As Tennessee Football Coach Resigns, News Director Stands Up for Full Coverage

It is energizing and encouraging to see a local news director stand up for his station and his viewers while others are caving in to pressure from a big university athletic department.

Lane Kiffin, the University of Tennessee football coach, recently announced he was leaving after just 14 months — one 7-6 season. When he arrived, he said, “I’m going to be here a long, long time.”

In this YouTube video, you will see Bud Ford, the UT sports information director, demand that TV stations shut off their cameras for the first portion of the news conference (in which Kiffin would not take questions) and then record the second portion of the event. The entire statement would be “on the record,” just not on TV. Everybody could run audio recorders.

When WBIR-TV News Director Bill Shory said he could not agree to turn off his camera, Ford pushed back, saying, “You’re in OUR building.” The Athletics Department building is on the UT campus, so it is worth remembering that the building is actually owned by the state of Tennessee. Shory correctly pointed out that Kiffin is (or was) a state employee.

UT football is of huge interest to Tennesseans. Kiffin’s departure was big news. Students protested. Some blocked a main university road. One person burned a mattress. Others burned UT apparel. Students tried to break into stadium property, while others tried to block Kiffin’s departing car.

The statement was to be delivered around 10 p.m., so deadlines grew tighter and tempers grew short as Shory stood his ground. Competing “journalists” in the room shouted at Shory to back down. Some swore at him. One reporter even suggested covering Shory’s camera lens with paper. You will also see that on the video.

UT’s Ford, repeatedly slapping papers on the table, snarled, “You cut off your nose to spite your face, TV,” just before Kiffin came out to give a 59-second statement, answered no questions and disappeared.

I asked Shory to tell us more about the blowup in the edited e-mail Q&A below. It is the first time Shory has explained his actions.

Al Tompkins: What do you see as the issue here?

Bill Shory: There was certainly a competitive issue. We wanted to make sure the playing field was level for television. Far more importantly, however, there was a basic journalistic principle at stake. We had a public entity telling us that a news event was going to take place in front of us in a public building, but we could only turn [on] our cameras at the end — and only when they told us we could do so. That’s manipulating a news event by allowing the public to read what was said, but not see HOW it was said.

Plus, it opens up everything that’s said to editorial interpretation and further manipulation by Kiffin or the university. “Off camera” may not be exactly the same thing as “off the record,” but it’s certainly less “on the record.” Some might not agree with that analysis, but if it’s not true, why was he so adamant about setting those parameters?

Whether or not you agree that cameras were essential to complete coverage, no one can deny that Kiffin (with the university’s help) was dictating the conditions of the event in order to cast himself in the best possible light. Whether it’s a governor, a mayor or a football coach, all journalists should oppose that kind of manipulation to the greatest degree possible.

How surprised were you that so many other journalists were willing to turn their cameras off at the school’s request?

Shory: The surprising thing is that the most opposition to our stance came from TV and radio people — not print reporters, who had the most to gain from the limitations. In fact, what you can’t hear clearly in the video is a still photographer from the Knoxville News Sentinel who pulled out a Flip camera and started challenging Ford’s statement that we were in “their” building.

To be fair, I didn’t have to worry about a news director chewing me out for coming up empty if things went south. Plus, my general manager and Gannett corporate are very aggressive on issues like this. Frankly, I think most of the news directors and editors in town would have taken the same stance we did if they’d been there.

Were you willing to risk getting nothing in order to get everything on camera?

Shory: It did cross my mind that we could end up as the only outlet without the key soundbite on one of the biggest stories of the year. I decided the issue was important enough to take that risk.

It seems unusual for a news director to be at a press conference. Why were you there?

Shory: The story broke around 8:30 p.m., and I had already left for the day. Once we learned there would be a statement, the first word we got was that the university wouldn’t allow cameras at all. We have great newsroom managers and fantastic leadership from our anchors, so the situation at the station was well in hand.

I headed to campus instead because, for the reasons I just went into, we figured I was in the best position to fight the restrictions. I spent the entire 20-minute drive on the phone to everyone I could think of — all the way to the UT president’s office — hoping to get a resolution and avoid the kind of showdown that ended up playing out.

It seems that it is becoming more and more difficult to cover college sports, especially big-time college sports. Tell me some of the other restrictions you have to deal with in covering the Vols.

Shory: One point of controversy has been the SEC’s new guidelines for media credentials. Lots of media groups, including Gannett, objected to the first draft because it prohibited everything from streaming news conferences to tweeting about a game. The SEC’s revised rules were better, but we still don’t consider the matter closed.

This particular issue had been brewing for a while, which was one reason I immediately got involved. UT has occasionally limited live coverage of various interviews in the past, and the issue has heated up in the last few weeks as we’ve covered a situation involving the arrest of some basketball players. We knew we were going to have to sit down with the university at some point to try and work out all of the issues surrounding media appearances. Unfortunately, the Kiffin resignation came up first, and we ended up dealing with access issues during the heat of a breaking story. I wish we could have avoided that.

However, I think the fact that we haven’t fought other restrictions harder was exactly what led to this situation. We’ve allowed an environment to exist in which Kiffin would dictate his ridiculous conditions. Ford would actually think they were reasonable and then we’d go along with that.

So we all saw what was on YouTube. Is there anything else we need to see or know to understand this event?

Shory: One thing I think people might not understand is that Ford made it clear Kiffin was never going to answer questions, whether we agreed to the off-camera portion or not. You can’t avoid the media forever, though. We sent [our] sports director to L.A. for Kiffin’s news conference the next day, where we knew he’d have to take questions. We were the only station that was able to give East Tennesseans a voice by demanding answers to the questions they had been asking. The funny thing is, he actually gave pretty decent responses. Too bad he didn’t do that in Knoxville. It would have saved us a lot of money and everyone a lot of trouble.

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I say bravo to Bill Shory. Bravo to any journalist willing to stand up to one of the biggest employers in his town, willing to risk reprisals, willing to take the scorn of competitors. Kiffin should have answered questions. Anybody who wanted to should have been allowed to air it live. It is a public school and it is the public’s business.

By the way, if you’ve never read a coach’s contract, take a look at Kiffin’s [PDF]. In addition to the salary, there is a shoe endorsement deal, TV contract and more.

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