ESPN Senior Vice President & Director of News Vince Doria discusses ESPN’s reporting on the Bernie Fine allegations.
FR: What led you to initially report the Fine allegations earlier this month?
Doria: For the first time we had a second alleged victim come forward to talk on the record about what he claimed had happened between he and Bernie Fine. Along with that, we had a source who indicated to us that the Syracuse Police and the University Police were discussing re-opening this investigation – which the Syracuse Police did do prior to our running the story. Those two pieces of information, coupled with what we already had from Bobby Davis and the tape we had, convinced us there was credibility to these allegations and so we went ahead and reported them.
FR: What makes this story particularly challenging journalistically?
Doria: This was originally brought to our attention in 2003. Bobby Davis was a young man who had a story involving a respected high profile assistant coach at Syracuse. A man with no previous track record of this kind of behavior. It was one man’s story. He offered us three people who, Davis said, could either corroborate his story or assert that they in fact had also been sexually assaulted by Bernie Fine. Those sources either told us that was not the case or would not talk with us.
Bobby Davis also supplied us with a tape recording he made. He made this tape recording without our involvement, we were not present when the tape was made. The tape purported to be a phone conversation between Bobby Davis and Laurie Fine, Bernie’s wife. On that tape, Laurie Fine talked in disparaging terms about her husband, Bernie Fine, and as prompted by Bobby’s conversations, discussed her beliefs and her suspicions that her husband had been involved in sexual episodes with young boys.
It was clearly a damning tape in terms of her characterization of her husband but much of it was her thinking and beliefs. She never directly acknowledged to have witnessed any of these actions first-hand. So based on that tape which we had not generated; which we had no real knowledge of how it was made and Bobby Davis’s story – which was one person with no corroboration – we felt in 2003 that the material we had did not meet the standards for reporting the story. This is consistent with how we have viewed these types of stories in the past.
FR: What was the basis for introducing the Bobby Davis/Laurie Fine audio tape 10 days after your initial report on the Fine allegations?
Doria: When we had the audio in the past we had never been able to confirm that it was Laurie Fine. Part of it was we had no independent video of her and her voice – something we could look at and say, “Yes, that’s her and yes, that appears to be her voice.” This time around when we re-engaged on the story we did in fact have a video we found on-line of her serving a meal to Bernie and a number of young men who may or may not have been Syracuse players. In this video you could clearly hear her. This allowed us to submit the audio to a voice recognition expert, which we did last week.
At the same time we felt we really wanted to go to the Fines and present this evidence to them and give them the opportunity to respond in order to be as fair as possible. We tried on several occasions to contact Fine’s lawyer and the communications representative for the law firm got back to us and listened to our request where we told him we had some new information that we wanted to present to the Fines to get their side of the story and he promised to get back to us but never did. We were preparing to likely report this on Tuesday, November 29. We were going to give the Fines and their lawyer until the beginning of this week to respond. When the Syracuse Post-Standard story broke over the weekend of a third alleged victim, a victim whose sworn affidavit had reportedly triggered the house search that had taken place by federal investigators earlier last week, we felt the story had now risen to the level where we were comfortable putting the tape out. In discussions, we believed that we had given Fine’s lawyers enough time to respond and they had not done so.
FR: What is the role of a journalist relative to an investigation like this and involvement with authorities?
Doria: From a professional standpoint our role as a journalist is to seek out information and vet that information and when we’re satisfied with the credibility of that information to report it to the public. It’s what journalists do. It’s not necessarily the journalist’s role to go to the police with potential evidence that at the time we didn’t believe was strong enough to report ourselves.
We also were aware at that time that Bobby Davis had gone to the Syracuse Police in 2002 and told them about these allegations and he had been told by them that the statute of limitations had expired. So we were fully under the impression that the police had been made aware of the story and had decided not to pursue it.
All journalists could be asking themselves this very same question: What role should journalists play in providing information that may or may not have been reported? It’s complex and something we must continue to evaluate.