Was the NBA All-Star Vegas weekend a “Perfect Party” or was “Mayhem the Main Event?” Both descriptions were the headlines for separate pieces written by columnist Jason Whitlock — the former for the Kansas City Star on February 19, the latter for AOL Sports two days later.
His column for the Star was a first-person account. “It was intended to be a humorous diary,” Whitlock said in an interview. The column deals with his friends and how he spent the evenings. No sources needed, and it agreed with most of the media — local and national — that the sensationalism of Vegas outweighed the drabness of the All-Star Game, and while there were some problems associated with 300,000 people and a bottomless supply of liquor, for the most part a good time was had by all. Whitlock’s only complaint in the column is, “You were overwhelmed by the smell of weed, the use of profanity and the N-word-a.” Fair enough. Annoying, but not threatening.
Two days later, writing for AOL Sports, Whitlock said the NBA All-Star Weekend in Vegas was “an unmitigated failure, and any thoughts of taking the extravaganza to New Orleans in 2008 are total lunacy.” In this piece, Whitlock tells of an orgy of crime, mayhem, and violence, and calls for NBA Commissioner David Stern to move the game overseas, “someplace where the Bloods and Crips and hookers and hoes can’t get to it without a passport and plane ticket.”
His AOL article quickly became a hot topic of conversation on radio shows and Internet blogs. Most took Whitlock at his word, never having read his more benign Star column. To be clear, the issue is not what really happened in Vegas but how Whitlock chose to report it — and the possible perils of columnists with two audiences scooping themselves.
This is an age-old problem, said Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Florida. “There are inherent competing loyalties in a case like this,” he said. “I leave it to his local editor to either kick his ass, or to benefit from the national exposure.”
As a columnist for the Star, Whitlock has an obligation to his Kansas City readers to provide them with what he knows as soon as he knows it. The Star article, however, does not mention the violence, the brawls or suggest any level of chaos on par with what he reported in his AOL piece.
Did Whitlock save the juicier bits for a national column? Whitlock said that when he wrote the Star article he had yet to confirm the rumors he was hearing, which is why he didn’t report on them.
That would make sense had his AOL article not included mostly rumor and speculation anyway. “All weekend, people, especially cab drivers, gossiped about brawls and shootings,” wrote Whitlock in the AOL piece. “You didn’t know what to believe because the local newspaper was filled with stories about what a raging success All-Star Weekend was.” Siding against the local newspapers and with the gossiping cab drivers, Whitlock scolded the NBA, hip-hop culture, the Las Vegas police department, and ESPN, which he derided for not covering the crime spree.
His sources here are thin. The only named source in the AOL article never spoke to Whitlock. She complained to a local television station, not about violence but about rudeness. The only other source is an anonymous occupant of the MGM Grand, who Whitlock claims “literally fled the hotel in fear” and moved to the Luxor, which, for the record, is only six-tenths of a mile from the MGM Grand. Whitlock insisted to me that friends, reporters, and tourists who were in Vegas with him can corroborate the culture of fear that permeated the weekend. Asked why those people were not quoted in his article, Whitlock responded, “I’m not big on quoting anybody. I’m a columnist.”
When Steve Somers, a WFAN sports talk show host, challenged Whitlock the night the AOL article appeared on the veracity of his statements, asking for proof or sources, Whitlock became enraged, saying that he had been to Las Vegas twenty or thirty times and had never experienced a weekend like this. “How is this different than any other weekend?” Somers asked, looking for some context. “I don’t know. I’m not a research analyst on Vegas,” Whitlock shouted. “Call someone from Vegas if you want the stats.” As the interview came to a close, Whitlock repeated, “I don’t need any stats or numbers to know what I experienced.”
Maybe not, but readers do. Statistics and official reports can of course be misleading. It is well and good to add the caveat that Las Vegas desperately desires a professional sports franchise and may not want to advertise its crime, but numbers are essential to a story like this because personal experience without context can be misleading. Even a cursory amount of reporting by Whitlock would have helped.
There were 403 arrests over the four-day period, according to Jose Montoya, a public information officer for the Las Vegas Police Department. However, Whitlock’s assertion that this was the result of the NBA All-Star Game and the crowd it attracts is debatable. “I don’t think that’s any more than New Year’s Eve,” said Ron Kantowski, a sports reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, referring to the number of arrests. “It didn’t feel any different to me.” According to the Vegas Police Department’s Web site, there were 145 arrests this past New Year’s Eve, which drew a similarly sized crowd to the All-Star weekend; the largest one-night total of arrests for the All-Star weekend was 196. Whether an extra 51 arrests is significant in terms of 300,000 people can be debated only if the numbers are made available.
Whitlock contends that had Vegas police been more vigilant the number of arrests would have increased tenfold. “They were there solely for decoration and to discourage major crimes,” he wrote in his AOL piece. “Beyond that, they minded their own business.” However, the numbers simply don’t bear that out. Two hundred and thirty-nine of the 403 arrests were for vice-related activities. Sure, that’s a crime but not exactly “major” — or atypical — in Sin City.
Of course, the larger issue here is the duplicity. Whitlock wrote two separate articles on the same event with two entirely different tones that led readers down two entirely different paths. If the weekend was a “walk in the yard at a maximum security prison,” as he wrote for AOL, was it appropriate for Whitlock to be writing a “humorous diary” for the Star that made no mention of the mayhem? The comments his column received on the Star’s Web site, by readers who had apparently seen both pieces, reveal a level of anger and distrust. How, some readers wondered, could Whitlock’s take on the All-Star weekend have changed so dramatically from Monday to Wednesday? Even after asking him directly, their answer is still unclear.