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.