Is this ‘actual malice’? The story of Tex, Sonny and Elvis

based on the readings you are arguing that This is bad reporting — but it is NOT actual malice. In 1993, Sports Illustrated published an article titled “The Fix Was In” about a September 1992 boxing match between Randall “Tex” Cobb and Paul “Sonny” Barch that alleged the fight had been fixed by its promoter, Rick “Elvis” Parker. The article published Barch’s account of the events surrounding the match, which held that he and Cobb had agreed that Barch would “take a dive” in the first round, that Cobb and he had discussed how this would play out in the ring, and that Parker, Cobb and Barch had used cocaine together the night before the match and again shortly afterward. The story began when SI senior editor Steve Robinson received an unsolicited telephone call from Barch, who told him that he had participated in a fixed fight more than a year earlier in Fort Lauderdale and had given sworn testimony to that effect to Don Hazelton, the executive director of the Florida State Athletic Commission. Barch asked if SI would pay him for giving the magazine his story, and SI agreed to pay Barch $1,000 to hold the story for 10 days so the magazine could investigate. Robinson promised to pay another $14,000 at the end of the 10-day period if the story checked out. Robinson called Hazelton, who told him it was his opinion the fight had been fixed. At the time Hazelton had been director of the FSAC for five years, had attended every fight in the state during that time, and had previously served as president and executive director of the National Association of Boxing Commissions and the North American Boxing Union, as well as director of the International Boxing Organization. Robinson then spoke with Marty Dardin, an SI investigator who confirmed Hazelton was a reliable source. Finally, Robinson assigned the story to Sonja Steptoe, a reporter who had worked for eight years at the Wall Street Journal and SI but was not a boxing expert. Steptoe interviewed Hazelton at length and reviewed a film of the fight that Hazelton had made. He also learned that Hazelton had given both fighters a drug test after the fight, found Barch tested positive for cocaine and Cobb positive for marijuana, and suspended both indefinitely. Steptoe then interviewed Robb Russen, promoter Parker’s former business partner, and Tim Anderson, the fighter whom Cobb was originally scheduled to fight but who had been scratched by Parker at the last moment. Both told stories that seemed to corroborate Barch’s and Hazelton’s claim that the fight had been fixed. Finally, Steptoe and SI reporter William Nack interviewed Barch in person. Barch told a story that the SI reporters knew contained falsehoods, simply because they did not make sense – for example, that he had submitted tap water in place of a urine sample when he tested positive for cocaine. When the reporters checked out Barch’s criminal record, they found he had been arrested four times, including once for rape. Though they tried, the reporters were unable to corroborate Barch’s account of his pre-fight discussion with Cobb about how the fight would unfold. They tried to talk to Cobb, but he wasn’t talking. At no point did the reporters interview the fight referee, ringside judges or the fight physician. With the help of Steptoe and Nack, Barch’s “first-person” narrative was published about a week later, in the October 4, 1993, issue of Sports Illustrated. The story contained some minor errors. It said, for example, that Cobb tested positive for cocaine, not marijuana. Cobb sued for libel, arguing that SI’s reporters should not have relied on such a “sketchy source” as Barch, that they had no proof that he had ever discussed with Barch the possibility of throwing the fight, and that the $15,000 SI paid to Barch further called into question Barch’s veracity and motive, as well as SI’s. Finally, Cobb alleged, the fact that SI reporters had written Barch’s piece for him was itself evidence of wilful fabrication.

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