what you’re saying is you don’t know exactly what was said or in what context? Yet you are accusing people of knowing nothing about the situation. Carry on.

          • Dave

            Though I don’t agree that the punishment here fit the crime … there are a lot of folks on here and across the Interwebs who are opining from a position of ignorance spouting off things they heard from second and third hand sources. Oh well…. what’s new?…the Internet is the bar stool of old.

          • Dumb Luck

            You really are delusional!

          • abcabc

            Thanks for the informational response. ESPN has less credibility on this because they posted an AP story. The Herald writers actually heard the interview and have some insight.

          • Dumb Luck

            What in the world are you talking about, informational response! How much informational response do you need? It’s not rocket science investigative reporting that ESPN needs to conduct to determine that UND basketball had a choke job in the game. It’s obvious it happened. And it is obvious Mr. Ralston didn’t say anything out of the ordinary and he certainly didn’t say anything offensive. Your uninformational stupid responses make me scratch my head in disbelief! How do you think so illogically and irrationally?

          • abcabc

            ESPN didn’t do any reporting. Not sure how you can’t figure that out. They picked up the AP story. No one doing any of that story heard the interview either. Without that, how can they provide insight to the story? The Herald actually had reporters that heard the interview. I’m curious how, knowing that, you think that ESPN is the target to shoot for in this matter?

          • Dumb Luck

            Stop attempting to muddy the waters. No real original reporting was necessary for ESPN to publish the REPORT they did on the matter. There is no debate whether Mr. Ralston said UND’s loss was a “choke job.” He said it and he was right. The ESPN story was about the stupidity of UND’s suspension of the young man for NOT saying anything innappropriate. That is precisely what happened. UND basketball CHOKED. They lost. You and Mr. Ralston’s idiot bosses at UND act as if Mr. Ralston said something worthy of suspension, which he most certainly DID NOT. This is another example of how pathetic North Dakota higher ed administrators are and these ridiculous attempts to control the schools’ public images and bully and manipulate information that reaches the public. A national news organization such as ESPN exposes UND for its ridiculousness and idiots like you circle the wagons in defense of the idot bosses at UND by bashing ESPN’s online report, instead of accepting reality. Like I said you must be delusional! Go see a shrink and get your head screwed on.

          • abcabc

            So if no original reporting was done by ESPN (it was done by the GF Herald), how is it that they exposed something but the Herald is a joke?

            For the record, I don’t think Ralston should have been suspended. But you and Rob preaching from your high horse when neither of you actually heard the interview and Rob lecturing on people not knowing the facts is absurd and really detracts form whatever point it is you are trying to make.

          • Dave

            No, I’d say that label fits better on your given your faith in ESPN, which simply regurgitated the North Dakota Associated Press reports which, in turn, was a regurgitation of the Herald’s own reporting. This is pretty much all ESPN does: it re-reports what was first reported by other media and disingenuously passes it off as its own.

          • Dumb Luck

            Hate to break it to you but the Herald does the same thing. They regurgitate North Dakota Associated Press reports all the time. and it doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Ralston did not deserve to get suspended for saying UND choked when in fact they did choke.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            And are you really arguing that you’ve never heard a sports reporter use the term “choke”?

            C’mon. You’re just trolling.

          • Matthew Hawkins

            He is not a sports reporter. He is an employee of UND.

            He gave up his objectivity.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            So, you think a university suspending an employee for saying something truthful is just fine?

            Wow.

          • Matthew Hawkins

            I don’t think it is a violation of free speech.

            I think Ralston knows the parameters of his job. He is a PR man and that statement was bad PR.

            I think you are trying to make this into some sort of constitutional issue.

          • Dumb Luck

            He is a sports reporter employed by UND. That does not mean he has to give up his objectivity. In fact a good sports reporter employed by UND would exercise objectivity which Mr. Ralston did. Had this fellow given up his objectivity he would not have called the game it like it was, a choke job. What planet do you live on? Here on planet earth we’re taught to think logically and rationally.

          • Matthew Hawkins

            His capacity at UND is not that of a sports reporter. He may be a reporter for some other employer. But he sold his objectivity about UND basketball when he took their check. In regards to UND basketball he is an employee in the PR department. And Ralston knows it.

          • cylde

            A rule must be written before it can be broken, maybe you think they told him before hand not to use “choked up”.

          • Matthew Hawkins

            I think UND was very clear about being critical of the team.

    • Dumb Luck

      What planet do you live on! Do you understand how illiogical and irrational your line of thought is? The UND basketball loss was a choke job. I don’t care if Mr. Ralston works for the university or a private news organization. He called it like it is. A choke job. The poor fella does not deserve to be suspended. His jerk bosses at UND deserve the suspension not Mr. Ralston. Pathetic.

  • Captjohn

    University employees can take money from Planned Parenthood to disseminate information. No one should question their right as it is free speech.
    A sports announcer can’t use terms which describe a situation sports enthusiasts all understand. Such as “Tiger Woods choked on the final day of the Masters.”
    I find it totally ironic.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      But remember, our universities are epicenters of free speech!

  • tomorrowclear

    Rob, do you not think this has more to do with the culture of North Dakota, which is the antithesis of being “blunt?”

  • dlao

    so if an employee of an oil company called the epa and reported four dead ducks in a pond and got that company several thousand dollars in fines and in federal court you would hold this empoyee up as a heroe? Ya right, it is thier buisness to run as they see fit, no more, no less. Just another example of Rob displaying his hidden liberalism.

  • John_Wayne_American

    they are just practicing up in case the job of president of the US opens up, they need to know how to “handle” the media.

  • Drain52

    It’s great blowback. After toeing the UND line on dropping the Fighting Sioux logo UND repays him with a kick in the teeth. Too bad.

  • Jeff

    Wow, we are still talkin about this? Must be a slow week. When he said “choke job”, he was no issuing a statement of fact or a lie. He was offering his opinion. In the eyes of UND, what he said was not appropriate for an announcer that should be supportive of their team. I don’t think he should have been suspended, but I have no problem wih what UND did. You can’t just say anything and not expect consequences. If he would have said, “Wow coach, your team really sucked in the final couple minutes of regulation. It didn’t look like the players knew how to finish a game there.” That contains statements that most would say are factually accurate. Most would consider that inappropriate for any announcer to make. Like I said; kind of like free speech, you can’t just say anything and point to the 1st Amendment.

  • Guest

    If the twins fired their commentary guy for insulting his team would Roba be complaining? Also I watched the game there were about twenty lead changes, the lead for und at the end only ever got up to 3 points, and of the missed free throws two came at about two minutes left from a sixty percent free throw shooter and the guy who missed the other two also hit a ton of shots at the end of the game and in overtime so I would hardly say he choked. I’m assuming almost everyone on here including rob did not actually watch the game.

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