It's not surprising that various big-time coaches have developed long-running feuds with particular media figures, but what's remarkable is when newspaper publishers take the coach's side. That's apparently what's happened at The State, a McClatchy-owned daily newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier has a long-running feud with State sports columnist Ron Morris, going as far as to refuse to talk to reporters while Morris was in the room in 2011 and refusing to take questions from anyone in 2012 on suspicion Morris was planting questions with other reporters. Has Morris' paper gone to bat for him? Nope.
According to Jim Romenesko's sources, publisher Henry Haith III "made his veteran columnist agree in writing that he would never again write about Gamecocks football or talk about the USC program on TV and radio shows." That's not being received well by Morris' colleagues and other journalists. From Romenesko:
“It was a journalism restraining order,” said one of Morris’s ex-colleagues.
A sports reporter from another newspaper – he suggested I write this piece – told me: “It’s pretty common knowledge around the area that this happened, and a lot of media types, myself included, are pretty upset at the kowtowing by the publisher there.” ...
Publisher Haitz wasn’t a Morris fan, though; he wanted his columnist fired. Executive editor Mark Lett talked him out of it, though, according to sources. There were no legitimate grounds for dismissal, the publisher was told.
Lett “has basically protected Ron’s job,” says one of Morris’s friends. “He’s had the guts to stand up to the publisher” when Haitz wanted Morris pink-slipped. “This is not a Mark Lett problem; if anything he’s been a protector.”
Morris kept his job, but he was told he could no longer attend Spurrier’s press conferences. He was also ordered by the publisher to write an apology column. That ran last Sept. 26. ...
Early this year, publisher Haitz – a Penn State graduate – told Morris he could no longer write about Gamecocks football.
“They made him sign a long list of things he could not do,” said a Morris friend.
“The fans there see [Morris's removal from the beat] as a big victory,” said the Washington Post’s Babb. “It looks like the great Steve Spurrier took him down. It’s a very humiliating episode for journalism. …What if somebody at Mississippi State figures out it’s that easy” to get a writer removed from a beat?
Yeah, none of that looks particularly good for the integrity of journalism. Here are some notable Twitter reactions to the news:
Would advise any young sports journalist who cares about the profession not to work for @thestate. Very clear who runs the sports dept.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) September 12, 2013
Regarding last tweet: I worked with Ron Morris. Standup guy. Hate that the paper is reportedly throwing him under the bus like this.
— Kendall Matthews (@ka_matthews) September 12, 2013
@CarterthePower when you see Ron Morris at State demoted for taking on Spurrier hard to blame SEC media for being soft & protecting jobs
— Chadd Scott (@ChaddScott) September 12, 2013
The State should be ashamed “@StevePoliti: I don't know Ron Morris, but I know this is makes me sick to my stomach. http://t.co/8J2PN9DnzL”
— Jason Marenda (@jrmarenda) September 12, 2013
No real problem with Spurrier complaining about Ron Morris. Coaches complain. I have a problem with The State's publisher lacking a spine.
— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) September 12, 2013
That last point from Staples is crucial. While some of Spurrier's actions with regard to Morris in the past, including refusing to talk while he was in the room, are certainly questionable, a coach is more than free to complain about any media member they like. The problem occurs when the publisher is caving to the coach's demands. Moreover, the story gets even worse when you hear that Haitz then hired a guy who's a proud South Carolina "superfan" partly at Spurrier's recommendation:
In late August, The State added longtime Gamecocks football reporter and self-described superfan Glenn Snyder to its sports pages. (He’s a contract writer, not a staffer. Snyder previously reported for a publication that’s sent to USC sports booster-club members.)
“I’ve now seen 343 South Carolina [football] games in a row,” the 67-year-old Snyder told me. “I love the University of South Carolina. I love Steve Spurrier. …Coach Spurrier and I have become friends.” (He noted that Spurrier often drops his name during press conferences.)
Spurrier told me that he helped “Superfan” Snyder get his job at The State.
“I did call The State newspaper and put in a good word for him, and they hired him,” the coach said. He added that he talked to publisher Haitz, who is “good friends with [longtime Gamecock Radio Network announcer] Tommy Suggs. I met [Haitz] through Tommy.”
So, Steve Spurrier is telling a paper who should and shouldn't cover his football program, and the paper is listening. Yeah, that's not a great moment for journalism.