Kentucky journalists displayed remarkable restraint in handling the allegation of rape against University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, the leading reporters on the story said at an SPJ meeting on the University of Kentucky campus Sept. 21.
Andrew Wolfson of The Courier-Journal and Candyce Clifft of Louisville’s WDRB-TV joined sports columnist Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader for a panel discussion sponsored by SPJ’s Bluegrass Professional chapter and the UK Campus chapter.
Wolfson and Clifft said the woman making the allegations, Karen Sypher, proved to be unreliable for several reasons. “Who gives their rapist a ride home?” Wolfson asked, noting that Sypher acknowledged taking Pitino home after they had sex in a closed restaurant several years earlier.
Clifft revealed that her station, Channel 41, had Sypher take a polygraph test, on the recommendation of the station’s attorney, who said in effect, “You’re a little more protected if you get sued.”
The test, taken after Clifft interviewed Sypher, proved to be inconclusive. “It did tell us to be very cautious,” Clifft said. “We were inclined to believe her to start with,” probably because of the tradition to believe rape victims, she said.
When the station approached Pitino for comment, he and the university issued a news release saying he had reported an extortion attempt to federal officials. Clifft said she thought the university acted because another station was about to break the story.
WDRB then identified Sypher as the person under investigation, but didn’t air the interview because “We couldn’t substantiate the claims she was making,” Clifft said.
Sypher has been indicted on charges of extortion and lying to the FBI and has pleaded not guilty. She did not report the alleged rape to police until the scandal erupted, and when the investigators concluded that her allegations were not credible, the investigative file became subject to release under the Kentucky Open Records Act.
The law doesn’t allow standing requests for records when they become available. Wolfson wrote the first story based on the police investigative file, and said he got it simply by filing a request when he returned from a vacation.
Before the file was released, Wolfson said, he pushed to do a story on why Sypher wasn’t believable, because readers told the paper’s reporters and sports columnists that they were improperly protecting Pitino.
When the videotape of Sypher’s police interview was released, Clifft’s station aired “a short, benign segment,” she said.
Wolfson said Louisville news outlets focused not so much on the allegations as on why they were probably not true, and “showed remarkable restraint.” He said it would have been interesting to see what the scandal-oriented New York Post or similar tabloids would have done if it had been a local story for them. Because Pitino once coached in New York, the Post and other New York media have taken an interest.
“Local media’s been a lot more kind than national media,” Clifft said.
Wolfson gave Clifft most of the credit for reporting the story, quoting Louisville lawyer and commentator John Dyche, who told him, “She’s the one who moved the ball 99 yards down the field. You just got it across the goal line.”
Al Cross is a past national president of SPJ. He is currently co-adviser of the University of Kentucky student chapter.