UPDATED: Scandals, Journalism and Where You Went to College: Should it Matter?

This week's college admissions scandal puts colleges and writers in a tough spot

(UPDATED: Things move fast! Last week I wrote about the complexities of journalists reporting and opining on the colleges they attended. Um, it's a minefield. After my story LAT sportswriter Arash Markasi, a USC grad and occasional adjunct professor, penned a column about his scandal-plagued alma mater. Some saw it as a conflict of interest. It did not go well on Twitter. Or at Deadspin. Here is my original story with some additional thoughts.)

The first thing you should know about Dylan Hernandez’s take-down of USC athletics in the Los Angeles Times is that it is excellent, accurate and needed to be written.

USC was the “biggest loser” in Tuesday’s college admissions corruption scandal and now Tommy Trojan needs two T-bone steaks to drape over two black eyes.

That’s on you, USC. Deal with it.

The second thing you should know is that Dylan graduated from UCLA.

This does NOT mean he can’t provide an excellent and accurate accounting. In fact, he did.

It does mean I want to know, in my print edition, as a reader, that he graduated from UCLA.

I’ve been saying this for years: journalism and college sports don’t mix well because most writers and columnists attended university.

We are taught in J-school and newsrooms to separate our feelings from our fight songs and it almost always works even if you think we are fake-news hackers.

Yet, where you attended school shades and colors everything—it’s only human nature.

Some of the finest journalists I’ve ever admired and known came out of Northwestern, USC, Stanford, UCLA and Missouri.

Turn on ESPN, or open the Los Angeles Times. I know where they all went to college, but do you?

Should it matter?

In 1995, long hapless Northwestern football made a miraculous run to the Rose Bowl. The mantra was “Taking The Purple to Pasadena.”

It was a special, even if the Wildcats lost to USC.

Northwestern fans (and journalism grads) poured into Pasadena by the thousands and dozens.

In the glistening light of the Arroyo Seco, on a sun-splashed day, Northwestern journalists with game credentials took a “team photo” on the field.

I cringed a bit.

I know for a fact all those Northwestern journos, professional as they were, wanted Northwestern to win.

Is that wrong? Of course not, but it can also, without full disclosure, color game commentary.

UPDATED: Back to Arash Markasi: He wrote a perfectly fine column about the USC admissions scandal from the perspective of being a USC graduate. Markasi interviewed embattled AD Lynn Swann and asked the appropriate questions. Swann said he was "blindsided" by the news that USC was center stage in another FBI probe on his watch.

The problem to some in Twitterland was that Markasi did not initially disclose that he taught a class at USC. Should he have disclosed that? Yes. Markasi got skewered by some and that led to a Twitter food fight that led to a Deadspin story claiming Markasi threw a "temper tantrum." That led to more words and heated discussion. I told you this was messy!

More: Award-winning LAT columnist Bill Plaschke wrote a scathing rebuke of USC and called for Swann to be fired. Plaschke did this with the authority and comfort of having attended Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. No conflict of interest there.)

I remain convinced where you went to college matters in the highest boardrooms in America. I guarantee you, somewhere today, a Michigan CEO has passed over a qualified job candidate from Ohio State.

It’s just who we are.

For 20 years, I covered national college football for the Los Angeles Times.

I can’t tell you how many times I was called a UCLA bootlicker AND a USC kiss-ass.

The best weapon in my “I don’t give shit about your school” tool kit was my diploma from Cal State Fullerton, which dropped football in the early 1990s.

Journalists covering colleges need to be diligent and mindful-and it still might not matter if the reader finds out you attended his arch-rival.

Bill Dwyre, my sports editor for 25 years at the LA Times, attended Notre Dame.

Bill was the greatest SE a writer could have had and should have won the Pulitzer Prize for his orchestration of 1984 Olympic coverage in Los Angeles.

Again, I covered college football in the hometown of USC and UCLA.

Dwyre never, not once, told me how or what to write about Notre Dame or any other school.

Did I know my boss, in charge of my career and my raises, graduated from Notre Dame as I was typing stories from the South Bend press box where Grantland Rice (Vanderbilt) once roamed?

You bet.

As a Fullerton grad, though, it was easier for me to take a deep breath, often on deadline, and say “Ok, what happen here?”

My next sports editor, Randy Harvey, was also great but I also knew he was a Texas Longhorn.

The current LAT sports editor, for what it’s worth, is also a Texas grad.

None of this is wrong or illegal, but it makes me take account when a story breaks involving several universities.

Once, at the LA Times, a news-side editor wanted me to do a hit piece on a college coach who was in NCAA trouble. It seemed out-of-context to me and I fudged my way out of it. I did some digging and sure enough, the editor graduated from the rival school.

None of this means stories shouldn’t be written—I just want disclaimers and caution flags.

Tuesday’s college corruption story was a minefield that pitted USC vs. UCLA and Yale vs. Harvard.

Stanford’s “sailing” coach was fired, which handed rival Berkeley all the fodder it needs for the next five years.

But do I want a journalist from Cal to tell me how bad this looks for The Farm?

I agreed with every word of Dylan Hernandez’s column on USC:

The headline nailed it: “Drowning in Corruption.”

Dylan wrote: “Trojan Nation learned Tuesday that USC’s athletic department was something worse than comically inept. It was also brazenly corrupt.”

USC needs to hear that…but maybe not, today, from a Bruin.

Here’s a thought: at the end of every story on college sports, after the writer’s email, include his (or her) college.

Mine works great in times of major college scandal: Dufresne, Cal State Fullerton, class of ’81.

Comments (4)

And while all this is going on no one is paying attention to Lisa Page’s sworn testimony that the Justice Department of the previous administration told the FBI not to indict Hillary Clinton when they had the evidence to do so. This college entrance scam story is covering up one of the most important political stories involving the corruption of one of the most powerful political families in the US. Just a coincidence, I suppose.


Although Humans are guided by emotion rather than by reason, easily swayed by trivial details, and inadequately sensitive to differences between low and negligibly low probabilities, Dylan Hernandez’ being from UCLA doesn’t nullify the points he made in his blistering of USC.


Very thought-provoking column. . . Made me think about the Fresno State column I wrote for TMG. I believe the full disclosure came in the headline!

Chris Dufresne
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Chris Dufresne
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