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Staying above the fray

I liked the point Steve Politi made last week in contrasting the styles of Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez and Greg Schiano.

It just makes no sense. Most coaches largely ignore what the media writes because it is outside their control, and because they know its impact on recruiting is minimal. Nobody does this better than Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano, who stays above the fray no matter what is written about him or his program. Schiano knows that getting good players comes down to relationships, and that's where Gonzalez should focus his energy.

Undoubtedly, a positive approach will foster a better relationship with the local media than continually picking fights. However, I'm increasingly convinced that this isn't enough. Not when the New York Times is publishing editorials littered with numerous factual errors. RU's lack of a tit-for-tat response has allowed critics of athletics at the university to largely control the media narrative. (cf: this video from 2 days ago on ESPN)

Picking fights with the media is a losing battle. That's why alarm bells starting ringing in my head in response to a longtime poster on Rivals relaying this message from Joan McCormick.

"I think the people of New Jersey need to know this information and how the paper hates Rutgers and is ok with making me cry. Put that on the blogs."

At least this should clear up any (completely unrealistic, I think) fears about George Zoffinger coming out ahead with his scorched earth strategy. Frustrations at RU have been boiling over, and for good reason. There is a personal vendetta between Zoffinger and athletic director Robert Mulcahy, and the former has decided that no tactic is out of bounds. Josh Margolin and Ted Sherman, and to a lesser extent, upper-level management at the Ledger (no doubt, with heavy opposition from the sports desk), have given Zoffinger an unchecked forum for his mudslinging.

I don't believe that Margolin, Sherman, Jim Willse, et. al hate Rutgers, nor is it appropriate to react defensively, and take anything the SL publishes personally. By no means is the press obligated to provide Rutgers positive coverage. However, they are obligated to provide fair and accurate coverage. As I've said before, there was absolutely nothing wrong with Margolin and Sherman following their muckraking instincts and wondering whether they were sitting on a big story when they landed the ur-political insider Zoffinger as a source. In fact, New Jersey needs more, not less, of that kind of behavior.

This interview with the new editor of the Ledger's editorial page yesterday was telling, and troubling.

Q: Speaking of change, you're taking over at this newspaper at a time when the newspaper industry is changing. People can go on the internet to get their opinions, to express their opinions. A lot of people say there's no need for a newspaper editorial board or opinion pages anymore. How do you feel about that?

A: Well, I hope they're very wrong. I think a very strong case can be made for newspapers and the public need of them. The problem with information on the internet is that it is unvetted, unedited, it's raw data in half the cases. As it was described by one executive, it can be "a cesspool." The difference is, what appears in newspapers, in both the news and editorial sections, has been researched, carefully edited, usually through more than one hand. It's dicey proposition and with all of that we still make mistakes. But we're a hell of a lot better than the internet.

Blogs are hardly the problem when the Star-Ledger (and, to be fair, the Bergen Record, New York Times, and AP, even though they are largely following the Ledger's lead on this) have gotten such a major story this wrong. The burden has fallen to the Home News Tribune and the Trentonian to take an even-handed, accurate approach.

The true shame of the ongoing decline of print media is that far less scrutiny will be directed towards Trenton and the Statehouse in coming years. Where the Ledger is to be faulted is in their decision to continue vigorously pursuing the story after it became clear that Zoffinger was feeding them inaccurate information. The Ledger is long past overreaching, and it has steadily lost journalistic credibility as this fiasco continued unabetted. It needs a way out at this point that allows the paper to save face. That's not what they deserve, but Rutgers needs to be pragmatic and reign in any hurt feelings.

Staying above the fray is a better strategy than lashing out from a position of weakness. Nothing good will come from that. But I don't believe it is the best strategy. The Rutgers athletic department needs to take definitive action to show that it has nothing to hide. Mulcahy, AAD Kevin MacConnell, and the newly-appointed Richard Costello need to clear the air by inviting Margolin and Sherman on a conference call, along with representatives from Gannett, the Bergen Record, the New York Times, and the Associated Press. Give them a small victory that they can highlight in a headline the next day. "IN RESPONSE TO LEDGER INVESTIGATON, RUTGERS AD PLEDGES INCREASED OVERSIGHT AND COOPERATION". They can even write a few self congratulatory op-eds trumping over their win. Then. hopefully, they'll lose interest over a story that has generated little in the way of substance.

What Rutgers needs at this moment (besides increased oversight and smoother, more effective administration at all levels) is for the spotlight to go away. However justified lashing out may be, all it's going to do is provoke more trouble. Staying above the fray could work in theory, but it doesn't when continually allowing one party to heave false and distorted accusations without any response. Rutgers needs to respond, soon, and it needs to do it in the right way.