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National Association of Black Journalists accepting gift from Barry Bonds gives wrong appearance

How much forgiveness can $20,000 buy, anyway?

That’s just one of the questions left hanging as the National Association of Black Journalists agonizes over a $20,000 gift bestowed from one of the most controversial sports stars in recent years, home run slugger Barry Bonds.

The NABJ, a group founded to advocate for diversity in newsrooms, announced the award last month during its national convention in San Diego. Almost immediately, members began to wonder on email listservs and close conversations whether such a move was a good idea.

That’s because Bonds is expected to go on trial in March over perjury charges related to his testimony before a grand jury in 2003 that he did not take performance-enhancing drugs while competing.

So the world’s largest organization representing journalists of color would be in the position of thanking Bonds’ charitable foundation for a sizable grant months before some of the group’s members would have to cover his perjury trial and perhaps opinionate on its meaning for the sports world.

That juxtaposition was too much for ESPN columnist Jemele Hill to take. She blasted the journalists’ group for accepting the money in a column where she noted “it violates one of the basic tenets of journalism: You don't accept money from sources. It doesn't matter if those sources seem well-intentioned. It doesn't matter if the money will greatly help the organization.”

The irony of this moment was also noted in a column from one of the journalists who broke news of the steroids-in-baseball scandal that has tarnished Bonds’ reputation. Lance Williams, half of a reporting team that won the George Polk Award for its work at the San Francisco Chronicle, observed that Bonds has a long and well-earned reputation for hating the press.

“In those days, the writers and broadcasters covering the home run chase endured grief, static and jacking around from the Giants star, along with occasional physical threats,” wrote Williams, saying Bonds’ actions ranged from blowing off Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly after making him wait five days to haranguing an intern so badly he wrote a brief memoir about it.

This is an irony not lost me, a journalist who is both a card-carrying member of NABJ and a former member of the Pittsburgh news media, where Bonds’ anti-media antics and erratic personality were already gaining attention when he played for the Pirates.

I don’t feel as strongly as Hill about the ethical implications of the gift. NABJ as an organization accepted sponsorships for its last convention from the National Basketball Association, Rent-A-Center, Disney theme parks and Google – all major corporations that many of our members will cover in news stories to come.

And, frankly, it might be the best sort of irony to use money donated from a player who never particularly liked the press to build up journalists and journalism. NABJ has said the money will be used to fund a gift for outstanding media entrepreneurs named after longtime overnight radio talk show host Ray Taliaferro.

But in the end it’s about appearances. Short of accepting the money a month before his trial, the timing for this announcement couldn’t be much worse. And while Bonds’ standing might not be elevated by the award, NABJ’s credibility could sink.

At a time when some media activists are using any means at their disposal to discredit groups they see as unfairly advantaging people of color – including conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart’s twisted reading of an anti-racism speech given by former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod – it seems there is less room than ever for associations which don’t completely pass the smell test.

In the end, I don’t think the gift or its acceptance will achieve the redemption and ethical calamities the harshest critics predict.

But at a time when confidence in journalists and traditional media may never be lower, why take the chance?

***

I wanted to take a moment in this space to come back to last week’s column, where I worried about the possibility of HBO soft-pedaling the holdout of star New York Jets player Darrelle Revis in its unscripted series about the team’s training camp, Hard Knocks.

After a joyous hour spent soaking up an episode filled with colorful coach Rex Ryan’s playful profanities and the bitter reality of seeing hopeful players cut on camera, I realized my fears were way off base.

HBO’s producers never seemed to shy away from the team’s concern about Revis, showing Ryan jokingly calling his name in the camp’s sleeping quarters while general manager Mike Tannenbaum fruitlessly worked the phones feverishly with the cornerback’s agents to craft a deal.

And even though said agents nixed filming of a secret meeting they held right before the show debuted, HBO’s cameras did capture Tannenbaum’s thoughts after he left the meeting, which weren’t particularly complimentary of Revis’ salary demands.

In all, it was just the juicy off-field soap opera I – and many HBO Sports-loving fans – had hoped for.

Forgive me for doubting you, boys. Should have known you’d come through in the end.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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