St.Louis: The Sun vs. A-State

St.Louis: The Sun vs. A-State

The possibility of AState moving a game to St. Louis has not only caused some friction within the fan base, it has created friction between the University and the Jonesboro Sun. This friction raises issues of law but also what constitutes good journalism.

AStateNation made a request under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act for documents related to the negotiations over the game and the scope of the request covered the requests of others for information.

Relying upon this information we will address the matters of law and journalism.

THE LAW

In digging into this matter I looked at the exception Arkansas State relies on. The FOI Handbook produced by the Attorney General’s office and widely distributed by the Arkansas Press Association renders the subsection like this:
(9)(A) Files that if disclosed would give advantage to competitors or bidders and records maintained by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission related to any business entity's planning, site location, expansion, operations, or product development and marketing, unless approval for release of those records is granted by the business entity.

Reading that creates confusion whether the exception is solely restricted to the activities of ADEC.

But if you look at the official text of the Arkansas Code Annotated, there is a dramatic difference created with just a little punctuation.

(9) (A) Files that if disclosed would give advantage to competitors or bidders; and
(B) (i) Records maintained by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission related to any business entity's planning, site location, expansion, operations, or product development and marketing, unless approval for release of those records is granted by the business entity.

The addition of a semicolon and breaking into another sub-part makes it abundantly clear that the relevant text is “Files that if disclosed would give advantage to competitors or bidders

The Jonesboro Sun has taken the position that AState by indicating no interest in moving to Kansas City means there are no competitors or bidders to gain advantage. From an email from Matt Roberson to AState System Counsel Lucinda McDaniel:
"It is the Jonesboro Sun's position that there is no advantage to competitors or bidders in this situation because only the St. Louis Sports Commission is offering to buy this game."

And in an email by Roberson to Dr. Hudson and Dr. Welch:
"We hope that you will consider all factors, and decide the interest of Arkansas State supporters and our community outweighs the interest of the St. Louis Sports Commission."

If the marketplace were a single game, the argument would have merit. The marketplace AState operates in is greater than a single game. AState has to negotiate four non-conference football games per season and is negotiating games more than a decade away. At a given time AState is looking to fill around 40 non-conference dates and is competing with more than 250 FBS and FCS schools for attractive games.

Revealing the figures at the negotiation stage provides insight to athletic directors across the country not just about what St. Louis is willing to pay for an attractive game but what Arkansas State is asking for in an attractive game situation.

AState Athletic Director Terry Mohajir states that he has had negotiations for games fall apart because another AD learning of a school AState was negotiating with has come in and underbid AState for the contest.

GOOD JOURNALISM

Journalism isn’t simply plopping facts out for the reader. Facts require context to be useful.

If I report that Joe said he was going to hit Mike with a baseball bat, those bare facts make Joe sound like someone who needs to be behind bars. If I add they are old friends, they were laughing and Mike had told a joke at Joe’s expense, the exchange doesn’t seem so criminal. Context is vital.

The Jonesboro Sun has chosen to strip this story of context and in process has cast AState in a negative light.

If you are a reader of the Sun the paper has neglected either out of willful intent or ignorance of general practices to give you context that you need to form an informed opinion.

While the paper complains that AState will not reveal numbers from a contract under negotiation, the school has always released the numbers when the contract is signed.

Is that unusual?

In Arkansas, AState has chosen to be unusually open compared to peer institutions.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette asked the University of Arkansas to release the contract for the game played against Southern Mississippi last year. The Razorback administration cited the law mentioned above and declared the signed contract with the payment numbers to be information that would give advantage to competitors and bidders and declined to release the numbers.

Did the Jonesboro Sun inform YOU that AState’s practice is to be more open with information than the only other FBS program in the state?

The only other FBS program operating under the same sunshine laws has declared they don’t have to give information AState freely releases. Is that not relevant information that the reader deserves to know?

No. The Sun omitted that relevant information, either they are ignorant of the practices of the state’s other FBS program or they have chosen to hide that information causing some of their readers to become angry and suspicious of AState.

Today the Sun in an article claims that Oklahoma State moved a game against Mississippi State to Houston without a guarantee based on the statement of a Mississippi writer.

An individual familiar with the actual agreement states that Oklahoma State was guaranteed a bit less than $2 million after the required ticket purchase was deducted. A newspaper account from the Columbus (MS) Dispatch written a bit more than a month before the game states: “MSU is slated to get a slighter greater than $2 million payday as a part of opening the 2013 season at Reliant Stadium in Houston.” If there were no agreement guaranteeing payment why did Mississippi State’s hometown newspaper believe there was such an agreement?

From Oklahoma State’s official sports website discussing scheduling neutral site games:
"Those matchups have been the source of some debate. They both provide high-profile season-openers and big guarantees (the amount of money the participants receive by playing in off-campus games), and they help Oklahoma State maintain a healthy relationship with the deal makers of sports television."

Since AState has declined to reveal the numbers the Jonesboro Sun has written two articles on the issue, an editorial on the issue, and written an article noting the financial results from the most recent GoDaddy Bowl.

An article that again failed to give context regarding the experience of other schools in bowls and the problem created when bowls will not make cheaper tickets available to the school that the bowl makes available to the public.

Such negative attention pointed at AState maybe should not surprise AState officials.

From an email by Roberson to AState Vice-President for Strategic Communications and Economic Development, Jeff Hankins:
I would think that ASU supporters deserve to know the type of dollar amount being negotiated for the game so that they themselves can determine if it is worth it before a deal is done. Obviously, Arkansas State does not. That is very disappointing. I'm sure our readers will find it very disappointing too over the next week or two.

From an email by Roberson to AState System Counsel Lucinda McDaniel:
If it is Arkansas State's decision to not supply this information after, now, several requests, it will be the Jonesboro Sun's initiative to report it thoroughly through several means, including news and editorial pieces.
Please understand that the decisions that counsel and the athletic department make will have ramifications from supporters of the program as it is our intent to report exactly what has transpired and why.


Based on the recent reports in the Sun these, less than fully developed, articles appear to be a promise made and a promise kept to go after AState.

In an earlier article an email from AState Athletic Director Terry Mohajir quotes Mohajir as follows:
As always, I am happy to provide you with as much information as I can under the State of Arkansas FOIA guidelines.

The actual email obtained under our FOIA request shows that Mohajir’s statement did not end there and had one more sentence.

As always, I am happy to provide you with as much information as I can under the State of Arkansas FOIA guidelines. I hope you know that I’m always eager to help you do your job and to inform our alumni, fans, students-athletes and community

Perhaps the last sentence didn’t fit the “angle” of the story.

It is troubling that AState is being beaten up in its hometown newspaper for being “secretive” when AState is demonstrably the most open and transparently run of the state’s two FBS programs.

Honest people can disagree over the meaning and intent of the applicable law but the desire to win an argument should not go so far as omitting relevant contextual information that helps the reader make up their own mind in a fair manner.

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