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Savran: Bernstein only doing her job

Saturday, April 12, 2003

It's becoming increasingly apparent that if there is one thing many Americans dislike more than the news they get, it is the people who deliver it. Generally, the media are regarded with lower esteem than those responsible for actually making the news. Whatever happened to not killing the messenger?

The audience has great disdain for a perceived insensitivity displayed by some reporters.

In some cases, the audience is right; in most cases, reporters merely were doing their jobs.

This perception of insensitivity to particularly delicate situations -- or, in some cases, downright indifference to them -- has been heightened by the coverage of the war in Iraq.

There certainly are vivid examples of abusing the supposed trust between news deliverer and audience. The indiscretions of Peter Arnett and Geraldo Rivera are countermanded by the jingoistic reporting of one purported "news" channel, which has done as much damage to the precepts of journalism as our military's bombs have inflicted on Baghdad.

This mistrust has even bled into our little corner of the journalistic world. The furor over the interview of Kansas Coach Roy Williams by Bonnie Bernstein of CBS Sports reminded me of people's mistrust of media, even when the central issue is a basketball game.

For openers, covering the "losing" locker room is the worst job in the business. Although the job is adversarial by definition, reporters aren't intentionally confrontational, and generally are sensitive to the situation. Questioning someone who just had his heart ripped out elevates walking on eggshells to a high art form.

Nevertheless, there's a job to be done. Bernstein carefully calculated her questions to Williams, first asking about the loss to Syracuse, then about what must have been an emotionally wrenching talk to his team.

Then she asked the question that begged to be asked -- about the job at North Carolina. It had been circling around Williams like an airplane in a holding pattern since the hours before Matt Doherty was fired at Chapel Hill.

Williams had deflected the issue deftly, much better than some other departing coaches I could name. But just because he deflected it didn't mean he defused it.

So without a definitive answer, the subject of his interest in the Carolina job definitely was in play. Some criticize the timing, but if not then, before a national television audience, when? Bernstein had journalistic integrity to maintain, something in very short supply these days.

And you should know this: Williams knew the question would be coming.

Appearing as a guest on my afternoon radio show the day after the incident, Bernstein told me that in the moments before the live interview began, she prepped Williams by telling him that she would be asking the question. In his defense, he was in a highly emotional state, so even a "heads-up" might not have registered.

Had the same question been asked the following morning over breakfast, Williams' response likely would have been more measured and certainly delivered in a calmer fashion. But this was live TV, and reporters want gut reactions, not prepared statements.

If there's a critique I would offer (although not necessarily a criticism) it is that her follow-up question should have been a little less direct.

Look, I've been there. If you're unable to elicit the response you're looking for, you try to go through the back door by wording the very same question a different way. If you still don't get what you want, you drop it. If a person doesn't want to answer a question, they simply are not going to, no matter how many times or different ways you ask it. It's an interview, not a debate. But you have to ask that second time.

In my interview with her on the radio, Bernstein admitted that, upon reflection, she probably should have softened the follow-up. But she also told me, as I suspected, she had a severe time constraint. When the producer barks in your earpiece that you have 15 seconds, that's a hard 15. Sixteen is unacceptable. Thus the abruptness of the follow-up question.

Bernstein was doing her job. She asked a question that had been asked of Williams for two weeks. And now that his basketball season was over, no matter how painful its ending, he was in a position either to respond directly or to postpone the answer. His choice. His emotional response was understandable and acceptable.

But the same goes for Bernstein. If she doesn't ask that question, she kicks herself all the way from New Orleans to New York. So do her colleagues and CBS.

Despite the public's general anti-media bent, some of it well-founded, asking a relevant question in a sensitive atmosphere doesn't automatically make the question, or the questioner, insensitive.

Stan Savran is the host of sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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