Wally Hall of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette shared a tidbit in his column this month that was surely news to action film and TV star Chuck Norris. In an aside, Hall mentioned a social media post about Norris’ death from COVID-19.
Norris, 80, was alive and well.
Hall corrected himself in a subsequent column, but not before several Arkansas journalism colleagues grumbled that he’d fallen for an internet hoax.
Even a single Google search would have revealed the truth, one observer noted. Another said the goof stands in stark contrast to the rule drilled into every reporter of our generation: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
The mistake wasn’t earth-shattering, but it’s a small example of how the digital age has complicated things for old-school sports writers like Hall, whose “Like It Is” column remains the best-known example of the genre in Arkansas after more than 40 years. Admirers note that he’s a true Arkansas guy, born in Searcy and raised in Little Rock, and that he helped the old Arkansas Democrat win the newspaper war over the Arkansas Gazette in the 1980s and early ’90s.
Hall made his name at the Democrat with a fresh look at Arkansas Razorback sports starting in 1979. He was a clear antidote to the rah-rah home team coverage of legendary Arkansas Gazette sports editor Orville Henry. If Henry was a Boswell to the late University of Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles, Hall was the young, not-so-impressionable outsider with a contrarian view.
But times change.
This month’s legal action by fired Razorback football coach Bret Bielema paints Hall as something of a stenographer for the Razorback Foundation, Bielema’s target in a $7 million breach-of-promise lawsuit filed June 12.
Bielema’s filing said part of a Nov. 6 column by Hall was “copied straight from the Foundation’s demand letter and pasted into Mr. Hall’s column,” suggesting that ‘Like It Is’ simply parroted the foundation’s claims.
The “demand letter” mentioned in the suit was a January 2019 communication that the Razorback Foundation, through its attorney, Marshall S. Ney of the Rogers office of Friday Eldredge & Clark LLP, that sought to claw back millions in buyout payments to the fired coach. The letter accused Bielema of breaking promises related to seeking head coaching jobs in college football and reporting those efforts to the foundation.
Bielema is now an assistant coach for the National Football League’s New York Giants, fresh off a similar role with the New England Patriots.
The lawsuit sought to “illustrate that Mr. Hall must have had a copy” of the demand letter. The complaint specified bullet points in the letter — listing four contract provisions it accused Bielema of flouting — that appeared in Hall’s column with only “insignificant” word changes.
The complaint said “the inescapable conclusion” is that before Hall wrote columns on the matter in October and November, “a representative of the Foundation, or someone else acting on its behalf, provided Mr. Hall with a copy of: (a) the Foundation’s Demand Letter; and (b) the e-mail Coach Bielema’s lawyer sent to the Foundation on March 19, 2019,” according to language in the legal filing.
Hall, a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, responded to Arkansas Business via email. He wrote that while the suit suggested he had access to documents he shouldn’t have had, “every document I had our reporter, and I’m sure other reporters, had too. I don’t recall reading anything saying the documents were confidential.”
When asked why he didn’t simply quote the material as having come from the Foundation, Hall replied: “I’m not sure how to answer that question. I wrote a column about the situation between the Razorback Foundation and Bielema. My opinion of the situation. That’s all. The info I had was from documents that had been obtained by the paper via FOI and interviews.”
Bielema and his lawyers added this caveat in a footnote in their filing: “Nothing alleged herein is intended as criticism of Mr. Hall or the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Coach Bielema assumes that Mr. Hall had no reason to believe that his source was using the media in an attempt to pressure Coach Bielema into agreeing to accept roughly half of what he is owed.”