University of Georgia Bites Back at Irresponsible, Unethical Newspaper Coverage

AP Photo/John Bazemore, File

Back in January, I wrote a column about how the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) responded to a tragic accident that took the lives of a University of Georgia (UGA) football player and a staffer for the team with irresponsible tabloid reporting.

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If you need to refresh your memory, the crash occurred in the early morning hours after the Georgia Bulldogs’ celebration of its second consecutive national championship and involved the football staff member driving a vehicle belonging to the university at a high rate of speed and probably racing. Nobody is disputing that those are issues that UGA needs to address, but the AJC responded with a salacious report about how the group of players and staffers had visited a strip club in the hours before the accident.

At the time, I wrote, “The AJC long ago abandoned any pretense of objective coverage and is yet another left-leaning newspaper, but it has now thrown out any notion that it’s a responsible journalistic outlet.” The AJC was once an outlet that Georgians could be proud of, but not anymore.

The situation got worse when the editor-in-chief wrote a column defending the tabloid coverage, citing the notion of “asking accountability questions.” I responded by writing, “Those questions of accountability are worth asking, and I’m sure the university will deal with them. But that doesn’t justify the whole angle of, ‘Look, they were at a strip club!’”

Since that initial article, one of its co-writers, Alan Judd, has written a series of “investigative reports” designed to make the university, its athletic association, and the football program look bad. Most of the issues at question are legitimate areas of concern, but they’re also internal matters that UGA President Jere Morehead, Athletic Director Josh Brooks, and Head Coach Kirby Smart are addressing in-house.

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For the most part, UGA kept quiet about the reporting until the AJC published an article, again by Judd, entitled, “UGA football program rallies when players accused of abusing women.” It appeared online on June 27, but the paper ran it on the front page of its Sunday, July 2, edition. The article (which I won’t link to because it’s behind a paywall and the AJC doesn’t deserve any of our money) suggests that players with arrests for assault or domestic violence remain on the team longer than they should.

But the University of Georgia Athletic Association (UGAAA) is biting back. On Tuesday, UGAAA’s general counsel Michael M. Raeber sent a nine-page letter to the AJC’s publisher, editor-in-chief, and managing editor demanding that the newspaper retract the report.

The letter is a brutal takedown of an ambitious reporter trying to write the big story and the outlet that allowed him to write so irresponsibly. Raeber writes:

This article is the latest in a series by Mr. Judd focused on the UGA football program in the aftermath of the tragic accident on January 15 of this year. We have strongly disagreed with many aspects of Mr. Judd’s reporting over the last six months. But for an organization whose Newsroom Ethics Code (www.ajc.com/ethics-code/) states that “professional integrity is the cornerstone of our credibility,” this most recent article crossed a new line.

Mr. Judd’s article is replete with errors, unsubstantiated allegations, innuendo, and possibly even fabrications. We do not write to you lightly; we are accustomed to the rough scrutiny of a robust press, and we appreciate its central importance in a free society. But this article stands out in its reckless disregard for the truth and its imposition of a damaging narrative unsupported by the facts. The AJC’s Newsroom Ethics Code states, “In our news reports, we do not lie; we do not fabricate, and we do not distort images or audio in a manner that is misleading.” Yet several parts of Mr. Judd’s article beg the very concerning conclusion that aspects of his reporting are indeed fabricated, whether knowingly or recklessly.

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Raeber admits that the article’s allegations are serious, writing, “Without these significant errors, distortions, and potential fabrications, there is simply no basis for the article’s central thesis — that the UGA football program actively supports players accused of abusing women. Consider that thesis and how abhorrent it is.”

Over the course of nine pages, Raeber points out how Judd quotes detectives out of context throughout the piece, even taking separate quotes and putting them together as if they were a single quote. He also alleges that this would-be Woodward & Bernstein “falsely describes” one case “in an effort to make it fit his narrative,” and he points out that Judd truncated the university’s statement on purpose, “omitting some of the most significant points — those that directly countered his preconceived narrative.”

The attorney takes apart Judd’s claims that he highlighted the three “most egregious” and “most serious” examples of UGA looking the other way or rallying around players with assault or domestic violence issues. One player wasn’t a member of the team when his incident occurred, and he was never charged. The football program suspended the other two players, and they never played for UGA again.

The UGAAA held a press conference on Tuesday to address the reporting and the university’s response. The Athletic reports that “Athletic director Josh Brooks said ‘recent inaccurate and misleading reporting’ led to Tuesday’s press briefing ‘to set the record straight.’”

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“I am a firm believer that our program is a good program, and we have good players in it,” Smart said at the presser. “Roughly ten days ago an article came out that was inaccurate. I was actually stunned by the article. We wanted to gather the information so that we could make a sound response, which is what you are seeing today. It is very important that we respond to these very serious allegations the right way — not the fastest way.”

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Dawg Post reports that Judd appeared at the press conference and pushed back about specific cases, but Smart, Brooks, Raeber, UGA Equal Opportunity Office Director Qiana Wilson, and UGA senior deputy director of athletics Darrice Griffin responded to Judd’s questions with facts.

Smart also addressed the speeding issues that his players have dealt with before and after January’s fatal accident. “I’ll be the first to admit, we haven’t solved that issue or problem,” he said. “I don’t honestly know that anybody has, but for us, it’s important to acknowledge it first.” He added that he might not be able to make the problem completely go away, but he added, “I’m damn sure going to try.”

The AJC needs to issue a retraction to the article, reprimand Judd, and reassign him away from the UGA beat — if not fire him. But I bet that won’t happen. If the AJC doesn’t retract the irresponsible, unethical reporting, UGA should restrict the paper’s press access to the team. With SEC Media Days coming up next week and a new football season just around the corner, freezing the AJC out would teach the outlet a heck of a lesson.

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