Thursday, January 15, 2009

Podolak's Photo

January 15, 2009, 9:30 a.m.

Here Comes Everybody

Eddie Podolak, a one-time outstanding University of Iowa Hawkeye and NFL football player and Learfield Sports commentator, has resigned, following the blog posting of photos of him with a young woman at a party in Tampa, where the Iowa football team played (and won) in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day. See Tom Witosky, "Photos of Podolak partying upset Iowa AD Barta," Des Moines Register, January 10, 2009, and Randy Peterson, "Iowa football: Podolak retires from radio duties," Des Moines Register, January 14, 2009; Andy Hamilton, "Ed Podolak to Retire From Broadcasting," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 15, 2009.

The blogs posting the pictures appear to be associated with fans of the Hawkeyes' rival, the Cyclones of Iowa State. See, e.g., "Cyclone Fanatic" and "Ball Hype."

As of this morning (January 15) the Register's January 14 story about the resignation had some 75 comments from readers. The focus of most-to-all of them was on Podolak's behavior, whether it was utterly unacceptable or within bounds, Podolak's abilities as a football player and popularity as a commentator, whether he had in fact been fired by UI Athletic Director Gary Barta and, if so, whether that was an over reaction -- along with the usual ad hominum comments about Barta and by those making comments about each other.

Those issues, at least some of which are quite significant, are not the subject of this blog entry. Its focus is, rather, (1) journalistic ethics, (2) defamation and privacy, (3) the impact of digitization, and (4) what Clay Shirky characterizes as, in the title of his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Penguin Press, 2008).

1. Journalistic Ethics: Learfield, the University of Iowa, and the selection of sports announcers. Blaming the media for one's misfortunes is commonplace -- especially among losing politicians. But contrary to media critics' assertions "journalistic ethics" is not an oxymoron. The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics. It provides, among many other things, that "Journalists should,"
— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
— Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. . . .
— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.
In other words, if Podolak isn't paid by the University of Iowa -- and at least he doesn't seem to appear on the UI's salaries list -- how does it come to pass that whether he continues to work, or not, for Learfield Sports is a matter of concern to the University's Athletic Director? Sure, just like Sarah Palin has her opinions about Katie Couric, Gary Barta might very well have opinions about various sports reporters, print and broadcast. But this is being talked about as an issue of whether Barta "fired" Podolak or whether he just resigned. Andy Hamilton, whose Press-Citizen story is linked from the top of this entry, reports Barta as saying, "We’re going to be looking for somebody, frankly, that does what Ed was able to do." Doesn't that kind of sound like Barta will be hiring a Learfield employee?

If Podolak is in fact a journalist, of sorts, on the payroll of a broadcaster, isn't it an ethical issue if the broadcaster and reporter permit the subject being covered to dictate the terms of that coverage?

Now I would be the first to concede that I am unfamiliar with whatever the terms of the Learfield Sports-University of Iowa relationship may be (presumably contained in a contract of some sort). And I am equally uninformed about how sports reporters think of themselves; maybe they, their editors and publishers, don't consider them "reporters" or "journalists" at all, and thus the SPJ Ethics standards are inapplicable. Or maybe print sports reporters are journalists, but on-air radio and TV sports reporters are not journalists. Maybe it's considered expected and appropriate that they be paid by -- or otherwise have an affiliation of some sort, or be capable of being fired by -- one or another team. Maybe they are supposed to be a part of the cheer leading squad.

But somehow I can't imagine the Press-Citizen accepting an arrangement in which the University could dictate which print reporters would cover the athletic program -- but then I'm occasionally naive.

Not knowing those things, I'm not criticizing anybody. But I was perplexed by the involvement of the University's Athletic Director in the hiring and potentially firing -- indeed having anything to say about -- who does and does not report on (or cheer lead on the radio for) Hawkeye football games covered by an independent broadcaster, Learfield Sports. The Learfield Sports Web site has this to say about "Hawkeye Sports Properties":
Hawkeye Sports Properties (HSP), a property of Learfield Sports, is the official multi-media rights holder for the University of Iowa Athletics. HSP presents the excitement, color and pageantry of college athletics through advertising, marketing and promotional opportunities aimed at making an impact on your business by reaching the loyal Hawkeye fans and alumni throughout the state of Iowa.
I would assume that the Wall Street Journal would not let the Bank of America CEO pick which reporter covers their acquisition of Merrill Lynch, or the Washington Post let Congressman Barney Frank pick which reporter covers his role in promoting Bailout II.

So why should the Iowa football team be able to pick which on-air personalities describe their prowess on the football field?

I guess this is one I'll have to leave to my colleagues in the UI's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Comments anyone?

2. Defamation and privacy. No lengthy essay from me this morning on these subjects, except to note that the Register chose not to show the picture/s in question because the young woman was unidentified and the paper couldn't be confident she was a "public figure." Podalak presumably would be. Note also, as did some of the comments on the Register's story, that public figures need to be more circumspect about their behavior, and are more likely to be photographed, because there is both more legitimate and illegitimate public curiosity about their lives and behavior.

3. Impact of digitization. The impact of a digital photograph on Podolak -- loss of job, major media coverage, embarrassment -- is reminiscent of former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld's reponse to the photos from Abu Ghraib in his U.S. Senate testimony: "There are people running around with digital cameras, taking these unbelievable pictures, sending them out . . .." Wolf Blitzer Reports staff, "Rumsfeld testifies before Senate Armed Services Committee," CNN, May 7, 2004.

In other words, the problem was not what was done at Abu Ghraib, the problem was the online distribution of pictures of what was done at Abu Ghraib. Similarly, one suspects that, without the party pictures of Prodolak, the events themselves would not have been reported -- or, if they were, would have had much less impact.

Not only are there single-purpose digital "cameras" as such, now with the convergence of digital devices and technologies of all kinds there are also "digital cameras" in everything from cell phones to laptop and hand held computers (PDAs) -- millions of them.

Just one more example of the way digitization (along with the 99.9%-off sale) is changing our lives, social relations, and what the law calls a "reasonable expectation of privacy."

4. Here Comes Everybody. Clay Shirky's new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Penguin Press, 2008), is a must-read for anyone in the academic community, business, government or politics who needs to understand and function within an Internet-driven Information Age.

This is not about to become a book review, or summary of his thesis and dozens of examples. It will suffice for our purposes to note the sub-title: "The Power of Organizing Without Organizations." The Internet (and its "architecture" that enables all kinds of software to run on it) makes it possible for single individuals to organize, share information, and take action -- to have an impact -- without being directed as participants in a hierarchical organization. "Meet-Up" is just software, used by whoever wants to use it; there's no Meet-Up, Inc., CEO, with a staff of screeners to seek and select those who will and will not be permitted to have groups. Ditto for Yahoo! Groups. Wikipedia is also just software that has evolved into a popular encyclopedia created by a number of otherwise disconnected individuals who write, and revise, its content. Individuals' Web sites, blogs, Facebook and My Space pages, online photo albums and YouTube have proliferated the number of still and moving images that can be uploaded by, and potentially available to, anyone with Internet access and curiosity.

Podolak's problem -- or at least its photographic element -- is but one of the more recent and dramatic local examples of the consequences of letting everyone into the game in a digital, Internet Age.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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1 comment:

Julia said...

If I recall correctly from listening to the radio broadcasts of the wrestling team, there is a blurb during the broadcast that the announcers are employed by Learfield Sports with the approval of the University of Iowa athletic department. So for game broadcasters, apparently the UI has a say in who calls their games. I'm not sure, but I believe most college and professional sports teams have the same arrangement for their television and radio game-day broadcasters, at least those not employed by national broadcasting outlets such as ESPN or Fox Sports, etc.

I think there is a feeling that game broadcasters are not really journalists in the sense that newspaper and television news/sports reporters are. I'm not saying I agree with that, but I do believe that is the general perception.