Since I was sportscaster at WTOV-TV in the early 1990s, in my career as a commentator and documentary filmmaker I have specialized in stories where the facts indicate that the news media got it wrong. I witnessed so much journalistic malpractice up close that it is now nearly impossible for me to be stunned by anything that happens in the modern media. However, what the New York Times did on Christmas Day with the Big Red hacking story was so egregious, and potentially even illegal, that it somehow left me temporarily speechless.
Having once spent an entire year with the Big Red team in 1993 for the purposes of writing a book, I feel like I know the town, the program and coach Reno Saccoccia as well as anyone who is not from Steubenville.
My first impression of the original Dec. 16 expose on the original rape case was that it seemed like an odd choice of subject and that it was clear they were trying hard to recreate a Penn State narrative. The story seemed based on the theory (one I strongly disagree with in both instances) that a town's obsession with football success led to a highly successful coach looking the other way when it came to moral or legal transgressions.
The Times story took what had been local news and made it instantly national. It also apparently caught the attention of some highly proficient Internet hackers from Kentucky.
A week after the Times story hit, these hackers broke into a website run by a Big Red booster, which is not directly affiliated with the team or the school. They posted a YouTube video along with a written message, which made numerous unfounded and libelous accusations about the booster.
The video accused numerous minors of being culpable for the rape, implied they would be the targets of violence and threatened to reveal sensitive personal information about them and their families if they did not publicly apologize for their alleged role in the crime.
YouTube had the good sense to take down the video, apparently because it violated its standards since it was effectively a terroristic threat. As of this writing the booster has regained control of the site.
The only "news" which occurred here was that a minor website with no actual affiliation to a major story had been hacked and a corresponding YouTube video had been taken down. This might have been a minor local story in Steubenville, but certainly was not worthy of national attention, especially considering the issues involved with giving some lawbreakers who are making threats the bullhorn and credibility they are seeking.
And yet somehow none of this stopped the New York Times from diving right in and giving the hackers exactly what they wanted.
What the Times did was not only effectively become the mouthpiece for a group making illegal threats via illegal means, but it did so in a way that was highly misleading and inaccurate.
The factual problems with the actual story are many.
First, the headline indicates that the website which was temporarily hacked into was that of the football team's.
That is just not true. The website is simply run by an independent fan.
Second, the article completely buys into the hacker's wildly unsubstantiated claim that they are part of the infamous international hacking group known as Anonymous. The Times appears to use this claim to bolster the newsworthiness of the episode (which is rather ironic since usually being "anonymous" usually diminishes the credibility of a news source), but they willfully ignore significant evidence that this group is not closely affiliated to them.
Third, the Times did nothing to even remotely examine the massive legal issues with what the hackers put out as far as their content. They don't mention that that the hacking was obviously illegal, nor do they even seem aware that they were also in violation of numerous other laws in the realm of intimidating witnesses in a criminal case, extorting testimony, making clearly libelous statements and terroristic threats.
The Times also omitted important information regarding the lack of credibility of this group, which did the hacking. Not only did their content reveal a remarkable lack of knowledge of the actual case, but they even misspelled Steubenville in the title of the original YouTube video.
But the most outrageous act of the Times coverage may been directly linking to the hacker's video as well as their numerous potentially libelous (and frankly nonsensical) statements made on the site of the Big Red booster before it was recaptured by its rightful owner.
What was the possible journalistic purpose of this act and how could it even theoretically override the negative consequences of giving obvious lawbreakers the ability to further harass a community with their threats?
I have spoken to both the reporter and editor at the Times who published the story and both refused to even answer basic questions about their story before rudely hanging up on me (amazingly, the Times reporter did not even attempt to contact the booster, Saccoccia or Steubenville City Schools Superintendent Mike McVey for the hacking story in question.)
I did speak with a prominent prosecutor in Ohio who strongly believes that this situation may have groundbreaking legal ramifications for the media. He believes that it is quite possible that the Times may have effectively "aided and abetted" the disruption of the "orderly administration of justice" and the "extortion of testimony" by a group making terroristic threats.
Regardless if it may somehow be deemed illegal (as a free speech advocate I am extremely torn on such issues), there is no question that the reporting of this story was illegitimate, inaccurate and has caused numerous innocent people to be needlessly harassed during the holiday season.
For all of that there should indeed be an apology, and it should come from the New York Times.
(Ziegler is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker who can be reached at www.johnziegler.com)