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Reporter’s Error: He Named Names but Had No Proof

Surely, Ben Johnson is not the only track and field athlete at the Olympics who has used steroids. But Johnson is the one who got caught.

You can speculate on which other athletes use steroids, but until proven by a drug test, it is simply speculation.

However, on Channel 2’s late news Tuesday night, sportscaster Keith Olbermann set himself up as judge and jury and all but convicted Florence Griffith Joyner of steroid use.

Griffith Joyner has not tested positive for steroid use.

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Olbermann, at the top of the news, cited a Canadian television report that said another prominent track and field figure had tested positive for steroid use.

Olbermann expanded on the report during his sports segment later in the newscast, concluding a lengthy report by saying:

“Those who accept the premise of track and field as a sport whose participants are beholden to steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs point first to the great Florence Griffith Joyner.”

He then showed a photo of Griffith Joyner. “This is Flo now,” he said. “This, however, was her 4 years ago, in the Olympics here in Los Angeles.”

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He then showed another photo of a less-muscular Griffith Joyner.

“The shoulders, the legs, especially the arms seem to belong to another person,” he said. “A person who tonight came within five one-hundredths of a second of the world record in the 200 meters during a comparatively inconsequential qualifying heat.

“Again, the identity of the athlete who tested positive for steroid use has not been revealed. Doubtless, you have already asked yourself, is it Florence Griffith Joyner?

“The timing would be right. Tests started Saturday at the time of Flo’s victory in the 100 meters would just be available now. The delay in identification because the athlete must be present for a second test would be explained by the fact Griffith Joyner ran just hours ago.

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“But that is merely speculation. The results will come later.”

What was announced the next day was that a Hungarian weightlifter had tested positive for steroid use.

Word of Olbermann’s report reached Gordon Baskin, Griffith Joyner’s manager, in Seoul.

Baskin said: “This is unconscionable. Entirely irresponsible. I’m going to be in touch with my attorney and see what we can do.”

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Olbermann, who switched from Channel 5 to Channel 2 a month ago, has a flippant style that is well received by some, disliked by others. His supporters call him clever and witty, his critics call him unfunny and arrogant.

But what he did Tuesday night has nothing to do with style. It has a lot to do with professionalism and responsibility. The report showed neither.

Erik Sorenson, Channel 2 news director, said: “We have enormous trust and confidence in Olbermann’s news judgment and we don’t hover over him. But he discussed this story with me last night. It was a collaborative process and several people at the station were involved.

“There has been tremendous speculation that something unusual has been going on in Seoul, and there were two reports, one by the CBC in Edmonton and another by Reuters, that said another prominent athlete had tested positive for steroids.

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“Florence Griffith Joyner is a public figure, and there has been a lot of speculation regarding her. We stand by the tone of (Olbermann’s) report and the basic substance of it.

“Did (Olbermann) phrase his report as well as he could have? Maybe not. For one thing, he should have incorporated the quotes from Joaquim Cruz in the report.”

Cruz, a Brazilian 800-meter runner who lives and trains in the United States, was interviewed by a television reporter, and his comments were picked up by United Press International.

Cruz said: “Florence, in 1984, you could see an extremely feminine person, but today she looks more like a man than a woman, and (Jackie) Joyner (Kersee), she looks like a gorilla, so these people must be doing something that isn’t normal to gain all those muscles.”

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Actually, Olbermann was doing the right thing by not using the Cruz quote. It wasn’t confirmed until Wednesday that Cruz had been accurately quoted.

What if it had been an erroneous report? Then any media outlet that used it--Channel 4 and Channel 5 were two that did--would be deserving of criticism, and possibly legal action.

Also, Channel 4’s Fred Roggin, before reporting the Cruz quote, mentioned that Griffith Joyner was the subject of unconfirmed rumors. If the rumors were unconfirmed, the responsible thing to do would be to ignore them completely.

Accusing an athlete of steroid use is a serious thing. Just consider what happened to Johnson.

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Roggin, who was on after Olbermann, may have been reacting to Olbermann’s report. Whatever, he was wrong to mention the rumors.

Olbermann said that he thought the Cruz quote was overplayed by some media outlets, but added that he wished he would have used it to substantiate his speculation.

Olbermann also said that if he had to do it over again, he would still use Griffith Joyner’s name in the report, although he admitted, “I’m not happy with the way it turned out.”

Olbermann said that his viewers, after hearing the CBC report that a prominent athlete had tested positive for steroids, would be wondering who that athlete was. He said he owed it to them to mention Griffith Joyner.

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“I just wish I had also mentioned the Cruz quote,” he said.

About the before-and-after pictures, he said they helped reinforce his speculation.

Olbermann said he will write a letter of apology to Griffith Joyner if, by the end of the Olympics, she has not tested positive for steroids.

“And I hope she doesn’t,” he said. “I’ll be the happiest if she doesn’t test positive.”

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