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Wake Forest: Howard-iraq: The Controversy

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

Dave Glenn and Staff, ACC Sports Journal
April 7, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM — The sensitive relationship between the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal newspaper and Wake Forest athletics (see issue 11) took another hit recently after a story about Josh Howard's views on the war in Iraq. Since a public incident with Wake coach Skip Prosser in December, all had been reasonably quiet between the two entities until a story ran in mid-March under this headline: Howard Opposes War In Iraq, Says Bush Seeking Revenge, Oil. Lenox Rawlings, the Journal's award-winning sports columnist, contributed the article, though not as a column.

The story was short — with only four sentences surrounding quotes from Howard — and it appeared in a dark gray box in the jump section of an article announcing that Howard had been named the ACC player of the year. But it was enough to cause a frenzy on message boards, in the Journal's letters section and in the Wake athletic offices.

The article quoted Howard directly, without a common practice often provided by journalists, that of cleaning up quotes. For example: “I think personally it's Bush, man” and “Saddam had been, like, quiet for a while” and “the first person he seen.” Howard's comments appeared a bit disjointed and, to some, had a slightly fractured view of history.

Wake supporters instantly reacted on several fronts, including: embarrassment about Howard's view of the situation, feeling it portrayed Wake athletes as under-educated; embarrassment about the way he expressed his views, giving a similar impression; disbelief that the story had news value; anger at the Journal for not cleaning up the quotes; anger at the Journal for “setting up” Howard; fear that Howard would become a target for his “unpatriotic” views; and anger at the Journal for the timing of the story, on the same day as Howard's award and on the eve of the NCAA Tournament.

The Journal responded with these points: Rawlings usually doesn't clean up quotes from anyone, although the paper does unless trying to make a specific point by using dialect; Rawlings said that anyone who imposes judgments about a person's intelligence from reading his speech is imposing his own prejudices on the situation; the writer also said he was trying to convey the passion with which Howard was speaking about the issue; Howard's views were valid because two weeks earlier the Journal had written a long story on Howard, including a portion emphasizing his academics, such as the fact that he had switched majors from sociology to religion because of the events of Sept. 11 and the team's visit to Ground Zero. That story said Howard “wanted to learn more about the world of Islam and what led the followers of the religion to commit such extreme acts.”

Most of the Journal's points were valid. Howard certainly wasn't set up. He was a senior who had dealt with the media for a long time, and he clearly understood the forum. He was simply asked about whether he was concerned about the war disrupting the tournament, and he chose his own response. The item was newsworthy, as shown by the amount of interest generated by the remarks. (It probably would have worked best in an overall story about athletes' views on the war, including some input from fellow senior Steve Lepore, whose brother is overseas with the military.) Howard's views certainly had a place in the paper, because of the reason cited above, the fact that Howard was the man of the hour and since almost anything said by a celebrity (even some college athletes) is a candidate for print. In the end, it's up to the audience to decide whether it's worthwhile or not.

Also, as pointed out the last time the Sports Journal analyzed this issue, most conspiracy theories simply give too much credit to the media outlets in question. Items such as these are sent in by reporters, generally not seen by the sports editor, then edited and headlined by extremely busy copy editors. The idea that people in the sports department at the Journal sat around and discussed this, as some sort of diabolical plan to disrupt Wake Forest athletics, is simply laughable.

If the Journal dropped the ball anywhere, and this is generally a matter of newspaper policy, it came when editors failed to clean up Howard's quotes. No matter the intention, the way the quotes were phrased made Howard come off like a teenager in a mall, since most newspapers have trained audiences to expect cleaned-up quotes. The quotes were in a news item, where they are virtually always cleaned, and not in Rawlings' column.

Without the “man” and “like” references, it's doubtful the story would have raised as many eyebrows. Of course, others maintained that if Howard's words had agreed with Wake's traditionally conservative views, even fewer eyebrows would have been raised.

How did the man in the eye of the storm react? Well, some fans blamed his poor NCAA Tournament performance on this distraction. But more grounded fans wondered if Rawlings had perhaps written something about Vytas Danelius then, since he played so poorly in the tournament.

Sources close to Howard said he was happy to see the story in the beginning, mainly because he felt respected enough to be quoted on a non-basketball issue. Although he later stated in private that he thought the writer took a cheap shot, the story didn't really phase him and the fans didn't boo him as if he had turned his back on the flag.

If anything, the source said, Howard was most affected by the reaction of Wake professors and fans. When they said that Rawlings shouldn't have run the article, Howard wondered if they were embarrassed by him, his point of view and/or the way he speaks. Howard always has been sensitive to how he fits in — or doesn't — to the Wake Forest world.

Combined with the ugly way many Wake fans turned on him as the reason for the team's early NCAA exit, the whole Iraq-comments controversy reportedly left a bad taste in Howard's mouth after what should be remembered as a very good year — for him, the team and the school. In time, hopefully, his good memories will far outweigh the bad.