Commentary : Violating Afghanistan Principle in Lexington

Hartford Courant

They have been spat upon and verbally abused. They have been forced to evacuate the building twice: Bomb threats.

They have awakened to find their lawns littered with toilet paper. They have gone to bed after putting pebbles on the hoods of their cars, trying to detect whether someone has tampered with the engine.

An anonymous caller phoned the head man’s personal secretary and asked her where her boss usually ate lunch and what kind of car he drove. He told her her boss was going to be needing a bodyguard. And he wasn’t applying for the job.


Why were these people being put through living hell? What was their crime?

They were being abused because they were employees of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.

Their crime?

Printing the truth.

As children, we are taught that honesty is the best policy, that integrity is our most prized virtue, that there is nothing nobler than the truth.

Then we become adults, and sadly, some of us come to believe that the truth is often more trouble than it’s worth, especially when the cost is money and reputation. So we have builders who cut corners on buildings that collapse and kill people and we have advertisers who push us to buy products that are essentially useless or even deadly, and we have chemical companies fighting safety and anti-pollution laws that would make it harder for them to poison our environment and our children, but would also make it harder for them to make as much money.

And in the newspaper business, we have something a New York Times reporter called “The Afghanistan Principle.” The Afghanistan Principle holds that a newspaper is much more readily inclined to print a no-holds barred expose about something that happened thousands of miles away than it is something that happened right under its nose. It’s often easier--and safer--to unearth a cesspool whose sludge won’t stain one’s own community.

Which is why the good people who work at the Lexington Herald-Leader are spending time these days checking their cars for bombs and wiping off other people’s saliva.

You see, the Lexington Herald-Leader violated the Afghanistan Principle. It besmirched the most sanctified of all local sacred cows: The University of Kentucky basketball program. And the natives did not like it. Not one bit.

Funny thing is, the Herald-Leader hadn’t even set out to investigate Kentucky basketball per se. It knew that its intrastate rival, the Louisville Courier-Journal--along with the university itself--was investigating allegations that newly retired Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall had made thousands of dollars by scalping his allotment of 323 season tickets, a violation of NCAA rules. So the Herald-Leader began investigating Hall’s conduct on its own. It was merely trying to protect itself from the embarrassment of getting beaten by an out-of-town paper on a story that had unfolded in its own back yard.


While checking out Hall’s alleged ticket scalping, the Herald-Leader came upon evidence that, after a seven-month investigation, led it to publish a two-part report alleging widespread booster payments to players and other violations of NCAA rules during Hall’s 13-year regime.

Sadly, that Kentucky’s hands might again be dirty--it was put on NCAA probation in 1976 for basketball and football recruiting violations--is nothing new as stories of NCAA schools’ cheating keep popping up all over, like dandelions.

What is even sadder, and perhaps just as insidious, is many fans’ tendency to want to punish the messenger reporting bad news, rather than the culprits themselves, who are often seen as heroes.

When they weren’t abusing Herald-Leader employees, 300 people were canceling their subscriptions, including one who threatened to attack the delivery boy with a baseball bat if he showed up the next morning.

Almost immediately, the hottest selling items in Lexington were bumper stickers saying “Send The Herald To Knoxville” (home of arch-rival University of Tennessee) and T-shirts featuring a mock-up of the newspaper’s front page in which the headline “Wildcats Taking Money?” was linked with “Loch Ness Monster Spotted in Lexington” and “Three-Headed Baby Born in Dumpster.” At a “Back The ‘Cats” rally, fans gathered to sign anti-Herald-Leader petitions and buy Cheap Shot Gazette caps. At that weekend’s football game, students held up copies of the Herald-Leader with Ghostbusters-type symbols superimposed on them.

Who are ya gonna call? Kentucky fans’ reaction to the Herald-Leader’s investigation--mostly the result of interviews with 33 ex-Wildcat players--is hardly unique.


It’s the Afghanistan Principle at work again. A lot of people pay lip service to how wonderful and necessary the truth is, but when the truth hits too close to home, when it bloodies one of their precious sacred cows, well, the truth--and its messenger--can be a pretty despicable thing.

Newspapers are not public relations firms whose job it is to puff up clients. Their duty is to be fair and accurate, and to get as close to the truth as humanly possible. Yes, even on the sports pages.

It’s too bad the people of Lexington, Ky., and others like them, don’t understand this basic precept: That the job of a newspaper isn’t be true to your school--it’s be true to the truth. It’s the only master worth having.