The price of a free press at Kent State? $1 million

Just a week before Kent State was to rename its basketball floor “Cope Court,” alumnus Jason Cope withdrew his $1-million donation. Though neither Cope nor the Athletic Department are offering reasons for this 7-figure change of heart, it’s pretty clear that an investigation by student journalist Doug Brown is at the root of it.

You can read Brown’s story in its entirety, but these two sentences will tell you what you need to know:

Cope was the branch manager of a financial firm that defrauded 190 investors of $8.7 million in late 1999 and early 2000. Cope was one of four defendants required to pay a total of more than $19 million in penalties, according to litigation from the Securities and Exchange Commission and court documents.

Ancient history? Perhaps. Relevant to Cope’s actions in 2012? Perhaps not. Factual? Near as I can tell. The SEC documents are public record, and media reports on the SEC investigation are pretty thorough.

Most folks within journalism circles will argue that Brown had an obligation to report this story. Though Cope wasn’t charged with or convicted of criminal wrongdoing a decade ago, he was in a management position with a firm that defrauded investors of millions. Rightly or wrongly, we are judged by the company we keep.

Scandals involving university athletic departments around the country have prompted closer public scrutiny of their activities in the past few years. And let’s not forget the myriad scandals involving investment bankers and brokerage houses that also fuel public interest in this type of news.

But that doesn’t change the bottom line, does it? Kent State basketball is out a million bucks. And while journalist Brown’s actions appear to be ethical and responsible, you can bet he’ll be on the hot seat come Monday morning. And that’s just wrong.

As I understand it, Cope has rebuilt his life along with several successful business ventures over the past decade. Hell, he’s been successful enough to consider giving $1 million to his alma mater. We need more like him.

Unfortunately, it is Cope’s own actions that will gave this story legs next week. By withdrawing the donation, he pretty much guaranteed that additional media outlets will pursue it. Any PR counselor could have told Cope this was coming.

Leaders in college journalism everywhere, from student editors to J-school directors, are all too familiar with this scenario. They’re called upon to defend the rights of student media all the time. It’s a tough job, because student media operations often are dependent on the funding and support of top university administrators. And those same administrators spend most of their waking hours chasing big donations like the one Cope withdrew last Friday.

Had an authority in the J-school intervened to kill Brown’s story, Kent State Athletics would likely be $1 million richer today. But the free press would be infinitely poorer. To blame a student newspaper for Cope’s actions is beyond asinine. But that’s what’s likely to happen come Monday — at least behind closed doors.

Truth is, Jason Cope and his partners wrote this story a decade ago. Doug Brown merely reported the facts because those facts became relevant in a new context.

Don’t shoot the messenger, guys.¬† Look in the mirror.

Update 1/11/12: Remember what I said about this story growing legs? Props to Doug Brown, as most of the follow-up coverage does little more than re-purpose his content from KentWired. Sign of a job well done.

Columbia Journalism Review
Jim Romenesko
Inside Higher Ed
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Akron Beacon Journal
UPI
LexisNexis Communities

18 thoughts on “The price of a free press at Kent State? $1 million

  1. Thanks, Todd. At least I can count on my family to read this blog!

    Been thinking about this story a lot today. What I can’t understand why the Athletic Department didn’t anticipate it. I mean, it was inevitable — given the the high profile of the case — that someone would raise questions about Mr. Cope’s past. It is naive to think otherwise.

    Good PR counsel is expensive, but like a good lawyer, it’s worth every penny when you need it. It’s a call Kent State Athletics should have made. Let’s hope they have enough sense not to use a student newspaper as their scapegoat.

  2. Well, I’m reading your blog. And I still believe it is one of the best ones out there. (OK. I’ll add the mandatory disclaimer that we’re friends and former colleagues. And also have a fondness for the Steelers and Iron City.)

    Wonder if Kent State’s PR organization was consulted in advance of all this? If so, what advice did it gave? And did anyone listen?

    And did the KSU administration — including the athletic organization staff (most of whom spend their careers in shorts and blowing whistles) really believe this story wouldn’t surface in the Akron Beacon Journal, The Plain Dealer and so on someday? Congrats to the Kent Stater for getting there first. And is that really Cope’s issue — that Kent State student media “broke” the story?

    Also, and totally not related, it is interesting to me how many comments your blog posts get on Facebook. Wonder if there are any lessons here for organizations blogging on their on sites?

    • I notice this a lot, Rob. I promote all my blog posts on Facebook and Twitter, and invariably, Facebook comments outnumber the blog comments several fold. And while Twitter drives some traffic, it’s not significant.

      Blogs, including this one, have lost a lot of clout. No one seems interested in deep discussion or debates in this space anymore — and I didn’t do myself any favors by taking a 6-month hiatus last year!

      I miss the energy of the blogosphere. It’s a victim, I think, of our shrinking digital attention span.

  3. The Daily Kent Stater is an award winning student newspaper. I read it daily. Doug Brown’s article was well researched, well written, and reported factual data in an objective manner. That’s what the Kent State School of Journalism teaches. Your speculation that Mr. Brown will be blamed or made a “scapegoat” is pure fiction and I suspect without any evidence. I believe Mr. Brown handled a very delicate situation in a responsible and professional manner. I can assure you that no one in the university administration or the Athletics department has any intention of making a “scapegoat” of one of our student reporters for doing a job with integrity and making a difficult call in an ethical manner. Opinions will no doubt differ on Mr. Cope’s generous offer to the university and the Athletic Department’s acceptance. That’s understandable. What is not understandable is your accusation that the university intends to “hot seat” or punish Mr. Brown for writing with integrity. Seems to me that even a blog should report the facts and not just speculation.

    • Thanks, Iris. I’m happy to hear that Mr. Brown or the Stater won’t face any retribution. And yes, I was speculating. Bloggers do that to generate conversation about important issues. I’m not a journalist, I’m more of a discussion leader, and this story presented a great case study in public relations right in my backyard.

      My speculation is based on a history of student journalists being put on the hot seat — at Kent State and around the country. But the real lesson for my public relations community has to do with anticipating the negative story. And the university might have done a better job on that in this case.

      (Update: I should probably have pointed out, for benefit of other readers, that Iris is VP or University Relations at Kent State.)

    • Dr. Harvey — Thank you for contributing to the discussion and for giving assurances.

      On balance, Bill Sledzik’s predictions are not without merit. To see why, one need only observe the current self-inflicted PR nightmare at Eastern Carolina University — in which the adviser of the student newspaper was summarily fired after student editors made a couple of controversial publishing decisions.

      In journalism and journalism-education circles, such situations are (sadly) not uncommon. Much more common is the “hot seat” approach, in which no formal (read: “documented”) adverse action is taken, but administrative intimidation is very much at the table.

      As for the issue at hand, if Mr. Cope really has mended his ways and earned the money honestly (rather than build that wealth from previously ill-gotten gains), it’s a shame that the decision to withdraw the funds was made. Mr. Cope (and the university) could have used the moment to speak about redemption, about respecting the limits of one’s debt to society (something our society is rarely good at) and to promote ethical business practices. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and our society’s addiction to the dirty laundry of others is a very tough obstacle to reason and redemption.

      • And right you are, Bill. Pressure by administration can lead to censorship — even if that pressure isn’t explicit. The confrontations between administration and student media are seldom discussed publicly. To be clear, I know of no such pressure relating to Mr. Brown’s story. But it has occurred at Kent State in the past, along with many other schools. As a journalism educator, you know this too well.

        I’m glad you focus on the other part of this story, though. In fairness to Mr. Cope, he was not charged with a crime. The company he worked for paid hefty fines and the case — I am told — ruined Mr. Cope financially. He rolled up his sleeves, went back to work, and has rebounded nicely — or so it would appear. There was, apparently, no evidence tying the evil doings of Mr Monus back to Mr. Cope. But there was enough evidence to support the civil suit by the SEC and the hefty fines that were leveled, so you can’t give him a free pass.

        We can raise all sorts of ethical issues about Mr. Cope’s conduct a decade ago, but he isn’t a criminal. It’s seems more guilt by association.

        Me? I believe in second chances, and have needed a few myself to get through this life. So I come back to my original conclusion. A bit of anticipation and some savvy PR counsel could have turned this into a story of redemption. And maybe that’s exactly what it is.

  4. Appears to be another case of that dreaded disease – rmnixoncarcinoma. It’s a devastating disease that attacks the part of the brain that controls common sense. It often manifests itself in egomaniacal behavior accompanied by arrogant tendencies, both of which make the victim believe he/she is invincible and not subject to reality.

    Academic administrators, especially at the college and university level, are especially susceptible to this terrible disease. Ohio State, Southern Cal, Penn State just to name a few. Financial institutions are also vulnerable. An outbreak on Wall Street in 2008 caused widespread physical and mental damage.

    For the KSU Athletic Department, I can only offer my condolences and quote that now departed elder statesman, Everitt Dirksen, “a million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking about a lot of money!”

    • Bill,

      There is certainly a higher-level debate we could have about the influence of money in intercollegiate athletics, but people way smarter than I are all over that issue and don’t need my two cents. I’ll leave it to the experts. Me? I’m cool with college sports, so long as the athletes go to class and earn degrees. And in defense of Kent State, the school does a pretty good job in that department.

      This piece, published in the Atlantic last October, frames the debate from a critic’s viewpoint. Worth a read if you have time. (Warning: Don’t look for balance in this one!)

  5. For anyone interested in deeper background on Cope’s previous doings, here’s a good article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

  6. Iris Harvey’s comment is encouraging. I hope it is an indication that the high powers at Kent State will behave better than their counterparts at Ohio State did during the Great Cow Caper of 2010. Before their brains began functioning, the cops and the university legal team wanted to prosecute a student photojournalist for continuing to take photos of a couple of escaped bovines (apparently they were actually steers, not cows) on public property after being told not to. In that case, the adviser to the student newspaper at the time, Tom O’Hara, didn’t shy away from speaking truth to power. (Disclosure: O’Hara is a former colleague of mine at The Plain Dealer.) For background, if you are not familiar with the case, here are a rather comical video of the roundup http://bit.ly/AfsYk0 , a video of the lame-duck adviser speaking his mind http://bit.ly/xRp1j2 , an alternative press account of the incident and its aftermath http://bit.ly/zV70I2 , and a story about how the university was planning to prosecute the student before wiser heads prevailed http://bit.ly/w4IFQb . Same lesson for student journalists in the Kent State case: When you know you’re right, don’t back down.

  7. Bill,

    Great article here! I hope Brown’s story isn’t crucified on Monday! All he did was deliver truth at an inconvenient time.

    Anyway just wanted to stop by and tell you something I noticed about your blog. Not sure if it’s intentional or not, but not sure why you would do it on purpose. You have a

    tag in your source code that is blocking your website from being indexed in search engines. If you type site:toughsledding.com in Google you’ll see that only your homepage comes up. Send me an e-mail if you’d like some help getting indexed. I’m an old ethics student of yours and I do SEO for a living now. I visit this blog every once in a while because ethics has become a very large part of my life now.

    Great post keep em coming!

  8. Thanks for the offer, David. I fear I created some of these problems on my own when I shifted templates. I may take you up on you offer. I love using technology, but I’m not much good at the backshop stuff.

  9. Pingback: Reaction to my article about withdrawal of the $1 million Cope Court donation | Doug Brown

  10. Well I’ve had the story up on my laptop since last night. This is the first opportunity I had to read it. Great blog that presents a number of opportunities for discussion, the need for good counsel, the ethical conundrum, and choosing the right spokesperson for your brand among them.

    So from out here in the vast wasteland is a voice of one crying in the wilderness… “keep up the good work, I enjoy reading your blog”.

  11. Excellent post, Bill. After all these comments, I have really have nothing new to add. All sides are covered here (although I think it’s safe to say your “speculating” has good backing behind it). I do keep going back to wondering why no one at the university or the Athletic Dept. anticipated this coming out. It’s truly a mind-boggling question. With university and financial industry scandals coming at us from all sides, you’d think they’d be prepared. Then Mr. Brown might not have had to write his article and even if he did, KSU would be $1 million richer.

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