Thank God for Rick Westhead
I still bristle when people use the term "fake news" because they don't like a story in the media, or complain about widespread media bias.
Sure, you can point to specific cases of poor journalism and even perceived favourtism, but those incidents are far rarer than many people want to believe. Then there are times, that the media really serves its purpose to not only educate and inform, but to uncover wrongdoing and expose the people behind it.
That's exactly what happened last week as TSN journalist Rick Westhead's reporting led to a bombshell that's still being felt in the NHL and beyond.
Some Solid Journalism
A few years ago, I started following Rick Westhead on Twitter. His content was different. Rather than writing about goals and assists and where free agents would end up, he wrote about the business side of sports, lawsuits against teams and leagues and court cases.
He took an interest in the stories of former athletes suing for brain injuries and in some cases, the families of players who had died after suffering numerous concussions.
I have sent a few messages to Rick through Twitter to thank him for his coverage, or about his excellent book on the life of former NHL star Joe Murphy.
Several months ago, Westhead started writing about a case of an alleged sexual assault that had taken place to a young player for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, eventually won by Chicago.
Despite a lawsuit from the player in the spring, the Blackhawks said the case had already been investigated and the claims were “meritless.” In other words, nothing to see here – move along.
Westhead kept digging and eventually the team agreed to an independent review, but said the result wouldn’t be made public. More digging from Westhead resulted and some former players demanded the full report be made public. The Blackhawks finally had to agree.
I remember telling a friend of mine this summer that I sensed there really was something to this story and remember saying that if it ended up the way Westhead’s reporting seemed to suggest, I could see Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman getting fired.
Last week that report was made public. We know what the result was. Bowman and several others quickly lost their jobs as a result of the report. If you want to read the report’s gory details, here it is.
At a time when we still hear the term “fake news” and so many people criticize the media for being biased or not telling the truth, the reporting of Westhead reminds us how important journalism is.
If Westhead would have followed the Blackhawks suggestion and “moved along”, the sexual assault would have been covered up and we might never have heard about the story.
This story has served as a wake-up call for the NHL and sports in general. It’s about time.
Thank God for Rick Westhead.
Sportsnet Gives Credit
Watching reaction to the story was interesting.
Within a few hours of the report being released, Kyle Beach stepped forward to say he was the John Doe in the report. Westhead interviewed him. It was an incredibly powerful interview.
TSN ran the lengthy interview on Sportscentre and devoted close to a half an hour to the topic. Sportscentre is its hour-long show, normally filled with highlights and happy talk. Not last week. It felt much more like 60 Minutes.
Sportsnet did something even more interesting, when it ran most of the Beach interview on its highlight show, giving TSN and Westhead credit for the interview. I can’t remember seeing that happen before. TSN and Sportsnet compete against each other. They’re rivals. Seeing one run content from the other and giving the other credit is extremely rare, but so was this story.
The "NHL Insiders"
The following day, attention turned to players who were on that 2010 Chicago championship team and are still in the NHL.
Instead of asking team Captain Jonathan Toews about his comeback, hockey reporters had to ask him what he knew about the story and when and why he didn’t do anything. Patrick Kane was a star on that team and instead of asking him about the team’s winless start this season, he too was asked about what he knew and whether he’ll contact Beach now.
In Edmonton, fallout was even more interesting when the 2010 Assistant Captain and now Edmonton Oiler Duncan Keith was put in front of the media. He basically said at the time he knew nothing about the sexual assault. How could he have done anything when he didn’t know anything?
Reporters who cover the Oilers reported what Keith said and some talked about the compassion Keith had shown for Beach in his media conference.
Reaction from fans was mainly negative. Many didn’t believe Keith, because others on the team at the time told the investigation that “everyone on the team” knew what had happened. That didn’t jive with what Keith was saying. Others suggested local reporters should do their own digging and see if Keith’s claims could be challenged by others, rather than just reporting what he had to say. Finally, other fans suggested reporters close to the Blackhawks must have known what happened a long time ago and this was just another case of the media not wanting to upset the NHL.
Here’s my take on this part. I don’t think you can criticize local reporters covering the Oilers. They asked Keith to be made available to the media. He was, and answered questions and the media reported what he said. That’s basic journalism.
When it was realized that some 37 people either didn’t respond to invitations to speak to investigators, or refused to speak to them, reporters asked Keith about that. They were informed that the investigation was told Keith wouldn’t speak to investigators because he didn’t think he had anything to add to the investigation.
You can read into that what you want, but it’s difficult for any reporter to jump to the conclusion that Keith isn’t telling the truth now.
I will say though, that when TSN and Sportsnet talk about their “NHL Insiders” who have all the latest info and breaking news on everything happening in the National Hockey League, you have to wonder how they totally missed this story?
Everyone that is, except for Rick Westhead.
Image credit: TSN.ca