Monday, January 30, 2012

NBC Nightly News Protects Yale QB Patrick Witt

Last Nov. 7, Nightly News correspondent Anne Thompson reported a glowing story about Yale quarterback Patrick Witt and the difficult choice he had to make between attending the interview for a Rhodes Scholarship and playing in the Harvard-Yale game, both of which would take place on Nov. 19. This story was a fawning two-and-a-half minute puff piece that made Witt seem like a combination of Captain America and Tim Tebow. A week later, Nightly News did a follow-up story (oh, how they love follow-up stories) in which we were told that Witt was withdrawing his Rhodes Scholarship application so he could play in the game against Harvard. What a great guy! Let's be clear--the ONLY reason Nightly News reported these stories is because the Harvard-Yale game would be airing on NBC Universal's Versus network (now known as the NBC Sports Network). Neither Brian Williams nor Anne Thompson cared the slightest bit about Patrick Witt or the choice he had to make. They were simply promoting an NBC property. This "news story" was nothing more than a two-and-a-half minute commercial for the Harvard-Yale game on Versus. That's not surprising. Virtually every story that airs on Nightly News comes with some sort of hidden agenda.

Last Friday and Saturday, The New York Times ran stories about Patrick Witt. According to the stories (both written by Richard Perez-Pena), at the time Witt voluntarily withdrew his Rhodes application, he "was no longer a contender for the Rhodes." That is because, "Several days earlier, according to people involved on both sides of the process, the Rhodes Trust had learned through unofficial channels that a fellow student had accused Witt of sexual assault. The Rhodes trust informed Yale and Witt that his candidacy was suspended unless the University decided to re-endorse it." The Times also reported that Witt had been arrested twice, information that might have caused the Rhodes evaluation committee to reject Witt's candidacy if they had known about it. According to the Times, "On Feb. 28, 2010, after an altercation over his being denied entry to Toad's Place, a nightclub near campus, Witt was charged by the New Haven police with third-degree criminal trespass and later paid a $90 fine on a lesser charge, creating a public disturbance." He had also been arrested On Dec. 9, 2007 while enrolled at the University of Nebraska for signing in to a residence hall under a false name, going upstairs without waiting for an escort, pushing and threatening a student official who tried to stop him and then running away from a police officer. (That information was paraphrased from the Times article.) "He was charged with obstructing government operations, which was dismissed when he completed a diversion program, the Lancaster County, Neb. attorney said."

Did Nightly News report this new information about Patrick Witt? Of course not. One obvious reason is because the Harvard-Yale game has already been played so Nightly News has no reason to promote it. But another reason they did not report this new information is that Brian Williams does not like to admit that Nightly News was wrong about a story. If the article is true, Nightly News was wrong about Witt's character and about his reasons for withdrawing his Rhodes candidacy. Brian Williams or Anne Thompson would have to do a huge mea culpa and admit that they had completely misjudged Witt. And everyone knows that Brian Williams does not do mea culpas. Of course, it is certainly possible that Witt is completely innocent of the sexual assault charges against him. But nevertheless, Nightly News should have at least reported the charges.

But there is another question here: Did the Nightly News producers know about Witt's sexual assault accusation and arrests before they aired one or both of their stories? Unfortunately, that question cannot be answered. But there is precedent for Nightly News failing to report information until it after was revealed by another source. On Jan. 20, 2009, Nightly News reported extensively on Pres. Obama's inauguration, including the performance by Yo-Yo Ma's quartet. But three days later, the Times reported that because of the cold weather, the quartet had not actually been playing--instead, they pretended to play (or "finger-synched") to pre-recorded music. The Times article also reported that the NBC producers were informed at the time that Yo-Yo Ma and his musicians were not actually playing because of the cold weather. But on Friday, Jan. 23, after the Times article came out, Brian Williams reported the "finger-synching" story. Brian had obviously known three days earlier that Ma was not playing live, but his feigned on-air surprise over the incident was reminiscent of Capt. Renault's famous line from "Casablanca": "I am shocked--SHOCKED--to find that gambling is going on in here!"

So if Nightly News would cover up the Yo-Yo Ma "finger-synching" incident, there's every reason to suspect that they would also cover up the fact that Patrick Witt's Rhodes Scholarship candidacy had already been withdrawn by the Rhodes evaluation committee even as Witt claimed that he was voluntarily withdrawing in order to play against Harvard. Did Nightly News conceal information about Witt on the days they were reporting the story? We'll never know. But at the very least, they should have reported the new information when it came out in the Times last Friday. That would have been the ethical thing to do. But, of course, Brian Williams is motivated by ratings, not ethics.

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