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Off the record

Photo by Teresa Mathew
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By Sam Gringlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 11, 2013

Every gate has its keepers — those with the clout to open and to unlock, but also the power to contain and restrict.

It’s a dance that plays out among spokespeople, sources and journalists every day, from the bustling press corridor of the West Wing of the White House to the tree-lined college campus.

For the gatekeepers of most organizations, celebrated news is information worth spreading, while confidential tidbits sometimes call for aversion. But for journalists, every effort to conceal is countered with a drive to uncover.

Most times, leaders have reason for much of the hush. On campus, members of Greek Life, athletic departments and administrators, as well as their spokesmen, all have a role to fulfill: They seek to uphold a brand’s name, keep strategies competitive and ensure initiatives are carefully planned.

But does secrecy — or the efforts to report it — ever go too far?

Full court press

Past the Hartwig Administration Building’s glass doors, ticket desks and stacks of newly minted team posters, an unassuming back staircase leads to one of the Athletic Department’s most influential offices.

Headed by Associate Athletic Director Dave Ablauf, the Department of Media Relations — and its 11 associate directors — carefully molds the message and image of an immensely visible, yet strategically fortified, University department.

Ablauf, who has been immersed in the inner workings of university athletic departments since his college days, emphasized the educational aspect of training student athletes to interact with the press.

“We don’t try to fill them with information because it has to be from their perspective,” Ablauf said. “The student athletes are the experts in their sport; the coaches are the expert in their sport. You want them to be able to show their personality — who they are — when they are talking to someone.”

But athletes are not taught simply by amassing experience. Each fall, the Athletic Department holds etiquette training on social media for both first-year players and their more seasoned counterparts.

Perhaps equally important is the training that occurs in preparation for the swarm of journalists student athletes often encounter. While more pertinent for sports that attract the most media attention, such as men’s football and basketball, public relations staff and coaches constantly provide their athletes with pointers and possible story angles to prep for game day interviews.

While Ablauf encourages senior leadership, such as captains, to carry a team’s message, not all information is up for grabs. Ablauf said topics such as athlete injuries, trade secrets and team strategies are particularly off limits.

“Games are won in a few plays,” Ablauf said. “It’s a few plays here and there that decide football games, basketball games, any other sporting event, and you want to maximize your opportunities to win those sporting events so you want to keep that competitive advantage, and I think that’s something that we’ve done here.”

For example, in a protocol spanning half a century, Michigan football practices have been closed to the media since Bo Schembechler began coaching in 1969.

“I think there are things you want to share and things that you don’t want to share, but I’d say we try to be as transparent as possible with the public and with the media, but there are obviously things you want to keep within the framework of your team,” Ablauf said.

However, Ablauf said technology has made it nearly impossible to keep anything secret.

“Every person in America — in one way or another — is a reporter today,” Ablauf said. “You have the means to report on anything that you want. That’s just the way the paradigm of everything has shifted … Now, with everything the way that it is, there is nothing that is really secret.”

For Sports Illustrated columnist Michael Rosenberg, a University alum and former Daily editor, his seven years covering University athletics for The Detroit Free Press showed him the days of secrecy haven’t vanished with the advent of social media.

Rosenberg said while both professional and collegiate programs can range from accommodating to nearly impossible to access, the University Athletic Department tends towards the latter, a tradition bred in the days of Schembechler.

In 2009, Rosenberg and his Free Press colleague Mark Snyder, also a Daily alum, broke the story that Michigan’s football team had committed multiple NCAA violations, most of which concerned rules about exceeding practice time.

After hearing about possible the misconduct, Rosenberg and Snyder spoke with multiple anonymous sources, including parents and athletes, who independently confirmed the allegations.

Rosenberg said the sources were scared to talk for fear of retribution and thus asked to remain anonymous.

Upon approaching the University Athletic Department for any documents or evidence that could prove the sources wrong, the department said they had nothing to say. The Free Press ran the story. A year later, the department admitted to four of the violations.

While Rosenberg said he received pushback from coaches and fans for reporting the violations, he never had hesitations; he was confident in the truth of the reporting.

“If you cover any institution, whatever it is, you have to cover it as objectively and fairly as you can, and that’s what we try to do,” Rosenberg said. “I love the University of Michigan … (but) if you’re going to cover it, you have to cover it the right way.”

Openness not only ranges across programs, but across sports, coaching staffs and administrations.

“Football coaches tend to be a little bit paranoid and controlling, and that’s just the culture of the sport,” Rosenberg said. “It’s almost a militaristic kind of structure.”

He noted that the NHL, NBA and MLB are often more open to media interactions since they tend to have a looser, less rigid culture.

But because Michigan athletics have such a formidable fan base, administrators don’t feel pressured to generate as much publicity or be open with the media.

“There’s nothing wrong with the program a few crowds of 60,000 can’t cure,” Rosenberg said. “You can see where they won’t benefit from it because they’re selling the place out anyway. At Michigan, people will care regardless of what they do with the media.”

For example, Rosenberg said while he admires Michigan head football coach Brady Hoke, he gives very little to the media. In comparison, Rosenberg said Michigan State University tends to be more open as they try to build more excitement about their athletics, adding MSU head basketball coach Tom Izzo would tell you his whole life story if you let him.

For Rosenberg, building relationships with coaches and athletic departments is key to developing a quality toolkit of sources.

“I think you should build relationships and build trust over time,” Rosenberg said.
“You can’t go over there and expect to have a bunch of great sources giving you stuff in a month, or even a year. You just have to be patient and get to know people.”

With that relationship, journalists, spokespeople and administrators gain a respect for each other’s motivations, he said. For cadres of journalists, it’s an intricate understanding that each party has its priorities, and if that means a reporter asking a tough question, that’s just part of the job.

“They’re just different people in different roles,” Rosenberg said.

Greek life in print

On Saturday mornings each autumn, maize and blue clad students fill fraternity houses’ front porches and lawns; school spirit brimming on high for an afternoon in the Big House.

The presence of Greek life on campus isn’t easy to miss. It’s a realm Mary Beth Seiler has come to intimately understand during her 30-year involvement with University Greek life, the past decade spent as its director.

“Everybody’s got opinions about Greek life,” Seiler said. “I think that’s one topic you could pretty much ask anybody on the street, and they’re going to give you an opinion.”

When it comes to media attention, LSA junior Cathy Wojtanowski, Panhellenic vice president for public relations, said each sorority or fraternity’s national organization controls much of the news flow. When Wojtanowski served as her chapter’s public relations VP last year, she said she received a large guidebook from the national office detailing everything from social media guidelines to protocols for media relations.

With most incidents, whether positive or negative, the University’s Office of Greek Life and its executive boards have little influence in the ways individual chapters handle situations with the media or the public at large.

“It’s going to be up to them (each chapter) and their national organization about what is said,” Seiler said. “If it somehow spilled over into the larger Greek community, we would have to discuss it depending on what (the issue) is.”

Seiler said in most circumstances pertaining to the larger Greek community, she directs media inquiries to student leaders, such as council presidents. But when the topic surpasses merely informational probes, Seiler uses the University’s media infrastructure, such as the Office of Public Affairs, to advise on protocol.

“I think what’s dangerous is when people start speaking and there’s an investigation in process,” Seiler said. “And whether that’s an Ann Arbor (Police Department) thing or internal to Greek life ... You let the process work the way it’s supposed to work, and people intervening and adding comments and speculation really isn’t helpful.”

During the joint interview, Seiler, as well as Wojtanowski and LSA junior Michael Freedman, who is the Interfraternity Council president, agreed that most media inquiries are in response to negative allegations or incidents.

“I think it’s reasonable to believe that Greek life raising money isn’t the type of story people want to read,” Freedman said. “They want to read about the negative connotations of Greek life, which there are very few, realistically. If a minor thing does (occur), that’s the story I feel like is pursued rather than the thousands of dollars that are raised for children’s cancer or for MS that happens ever year.”

Seiler also noted that coverage of Greek life is more balanced in some years than others.

Events, awards and charity “are the things I wish people knew more generally — that it’s not just about partying.”

Multiple fraternity and sorority freshmen members said they would feel comfortable speaking to the press on most topics concerning Greek life, with the exception of certain traditions like initiation. The members agreed that this type of secrecy simply preserves long-held traditions.

For this feature, 10 presidents and spokesmen were contacted via e-mail requesting an interview to discuss relations between press and Greek life. As of publication, none have responded. Two members of Zeta Beta Tau, a brotherhood no longer recognized by University Greek Life or ZBT nationals, offered to speak with the Daily but required viewing and approving the article before being published, which Daily policy forbids.

Seiler said if the newly installed presidents saw more balanced coverage without an “ulterior motive,” they would likely feel more comfortable speaking with the media.

In “Pledged, the Secret Life of Sororities,” journalist Alexandra Robbins goes undercover to provide an inside look at sorority life, investigating issues such as hazing and psychological abuse.

In an email interview, Robbins said lack of openness is often dangerous and makes reporting incidents, such as hazing, more difficult.

“Secrecy makes it more difficult for a reporter to penetrate an organization,” Robbins wrote. “When members won't talk to the press, we have to take alternative — and sometimes less desirable — measures, like going undercover, to share the story.”

Still, Seiler said not all information has a place in the public discourse.

“I think if there’s something negative going on, is it the business of everybody?” Seiler said. “Does it serve some purpose to have it out in the media? And I would say sometimes negative things have a purpose. But if we’re taking positive steps not just to deal with those incidents and taking those steps throughout the year, then that information can be positive.”

The consequence of secrecy

While mostly respectful, these interactions are not void of tension. Often the stakes are high and the repercussions are vast, especially when this relationship plays out at the federal level. Forty years after Watergate — the infamous Washington Post investigation that launched a revival of investigative journalism and the resignation of a president — wrongdoing, misuse and injustice remain as prevalent as the year Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting rocked the nation.

Anthony Collings, a University professor of journalism ethics, knows the implications of secrecy first hand. As a former CNN reporter covering the Iran-Contra Affair — a political scandal in the late 1980s during which the Reagan adminsitration secretly sold weapons to Iran despite an arms embargo — Collings clearly remembers an interview with then-Congressman Dick Cheney.

“I remember that he would not answer my questions other than to keep repeating the same basic idea, but I wanted to find out more what happened,” Collings said. “There was no way he was going to help and my guess was being a Republican, he wanted to protect the Republican administration.”

Collings recalls the frustration of not being able to provide the public with the full truth of the scandal.

“Secrecy makes sense in some cases; obviously they’re protecting their sources and their methods,” Collings said. “When it gets excessive, then they’re depriving the public of information the public has a right to know.”

But while Watergate-esque investigative reporting may seem sexy, its implications have very real consequences.

“The biggest change in the media profession is the rush to judgment — the rush to get something out — and I think everyone that’s on the media side of things rushes sometimes because they want to be the first one to get the story,” Ablauf said. “Sometimes there’s going to be things that fall through the cracks that they don’t fact check; they don’t have their information accurate.”

But when reported ethically and accurately, tough stories can be powerful. It can mean the difference between stagnation and progress and between continued misconduct and justice.

On Capitol Hill, behind committee meeting doors, stadium gates and fraternity house fences, secrecy reverberates.

Every gate has its keepers; every day the interactions between sources and journalists continue to pulsate. And the choice remains: silence or speech?

Clarification added: This story has been updated to include that Mark Snyder is a former Daily writer.


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