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Integrity a two-way street

Dec 19, 2010, 8:45 PM EST

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There is nothing straightforward about the circumstances surrounding the death of St. Mary’s freshman Lizzy Seeberg, who committed suicide nine days after accusing an Irish football player of sexual assault. That accusation was first reported by the Chicago Tribune, who has been the paper of record on this story since initially reporting it for its Sunday edition on November 21st, a day after the Irish defeated Army in Yankee Stadium 28-3.

Again, there’s little that seems straightforward about this story. That Notre Dame and its independent police force have shared little information with the Seeberg family (or the Tribune) hasn’t helped the University’s case in the court of public opinion. That the 19-year-old Seeberg had long suffered serious bouts of depression, taken antidepressants, and battled thoughts of suicide before her accusations don’t make things easier for the family or the prosecution. And while St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak declined to file any charges after spending a month reviewing a “voluminous report” turned over by Notre Dame to the county prosecutors, the story has already been framed, not just by the Tribune’s one-sided reporting, but some horrific editorializing, turning a tragic story with no winners into a melodrama that positioned the Tribune to play the role of scrappy underdog against the monolithic and conspiratorial Notre Dame. It might be an excellent angle to sell papers, but it’s a great disservice to all parties involved.

That the Tribune’s reporting on the incident has been one-sided shouldn’t be all that surprising — only one-side of the story is talking about the incident. But the fact that the Tribune has published three different opinion pieces on the tragedy, all sharing the same viewpoint, is a major cause for concern.

In between columns name-checking guys like Rahm Emmanuel and Geraldo Rivera, and tongue-and-cheek exposes on revolving-door “ride poachers,” Tribune columnist John Kass took Notre Dame to task for failing to live up to its name when dealing with the Declan Sullivan and Seeberg tragedies.

Kass points out that the Virgin Mary, who Notre Dame was named after, “wasn’t much for spin. She didn’t lawyer up. She didn’t hide behind bureaucratic walls.” Kass failed to mention that the Virgin Mary didn’t completely avoid the other side of the story either.

While Kass chooses to label Notre Dame’s responses “public relations spin and bureaucratic shielding of liability,” he conveniently leaves out Father John Jenkins’ statement of responsibility for the death of Sullivan. He also conveniently ignores the multiple releases from the University explaining how and why they’ve handled the Seeberg investigation the way they have, and all but calling the initial Tribune report false and misleading.

While schlocky writing isn’t necessarily mediocre journalism, another Tribune columnist, David Haugh, took his second swipe today at the University over the Seeberg tragedy. While his first column was filled with righteous indignation that only subtly abused the truth, his most recent work raised the bar by misappropriating a Brian Kelly quote to help fit his column better.

In a column entitled “Integrity is wrong word in school’s handling of Seeberg case,” Haugh opened his column with this (bold lettering added by me for emphasis):

Curious to see in person how the most visible leader at Notre Dame defended the most famous college football program in America from charges of hypocrisy — and worse — I came Friday to hear coach Brian Kelly.

And was astonished by what I heard.

I shouldn’t have been.

Kelly used the word “integrity” four times in 30 seconds while answering a question about support for a player accused of sexually attacking a St. Mary’s College student who killed herself 10 days later.

If you don’t have integrity, what else do you have?” Kelly began. “I’ve got a family to raise. I’ve got kids. I have a football family here. If there’s no integrity in what you do … I’d have been in a different business a long time ago.

“Integrity is probably, for me, the only thing that keeps me going in this business. Sometimes misinformation and not having the right facts drives you crazy. So you have to have something that you hang your hat on. It’s always, for me, been doing the right thing. And integrity.”

As the Notre Dame coach invoked all that was wholesome and good about the guys in gold helmets, the cyber hunt to identify the player and poke into his past continued. The Tribune is not naming the player because he was not charged with a crime.

In what has become a habitual exercise in framing the narrative, Haugh turned Kelly’s comments about integrity into something that would help his column, not into the response of the question he actually asked.

Here’s the question that Kelly was actually asked:

“Your program obviously is scrutinized, and my newspaper has been critical of the way things have been handled, other people may be as well, do you feel just as strongly now than you did a month ago in terms of defending the type of player that you recruit, and the type of process for situations like this?”

And here’s the response Kelly gave:

“If you don’t have integrity, what else do you have? I’ve got a family to raise, I’ve got kids, I have a football family here. If there’s no integrity in what you do, then I’d have been in a different business a long time ago. So, integrity is probably for me the only thing that keeps me going in this business. Because sometimes misinformation, and not having the right facts drives you crazy. You have to have something to hang your hat on. And it’s always for me been doing the right thing and integrity.”

Kelly’s answer reads quite differently when you consider it a response to what Haugh actually asked him, not as an act of support for the accused player. Maybe the most disappointing part of Haugh’s column wasn’t what he wrote, but what he didn’t, leaving out Kelly’s response to his final question, when the reporter asked the head coach if he felt “vindicated” that the prosecutor decided not to file charges.

“Boy, I don’t think I’ve ever felt a vindication in such a very unfortunate time,” Kelly said. “A young girl lost her life. I can’t imagine how tough that is on the parents. I don’t think there were ever those feelings as much as completing the process, and I’m committed to the way the University handles the process. They’re thorough and we’re all part of that process.”

Kelly’s comments are probably the best encapsulation of what’s actually transpired in the days since Lizzy Seeberg took her own life. There are no winners here. Not the Seeberg family, who grieve the loss of a daughter and struggle to find answers in a process that’s guarded by laws that protect both sides of a sexual accusation. Not Notre Dame, who deals with their second high-profile tragedy of the football season. And not the Chicago Tribune, who had to sacrifice their journalistic ethics to get the most out of a story, where only one-side openly cooperated.

Two days after the Tribune broke their initial story, Janet M. Botz, Vice President in the Office of Public Affairs and Communications had this to say in a statement released to all faculty, staff, and students at the University.

“It is and always will be a central tenet of Notre Dame’s mission to learn the truth and to act in accordance with it. As you read stories about any matter that involves our careful and thorough process, I urge you not to arrive at any conclusions until all the facts are known. Only through a serious, informed and fair process can justice be served. Such a process will always be our focus.”

That process means staying quiet while the Tribune continues to throw rocks at the Golden Dome, even if it means taking the bumps and bruises associated.

Funny, that sounds an awful lot like integrity.

  1. olemantj - Dec 27, 2010 at 9:43 PM

    Thank you, Keith. Your article shows the lack of integrity Mr. Haugh has had since his days with the South Bend Tribune. I have no respect for that man as a feature writer or as a columnist. His writing style is fine (for fiction) but his lack of attention to detail/facts is rampant. The story should be pointing out the University’s responsibility to ALL parties involved, which is the right to privacy. Remember……Ms. Seeberg’s name was NOT released by the university either…..but by her parents. The questions I have regarding this tragic situation are why did she take her life only a few days after the incident purportedly took place and where is the usual suicide note.
    And for those who are trying to tie the assault investigation to the Sullivan tragedy are totally off base as well. Nowhere has any media reporting on that terrible tragedy has ever asked the following question: despite Mr. Sullivan being very expressive regarding the danger of the situation both before going up on the lift and while on the lift, at no time has it been reported if he asked not to go up or, once up on the lift, if he could come down because of the danger. We have a thirst to convict people/institions for everything that happens to us in our lives. Very rarely do we ever take responsiblity for our own faults….it’s someone else’s fault I am in my situation. And be careful when you act as attorney, judge and jury before all the facts are determined.

  2. notredamfan558 - Dec 28, 2010 at 3:57 AM

    I’ve been a Notre Dame supporter all my life, both my parents are alumni of this school. Even though the investigation is not fully complete, and many details are hazy, bashing someone who committed suicide and their grieving family is beyond me. Newspapers always take one side or another, as do TV stations, and none of them ever report only the facts, this should be well-known by now. People should be left to say whatever they want, and even though Seeberg’s family might have bashed the university, he did so due to his distraught of losing his daughter. Anyone who experiences this kind of tragedy, whatever the facts, will do the same.

  3. pwt3 - Jan 24, 2011 at 8:09 PM

    “People should be left to say whatever they want, and even though Seeberg’s family might have bashed the university, he did so due to his distraught of losing his daughter. Anyone who experiences this kind of tragedy, whatever the facts, will do the same.”

    Great. So if your daughter commits suicide you can slander anyone you want. Free pass. Good to know.

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