Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Killing a story?

Sports Illustrated is reporting this week on the litany of poor off-the-field decisions (and that might be describing them too benignly) made by Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

There are two intriguing angles to the story -- whether there might be extenuating circumstances to explain Roethlisberger's erratic behavior, and whether a Pittsburgh television station killed a story about him.

SI reporter David Epstein uses information from a medical doctor to suggest the multiple concussions Roethlisberger has suffered during his career could be causing his destructive actions. (To read the full SI cover story, click here.)

Early in the full SI story, the magazine reports:

As well as Roethlisberger has played—and there's no disputing he's one of the league's elite quarterbacks—his off-the-field reputation has spiraled downward since a horrific motorcycle accident in June 2006, five months after he became the youngest QB to lead a team to the title. Roethlisberger was riding his black 2005 Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle, helmetless and without a permit, in downtown Pittsburgh when he collided with a Chrysler New Yorker. Roethlisberger hit the windshield, rolled over the roof of the car and struck the ground headfirst. He suffered a broken jaw and nose and underwent seven hours of surgery. "If I ever ride again," he said afterward, "it certainly will be with a helmet."

A few months after the accident, a reporter and a cameraman for KDKA-TV, the CBS affiliate that broadcasts Steelers games, were driving on I-376 in Pittsburgh when they saw two men on motorcycles and recognized one as Roethlisberger, who was not wearing a helmet. They began shooting footage, which showed Roethlisberger giving them the finger as he sped away, but the video never aired. The station's news director at the time, John Verrilli, and its current assistant news director, Anne Linaberger, deny that any such tape existed, but several people who saw the video gave SI similar accounts of the tape; sources believe the story was killed out of fear that it would damage KDKA's relationship with the Steelers. "If we had been the other affiliate [which doesn't broadcast the games]," says one of the people who saw the tape, "it would have been A-1 news." (A neighbor who lives near Roethlisberger in a tony section of Gibsonia, Pa., but did not want to be named has also seen the quarterback on his motorcycle. "I've never seen him with a helmet," the neighbor said.)

It wouldn't be the first time a media outlet has protected a star athlete, and it speaks to what the Steelers—and Roethlisberger—have meant to Pittsburgh.

Today, the management at KDKA responded, telling Rob Owen, the (superb) television critic from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that there was never an attempt to kill any story about a helmetless Roethlisberger riding his motorcycle.

I know the management at KDKA peripherally and only in a professional manner. But I am confident that if the key newsroom personnel had seen the tape (or at minimum been told about it), then it would have aired during a KDKA newscast.

That being said, KDKA's management needs to conduct a thorough and transparent internal investigation in order to validate its claims. For now, the television station deserves the benefit of the doubt. But there will remain doubt unless that suggested investigation takes place.

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