Denver Post sportswriter Adam Schefter is among this town's most prominent Denver Broncos reporters/commentators. In addition to getting plenty of inches in the Post's sports section during pigskin season, Schefter appears regularly on KOA and is a permanent part of KUSA-TV/ Channel 9's team. But while such extracurricular gigs have raised his profile, another pair of jobs have raised something else: ethical questions.
Specifically, Schefter co-authored last year's TD: Dreams in Motion (HarperCollins) with all-pro running back Terrell Davis, as well as the brand-new Think Like a Champion: Building Success One Victory at a Time (HarperBusiness) with head coach Mike Shanahan -- meaning that he's been in business with two people he covers as part of his beat. Schefter blasts suggestions that these deals compromise him as a journalist, saying, "I challenge anyone to show me a single incident when I have not been objective." His higher-ups at the Post must feel the same way: They ran a large excerpt from Champion in the paper's September 12 edition, teasing it on the front page. But even if Schefter's hard-nosed approach hasn't been softened by publishing contracts, the situation still smells like the sort of conflict that's all too typical in today's media landscape.
It's possible to argue that sports reporting shouldn't be scrutinized as closely as news coverage because it operates in a gray area between journalism and entertainment. An example of this phenomenon is ESPN, where athletes eagerly appear in comical promos pimping a network that's ostensibly dedicated to airing not just the good about sports, but the bad and the ugly as well. But in Denver, sports is news, as recent events have proven beyond doubt.
What Rocky Mountain News sportswriter Mike Littwin described in a September 5 column as "the strangest week in Denver sports history" got off to a fast start when, on August 30, Shanahan announced that designated starting quarterback Bubby Brister was being demoted in favor of second-year pro Brian Griese -- an action that received the kind of play usually reserved for papal visits. That was followed on September 1 by a news conference in which Brister took several well-aimed shots at Shanahan. Again, the media sent out its rabid response force, with most local newscasts leading with footage of the snit.
Around the same time, Colorado Rockies manager Jim Leyland announced that he was going to retire at season's end rather than fulfill the last two years of his contract, a decision that elicited more blanket coverage. And finally, the tear-gas clouds that enveloped Mile High Stadium after the September 4 clash between the CU Buffaloes and the CSU Rams instantly became the single biggest news event of late summer. The major issues that arose from the altercation weren't football-related, but they came up because thousands of passionate, well-lubricated sports lovers had been drawn together by a big game.
Whether any of these stories other than the last one should have elbowed their way ahead of every other bit of news in the state is debatable -- but in a town where sports personalities constitute the only real celebrities, it makes perfect sense. And it doesn't end there. Radio stations eagerly pay players to call up and chat once a week, TV outlets take the same tack, and newspapers give vanity columns to sports stars while continuing to report on them.
Considering this amoral landscape, Schefter's activities wouldn't seem likely to arouse much criticism -- but they've managed to stir some up anyway. The "Dennis Britton Go Home! Page," a Web site assembled a year or so back by disgruntled former Post staffers, mainly devoted itself to denigrating Britton, the just-sacked editor of the Post. (The site, at http://members.aol.com/empirvoic/dennispage.html, was reportedly "chilled" on September 15 "out of respect for the dead.") But the biggest graphic on the main page was a photograph of Schefter's face superimposed on a cheerleader. The copy that accompanied this image attacked Schefter for writing an article for Dream Season, a magazine about the Broncos' 1997-'98 run to the Super Bowl that was published by the team itself. To make matters worse, the polemic went on, the Post purchased an ad touting Schefter in the magazine even as Britton was continuing to preach about "high-minded principles of journalism."
Along with yours truly, Schefter attended an institution dedicated to this code of conduct -- Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago -- in 1989 and 1990. He stood out even then because of his extraordinary energy: While other students were struggling to keep up with coursework, Schefter was stringing like crazy for the Chicago Tribune. In one particular magazine-writing class, the professor ripped him mercilessly for loading up an assignment with standard sportswriting jargon, but Schefter wasn't cowed. He liked sportswriting jargon, and his genuine fondness for the form paid off; he quickly moved into a plum position with the Rocky Mountain News. According to Schefter, the Post came to him in late 1994 and offered a $10,000-a-year raise if he'd jump ship. "The Rocky countered with an extra $27 a week if I'd stay -- and I did," he goes on. "Then, eighteen months later, the Post came back with an even larger offer. So I called the Rocky and asked if they could come close to that. And they said, 'You just got a raise eighteen months ago.'"
The Post got its man, and Schefter has been churning out Broncos pieces for the paper ever since -- so many, in fact, that some media types feel he's gone much too far in buddying up to sources. There's some evidence to support this contention: At the November 1998 grand opening of the Hard Rock Cafe, Schefter was seen hanging with Terrell Davis and other Broncos. But Schefter denies doing anything untoward, and he's defended by Neal Scarbrough, the Post's sports editor. "Adam's a real professional," he says. "People always claim he got this story or that story because he knows them or is friends with them. But they don't realize that he's called them three or four times to get to them. While they're having dinner, he's on the phone."
A few months ago Schefter was somewhere else -- in Cabo San Lucas with Shanahan, putting the finishing touches on Think Like a Champion. But Schefter says his time there wasn't a free ride. "There were twenty interview sessions I had to schedule with Mike, and after we'd scheduled sixteen of them, he said, 'How would you feel about going to Cabo?' -- because he was planning on going down there. And I said, 'If that's where you want me, that's where you have me.' But it wasn't like he sent me the tickets and said, 'I'll pick you up in the family station wagon.' I paid my way down there and I stayed in a different hotel. We met for one hour a day for four days, and that was it. What we have is a business relationship." Schefter doesn't believe that this association with Shanahan and Davis presents an ethical conflict because he was paid a flat fee for his work on each tome, meaning that, in his mind, he has no further financial stake in either project: "I made my money. I'm out." He also notes that the agreements he signed were with the publishing companies, "not Mike or Terrell -- and besides, Mike's book isn't even a football book. It's a motivational strategy book."
This last point is more than a bit disingenuous. Although Think Like a Champion is aimed at business consumers, all of the tips in it are supported by football anecdotes, and each chapter ends with testimonials to Shanahan from the likes of Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and players such as John Elway. Nevertheless, editor Scarbrough, who gets a thank-you in Champion, doesn't view the book as a violation of the paper's compact with its readers.
"We try not to limit people's opportunities to do things on the side, but we have strong ethical rules around here," Scarbrough says. "And when you hire someone, you believe that they're going to follow the rules in the right ways." He adds that there are "checks and balances" in place to make sure that someone in Schefter's position doesn't turn into someone's personal press agent. "We don't want to see 'Shanahan's a King' stories or 'Shanahan's a Bum' stories unless they're supported. And if either of those stories wasn't reported properly, the person who needs to be in fear is the reporter. Because we wouldn't stand for that."
Barry Forbis, sports editor for the Rocky Mountain News (and the former overseer of Schefter during his News days), doesn't buy that argument, stating, "Our policy would be that you can't write that kind of book if you are covering the beat." As an example, he says that staffer Clay Latimer wasn't allowed to pen a book about Elway until he was no longer covering football -- "and Clay's book was unauthorized, just like the books we've written after each of the Super Bowls and after the Avalanche's Stanley Cup run. He didn't do it in cooperation with Elway, like in this other case, where they're actually making money together." With Schefter, he says, "there's the appearance of a conflict of interest. And you have to guard against that just as much as you would guard against the conflict itself."
Not that the News doesn't suffer at times from the same malady. After all, the paper owns a chunk of the Colorado Rockies yet still covers the team. The purchase "was a business decision made as a civic gesture before they were even formed," Forbis explains. "Is that a problem from an appearance standpoint? Yeah. But we're very careful about it, and I think the coverage stands on its own."
Obviously, the News is just as adept at tap-dancing around such matters as the Post. But at least the competition between the two papers' sports sections guarantees a modicum of aggressiveness. When the Post chose to run an August 16 story by sportswriter Mike Klis about the impending ouster of Colorado Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard on its front page, News baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby went on KKFN-AM/950 (the Fan) and denounced it as a foundationless collection of previously reported rumors -- and when Gebhard resigned a few days later, Ringolsby returned to the airwaves to imply that Klis had just gotten lucky. In this spirit, Schefter says that the News's disinterest in keeping him around fuels his desire to scoop the paper "every single day -- and if it doesn't make Mike Shanahan happy, that's the way it is. When I was the first one to write that Shannon Sharpe's contract was up, the first person on the line fuming at me was Mike Shanahan. I would never in any way hold back on anything I had to write if it was in the interest of the Denver Post readers."
But at the same time, Schefter says, "I don't make any secret of the fact that my relationships with Terrell and Mike have been enhanced because I worked with them. It's part of my job to build positive relationships and maintain them. That's what it's all about."
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The contrast between the overblown ring-of-fame ceremony for John Elway on September 13 and the Broncos' humiliating defeat to the Miami Dolphins in the game that accompanied it may have left Coloradans feeling heartsick, but it seemed to thrill many national media types. Even Good Morning America news reader Antonio Mora and weather guy Tony Perkins (loved him in Fear Strikes Out) spent some time the morning after giggling about how the Broncos may have to get used to losing now that Big John has hung up his spurs.
GMA is also devoting plenty of airtime to another Colorado tale -- a five-part interview with Linda Arndt, the former Boulder detective who was present when the body of JonBenét Ramsey was found back in 1996. Lawyers representing John and Patsy Ramsey characterize Arndt's speculations about the case as "bizarre," and that's as good a word for them as any. In the segments that had been televised at press time, Arndt, who reportedly chatted for over four hours with correspondent Elizabeth Vargas, almost seemed to be channeling the dead child, widening her eyes like an especially theatrical psychic as she said things like, "I saw black with thousands of lights, and everything that I had noted that morning that stuck out instantly made sense." Think she charges extra for palm-reading?
Attempting to read minds, not palms, were staffers at the local arm of the Onion, America's finest satirical weekly, who chose to steer clear of an article about the hottest Colorado story of them all: the shootings at Columbine High School. The Onion Web site (www.theonion.com) currently features "Columbine Jocks Safely Resume Bullying," a piece generated by writers at the Onion's Madison, Wisconsin, headquarters in which fictional halfback Jason LeClaire states, "We have begun the long road to healing. We're bouncing back, more committed than ever to ostracizing those who are different." Adds his equally imaginary girlfriend, Kellie Nelson: "A school where the jocks cannot freely exclude math geeks, drama fags, goths and other inferiors without fearing for their lives is not the kind of school I want to go to." So why doesn't this edgy lampoon appear in the edition that's on our streets right now? Dave Haupt, the publisher of the Denver-Boulder paper, says that he and his staff can choose to run, or not run, any of the material cooked up in Madison -- and in this case, the Columbine effort was rejected because it "hit a little too close to home." To paraphrase Steve Martin, comedy isn't always pretty.