Many years ago, I saw an interview with Ted Koppel on a special about Nightline. I've never been able to find the clip, but I will never forget what Koppel said when asked about his theory about interviewing.
I've always believed, Koppel said, that as reporters, we have the right to ask any question we want. And that the person we're interviewing has every right to to say that's none of your business.
I tried to always live by that code when I was a reporter.
That clip came back to me today when I saw that The Big Lead had raised quite a kerfuffle by calling Bobby Knight on the former coach's cell phone to ask why he refused to say Kentucky's name on TV over the weekend. Hearing that people were critical of Jason McIntyre for calling Knight and writing this story has left me perplexed.
There seem to be two criticisms of McIntyre: The first is that McIntyre "ambushed" Knight. Which isn't really true. From his story, this is how McIntyre started the phone call: "Hi Mr. Knight, my name is Jason McIntyre and I write for The Big Lead. We write about sports and the media and I was calling to ask you about the NCAA tournament, specifically, Kentucky." That's not an ambush. That's not Mike Wallace jumping out of the bushes to interview a lying politician. That's actually a pretty polite phone call from a reporter/blogger.
The second criticism, and judging by the reaction I got on my own Twitter feed the most prevelant, is that McIntyre should not have called Knight on his cell phone, and that he should have told Knight where he got the number.
To be honest, sometimes this happens in the business. You need to get in touch with somebody for a story, a source passes along that person's number, saying "You didn't get this from me." It happened to me a number of times. Sometimes, the person you need to talk to asks "Where did you get this number." And you tell them "I can't say," or something like that. Honestly, I don't remember drawing a reaction like McIntyre got, but I know it made people mad. It happens in this business.
McIntyre committed no sin by calling Knight on his cell phone and writing down that Knight was angry about it. (And for those of you who think this is a sign of the ongoing journalistic apocalypse, please turn your hymnals, aka All the President's Men, to the part where Bernstein calls John Mitchell aka The Wringer in the Tit incident.) He didn't stalk Knight, or invade his privacy. He called him on the phone. Knight could have not answered (like I and probably man of you do when you get a call from an unrecognized number), or just refused comment.
And to me, Knight did nothing wrong. Sure, he looked like a bit of a jerk, but that's nothing new for Knight - in fact, it doesn't make the top-50 incidents of his career. But to say McIntyre did something wrong is unfair. McIntyre has the right to ask the question. Knight has the right to tell him that's none of his damn business. All in all, this is no journalism sign but instead a pretty run-of-the-mill story.
McIntyre called a public figure about a newsworthy story in his field. He identified himself as a media representative. He wrote down what the public figure said, and published it.
The way I see it, that's just journalism.