Yahoo! Reporters Jason Cole and Charles Robinson decline our request for an interview

Editors Note: I could not have done this on my own. I want to thank Tyler Bleszinski Editor-in-Chief at SB Nation for all of his help and guidance in trying to secure this interview and for his patience and time in working with me to put this all together. The many phone calls and emails back and forth I'm sure were more than just a little taxing on his time. I also want to thank Jim Bankoff the President of SBN for his work and encouragement behind the scenes as well. Lastly, there are two journalists whom I wish keep anonymous for the time being for all of their help in guiding me in how to nail down the nuts and bolts of a story. In order to be credible there was a lot of research for and rewriting of this piece. Because of what I was trying to accomplish I had to be objective without throwing together this piece in a hodgepodge way that was more subjective than objective. I think you will find this interesting.

The hot story - and you can define "hot" as you choose - of the last couple of weeks has been the allegation in Yahoo! Sports about corruption in USC's basketball program, particularly the allegation that Tim Floyd passed an envelope full of cash to Rodney Guillory. With the help of the higher ups at SB Nation I recently attempted to secure an interview with Jason Cole and Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports to discuss their reporting on the recent allegations regarding Tim Floyd.

Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Cole turned down my request.

This is where the story gets interesting

The reasons given are off the record as they would not allow me to use the email correspondence between the parties in this piece. That's fine, it was an open attempt to have an above-board exchange that gives Robinson and Cole every possible opportunity to respond. It was also an forthright and honest attempt to contact a valid source for a story that affects our readership. But as I will show later I think in the broader picture their reasons are unimportant. We asked, they declined so we move on...

What is out there on this already will demonstrate why many of us have trouble with their reporting of this story. There are many contradictions that Robinson and Cole did not address that any first year law student could poke holes through.

Mr. Robinson and Mr. Cole have been vilified in numerous places but that has been because many USC Fans and Alums feel that their reporting on this recent allegation is incomplete. I certainly do not think that Robinson or Cole have a vendetta against USC (anymore than I have an axe to grind against them) yet their refusal to do an interview with me for the reasons given to me acknowledge their animosity toward the USC fanbase and their reticence to address it directly.

Mr. Robinson and Mr. Cole have solid credentials from their reporting prior to joining Yahoo! so it is surprising to many that their reporting on the recent allegation that Tim Floyd paid off Rodney Guillory seems so incomplete. It simply goes against the basic tenets of journalism to not back up a story with AT LEAST two confirmed sources on the record. The more confirmed sources on the record you have that don't have ulterior motives, the much stronger the story.  Especially when you're talking about taking a world-renowned college program down.

As I noted in my piece two weeks ago Robinson stated that he and Cole had spoken to numerous sources with "pristine" records yet none of those sources would go on the record. Because of that many USC fans feel that the information they have put forth doesn't pass the smell test.

The use of unnamed sources makes it difficult for many people to believe this story in particular because it means the reader is now depending on the name of the publication and, by extension, the name of the reporters putting it out there. Robinson and Cole are essentially saying, "trust me" and, when someone says "trust me" I want to know whom the "me" is. Steve Klein who is Professor and Coordinator of Electronic Journalism at George Mason University gives a better explanation.

Now, if Yahoo! Sports is going to be my front door to the sports world after pre-Internet decades of reliance on mainstream media, I wanted to know who was doing all this reporting and why I should accept "two unidentified sources" from them.

It turns out the the reporters are Charles Robinson and Jason Cole, neither of whom I had ever heard of. I checked them out and discovered that they are not only the national NFL writers for Yahoo Sports, but that Cole covered the Miami Dolphins for 15 years at the Miami Herald and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association.

Bear in mind that this quote was in response to Mr Robinson and Mr Cole's work in breaking the Reggie Bush story. A story which they were able to back up not just with multiple sources but also primary source documentation - receipts and the like. So while I would agree that Cole and Robinson have solid credentials, demonstrated with the Bush story, it appears to many of us that they are using those solid credentials as their foundation to put forth a story that has very little secondary sourcing outside of the accuser.

So why did Mr. Cole and Mr. Robinson decline my request? Does it not further their position and credibility in the reporting of this story by going into the "lions den" to answer questions from a partisan site?

The appearance of spoon feeding the public the particulars of this story is what has frustrated so many of us. I understand that they cannot divulge their sources but as my questions will show I was trying to get them justify their style of reporting more than I was trying to see if the story is true. Robinson and Cole had no problem doing Radio interviews or answering questions put forth by their brethren in the print media. I showed my hand in what direction I was going in my post criticizing their reporting two weeks ago and I submitted my questions to them in advance so that they would not be blindsided but they still would not budge. That is their choice and their right but in doing so it makes their reporting and reaction to the criticism of said reporting as much of a story as the story itself.

A case of Apples and Oranges

As noted above by Mr. Klein, Robinson and Cole actually did some solid reporting on the Bush story. You may not like Lloyd Lake as the accuser but he has backed up a lot of his claims with receipts and an audio tape. But the bigger issue I have is that outside of the issue of institutional control what does the Bush story have to do with the Mayo Story? It was ESPN that broke the Mayo story not Robinson and Cole, they broke this recent allegation and it remains uncorroborated which is why I went through this exercise to begin with. And with the contradictions in Johnson's story what makes Robinson and Cole's reporting credible here?

Here is an example...

We have all seen the OTL report a number of times by now but Johnson's answers then don't mesh with what he is alleging today.

Go to 02:30 of this abbreviated version of the original Outside the Lines interview. Johnson says that he doubted that SC knew of what was going on. He was adamant in saying that the NCAA went to great lengths to clear Mayo. Yet, now he comes out with the allegation that Tim Floyd is actually a major perpetrator in this whole mess? Is that not USC involvement? Why is it that Robinson or Cole did not explain this major flip flop in Johnson's story outside of alleged personal threats?

How about this, In the very Yahoo! article by Robinson and Cole, Johnson states that because he was worried about the safety of his family he didn’t want it to appear that he was “taking down USC.”. Yet, today his uncorroborated accusations about Floyd passing an envelope of cash to Guillory could do just that. To some that may be a side issue but if it was important not to be seen in that light then why is it unimportant now? Johnson also stated in the Yahoo! article that he was worried about some within Mayo's inner circle coming after him. When interviewed, (the interview has since been removed form 710 ESPN's website) his attorney also claimed that Johnson did not come forward with this story early on because he thought some people would come after him.

Really?

So what has changed? If that is the case then why come forward now? If USC has some alleged posse looking to crack some heads over this it would seem to me that the threat today is the same as it was then.

That is simply preposterous. SC does not have some posse looking to get even. If that is true then why is Lloyd Lake still walking around? Anyone who thinks that this is true needs a reality check.

To make matters worse, Johnson said he wasn't writing a book yet in the retracted interview his attorney said he was. So, which is it?

Lastly, this one seals it for me.

In his interview on Mason and Ireland Cole states that the money allegedly paid by Floyd to Guillory was to keep assurances on the deal that Mayo would come to USC and that this would keep everything copacetic. Why? Mayo already signed his LOI so he is bound to USC. If he chose to back out of it he couldn't go to another school, not without USC releasing Mayo and not without the spotlight being turned on him and he certainly could not go the NBA. Floyd and by extension USC are not bound to let him out so Floyd has no need to make sure the deal holds by giving money to Guillory.

Based on this article in USAToday the NCAA only recently started asking questions about the alleged payment, but why would they ask now if they didn't have the information early on? Maybe because the NCAA was getting specific inquiries from the Yahoo! reporters. If that is true then why did Johnson come out with it now and not last year. Cole states that if you plan on writing a book you don't give that information out for free. That may be, but Johnson has a vested interest in keeping this story going...it will bait the public in wanting to know more and while he may plan on writing a book he isn't there yet. This allegation keeps the story alive and kicking.

Either way we will never get a definitive answer.

So here are my questions...You be the judge.

- What have you done to corroborate Johnson's accusations?

- You mentioned to the OC Register that you have spoken to dozens of sources with pristine records. Have any of them said anything that implicates USC? If so, why have they not gone on the record?

- Do you feel uncomfortable running such a substantial accusation with only one source? What has been done to verify the statements of Johnson?

- Why do you trust Louis Johnson? Do you think his planned book, which his lawyers have acknowledged, hurts his credibility? Isn’t being spurned from Mayo's posse a significant motive that could influence his version of the story?

- Have you been able to locate the restaurant where Guillory and Johnson are alleged to have met? Have you attempted to corroborate Johnson’s allegations by reviewing archived security camera footage of where the meeting allegedly took place?  Were there any receipts that you were able to track down to confirm that both parties were where Johnson has said they were? Have there been any ATM receipts obtained to corroborate any specific amounts of money removed by Tim Floyd?

- Johnson's attorney claims (also uncorroborated) that Johnson spoke to federal authorities about this and other issues in regards to Rodney Guillory shortly after the original ESPN story broke. It has recently been reported that Johnson waited a year to speak to the NCAA, which his attorney also just recently announced.  Why did he wait so long to meet with NCAA and then announce publicly his meeting with NCAA? Does this large gap in getting his story out concern you?

- Anecdotally, what do you see as Yahoo's role in the world of investigative journalism? How substantial are your resources when it comes to investigative reporting? How many investigations like this is Yahoo undertaking, and how often are they actually reported?

Full disclosure...in trying to be as concise as possible I submitted these questions to two friends who are journalists to make sure that these questions were appropriate.

These questions are tougher than most of the questions that Cole and Robinson answered on Dan Patrick, Mason & Ireland, XTRA and in the OCR but they are also legitimate. It is human nature to flinch when someone criticizes the position you have taken but reporters have a responsibility to back up their stories with legitimate sources other than the accuser.

I cannot be too far off the mark if Bill Plaschke of the L.A.Times has the same concerns. In running their own story, In which they also spoke to Johnson, the L.A.Times pretty much repeated what is already out there in the Yahoo! report but they stopped way short of running with Johnson's claims independently. If the L.A.Times cannot corroborate the claims to further the story then that is more than enough for me to question the legitimacy of the Johnson allegations. Whether you like them or not, the L.A. Times is still a highly respected news organization. So if they aren't moving on it then something isn't right to them.

A Final Thought

The evidentiary threshold for the NCAA and the feds are much different. The mere possibility of an infraction is enough for the NCAA to act while in a criminal investigation you need a lot more than the words of a convicted felon. USC fans have to be mindful of that, the NCAA can only act on the evidence they gather regardless of corroboration because they have no subpoena power. Also, keep in mind that the motives for Floyd and USC are also on a different tack. Either could throw each other under the bus to save their skin and that could get very messy. For the time being USC and Floyd are joined at the hip, Floyd's silence on this is evidence of that.

With that being said, regardless of the how the NCAA or the feds use the information in their possession the issue here is how Robinson and Cole came to their conclusions based only on the words of a convicted felon without any secondary corroboration. Louis Johnson could be telling the truth but because of his past conviction and his possible future motives it is the opinion of many that Robinson and Cole needed to have this nailed down a little more securely instead of basing these allegations on the words of only one source...the accuser.

Mr. Cole and Mr. Robinson are welcome anytime to come here to Conquest Chronicles to address our concerns or show us where we are wrong. We would love to have them tell us their side of the story. The door will always be open for a civil dialog, they can either answer the questions that I submitted in advance to them or they can comment on our concerns in how this allegation has been reported.

The choice is theirs.

Ed. Note #II...One thing of note that must be clarified. A reader pointed out that there are no unnamed sources in the story about Tim Floyd. Sorry, if there is any confusion. - P

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