Wrong About Head Hog, Then Getting It Right

Wrong About Head Hog, Then Getting It Right
News traveled fast of Derrick Gragg's hiring as University of Arkansas athletic director – even though that news turned out to be completely wrong.

Jason Brown of The Communications Group has a bedrock rule in public relations: “If you mess up, ‘fess up.”

That’s precisely what KARK News Director Austin Kellerman did last week after his Pig Trail Nation brand jumped the gun, reporting on Nov. 30 that the University of Arkansas would name the University of Tulsa’s Derrick Gragg as athletic director to replace Jeff Long.

“Breaking: Gragg to Be Named New Arkansas AD, Sources Say,” read the headline, which was both right and wrong. Sources said so, all right, and other news outlets reported it, but the underlying message was untrue. The Razorbacks named Hunter Yurachek of the University of Houston as its new AD last Monday.

In these days when “fake news” is hollered daily, usually about reports that are perfectly true, errors of fact are particularly painful. But Kellerman rose to the occasion with journalistic integrity.

“We got it wrong,” he wrote in a blog post. He said reporters had relied on inside sources that had never been wrong, but were this time. The sources still weren’t to blame, Kellerman wrote. “At the end of the day, this one comes back on us. We put it out there. We need to take the blame.”

At the same time, Kellerman noted some disarray in the process of filling the two most crucial positions in Razorback sports — Head Football Coach Bret Bielema was fired shortly after Long’s dismissal as AD — and Kellerman speculated that his sources may have been confused on who was calling the shots. “We still have every reason to believe that Gragg was a top candidate for the position and that some key folks felt his hire was imminent.”

Gragg is friendly with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who was clearly Arkansas’ first choice for head coach. Malzahn spurned the Hogs to take an improved offer from Auburn, clearing the way for Chad Morris. Once Malzahn was out of the picture, some Razorback followers surmised, Gragg may have lost some luster.

“We pride ourselves on being right. This time we weren’t,” Kellerman wrote. “To those who trust us for their Razorback news, we apologize, and we’re learning from this.” The key lesson, he suggested, is that reporters must work harder in recognizing nuances, “reading the room and layering our sources.”

Competition to break Razorback news is fierce. But as TV journalist Brit Hume is credited as saying, it’s nice to have an exclusive but terrible to be exclusively wrong. That wasn’t the case for Kellerman. KATV, Little Rock’s ABC affiliate, also reported that Gragg’s hiring was imminent, citing its “content partners” KFSM-TV of Fort Smith/Fayetteville and KABZ-FM, the Buzz.

KABZ’s Trey Schaap, a sports scoop specialist, was the first to report that Gragg was in, and as doubts arose he turned to Twitter.

“[UA Chancellor Joseph E.] Steinmetz wants Gragg as AD but got pushback when he was ready to announce,” Schaap wrote. Veteran northwest Arkansas sportscaster Mike Irwin theorized that Gragg’s name may have been floated as a trial balloon or to smoke out a leaker. Another possibility: A withdrawn candidate had reconsidered and jumped back into the mix.

Other speculation suggested that racial politics may have hurt Gragg, who is black. Gragg’s wife, Sanya, wrote a children’s book, “Momma, Did You Hear the News,” about “the talk” that black parents often have with their children to explain how their race might complicate encounters with the police.

Whatever the case, Kellerman took the time and courage to level with readers and viewers.

“I felt an obligation to the people who trust us for their news,” he told Arkansas Business. “We have to be transparent.”

Kellerman’s apology drew approval from commenters and fellow journalists, along with a little ribbing from the Rock City Times, the satirical site that bills itself as “Arkansas’ second most unreliable news source.” It reported that Fox 16 weatherman Jeff Baskin had apologized for 287 instances of getting the forecast wrong.

Keeping credibility is no laughing matter, however. The New York Times issued a remarkable mea culpa while I was there in 2004, admitting it had been fooled about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Getting that wrong was many magnitudes greater than misidentifying a new athletic director; it helped lead the United States to war.

But all ethical journalists recognize the stakes. Kellerman put it well. “We take pride in holding others accountable. If we make a mistake, we have to hold ourselves accountable. The process isn’t fun or easy, but it has to happen.”