Two swings and two misses

If it’s true that hell has no fury like a woman scorned, then recent events show that a scorned media runs a close second.

The Fargo Forum took a tawdry cheap-shot at Grand Forks District Judge Lawrence Jahnke for a ruling he made in North Dakota’s lawsuit against the NCAA. The Grand Forks Herald singled out UND’s administration in general and Phil Harmeson, vice president for general administration, in particular for “obsessive secrecy” regarding athletic director Tom Buning’s resignation. In both cases, the media’s ire is off target.

Judge Jahnke’s ruling to keep the documents sealed in the lawsuit against the NCAA was immediately followed by a front-page story in the Forum about the judge’s membership in UND’s Golden Feather Club in the early 60s when he attended the university as an undergraduate. The newspaper also ran an editorial cartoon showing Jahnke with “Go Sioux!” written across the back of his judicial robes.

While I agreed with the Forum’s position that the records should have been open to the public, portraying Jahnke as a closet Sioux fan was an obvious low blow. It would have been different if UND and the state had supported closing the records, but the exact opposite was true. It was the NCAA that fought to keep them sealed. Therefore, tarring Jahnke with the brush of favoritism doesn’t even make sense, but that didn’t stop the Forum from extracting its pound of flesh for a ruling that went against the media.

In the case of Buning’s resignation, I agree that there were mistakes made, but they came from many different quarters, beginning with Buning himself. Both the Herald and the Forum have criticized UND’s administration for the paucity of information released regarding the events surrounding Buning’s departure. Such criticism is, at best, disingenuous.

It didn’t take much of a sleuth to deduce that North Dakota University System employee privacy policy and the federal Family Medical Leave Act prevented UND from providing an explanation for Buning’s sudden absence. UND’s administration couldn’t say anything without violating state policy and federal law on employee privacy rights.

 Yes, it’s disconcerting to not know how a public institution is handling turmoil with a high-profile position such as the athletic director. Again, my preference is for openness, especially where my tax dollars and my children’s education are involved.  However, the Herald does its readers, UND and itself a disservice by failing to even mention the primary reason for the secrecy surrounding Buning’s sudden departure.

 Would the media have approved if UND had violated Buning’s privacy rights? I doubt it. And how is it that the one person who could have explained what was happening and why – Buning – escapes all criticism in the Herald’s editorial?

This is not to absolve UND’s administration of responsibility for the mistakes it made in handling the Buning situation. The greatest error was in not publicly addressing problems in the athletic department when they first came to light. But even if that had happened, it’s entirely possible that the outcome would have been the same.

Any objective analysis of events would reveal a variety of factors that played roles in the less-than-satisfactory resolution of Buning’s tenure at UND. Some of them were of his making, some came from outside influences and some came from within UND.

So while I understand the media’s disdain for secrecy at public institutions and its desire to discourage secretive behavior by public officials, I also know that it has powerful remedies at its disposal, such as appealing Jahnke’s ruling to the North Dakota Supreme Court and using the state open records law.

Unfairly labeling and scapegoating people trying to do their jobs under difficult conditions only serves to foster distrust and discourage the very openness and cooperation the media claims to desire.

One thought on “Two swings and two misses”

  1. As usual, PCM is the voice of reason (and the sources thereof), as opposed to certain journalists, who publish rubbish wrongly.

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