Last week, the most comprehensive look to date at the flawed investigation into a rape accusation against Jameis Winston, Florida State University’s star quarterback, was published.
The allegation, stemming from an encounter in December 2012, rocked the college football world—and Tallahassee, FL, home to Florida State—when it became public in November 2013, in the midst of the college’s push for a national football championship. But last week’s story didn’t appear in the Tallahassee paper, or any other Florida paper. It ran in The New York Times.
The Times’ Walt Bogdanich, in an article supplemented with public documents, audio recordings, and original video interviews, found that “there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university” after an FSU freshman reported that she was raped in late 2012:
The police did not follow the obvious leads that would have quickly identified the suspect as well as witnesses, one of whom videotaped part of the sexual encounter. After the accuser identified Mr. Winston as her assailant, the police did not even attempt to interview him for nearly two weeks and never obtained his DNA. The detective handling the case waited two months to write his first report and then prematurely suspended his inquiry without informing the accuser. By the time the prosecutor got the case, important evidence had disappeared, including the video of the sexual act.
Bogdanich’s reporting also reinforced earlier reports that FSU pretty much ignored the allegation until after football season was over.
“Records show that Florida State’s athletic department knew about the rape accusation early on, in January 2013, when the assistant athletic director called the police to inquire about the case,” Bogdanich wrote. “Even so, the university did nothing about it, allowing Mr. Winston to play the full season without having to answer any questions. After the championship game, in January 2014, university officials asked Mr. Winston to discuss the case, but he declined on advice of his lawyer.” (The university subsequently released a statement objecting to the story.)
Was the New York Times story a big deal? The Miami Herald certainly seemed to think so. The day after the Times piece ran, the Herald put a condensed version on its front page and ran a sidebar detailing FSU’s objections to the story. Herald columnist Fred Grimm wrote about the case the same day, calling the Times’ coverage a “damning investigation” and questioning whether “simple incompetence” could truly explain the Tallahassee Police Department’s shoddy investigation.
“If Winston told the truth, that the sex was consensual, then the half-assed police work was unfair to him,” Grimm wrote. “If his accuser was telling the truth, then it only added to the miseries of a woman who was denigrated and threatened on social media as a set of mindless fans went all out to demonstrate the warped ethics spawned by big-time college sports.”
The Tampa Bay Times, the first paper to seek records related to the investigation back in November, also ran the condensed version of Bogdanich’s story in the sports section. And staff writer Michael Kruse wrote a blog post summarizing it and urging readers to read it in full. Two days later, Kruse wrote another post flagging discussion of the story at Slate, Salon, ESPN and Esquire.
But the response to Bogdanich’s reporting was different at the Tallahassee Democrat, the Gannett-owned daily in Florida State’s home city. In print, the paper ignored the New York Times article while teasing a story about former FSU coach Bobby Bowden kicking off a fundraising tour. On Twitter, Democrat sports editor Ira Schoffel found fault with it, calling it “95 percent… rehash” and “selective reporting.”
Bob Gabordi, executive editor of the Democrat, declined to discuss Bogdanich’s piece when I contacted him last week. “Walter is an outstanding journalist, but I’m reluctant to comment on the journalism of others,” he wrote me in an email. “I appreciate you reaching out to us, but we’re not going to comment further.”
It’s true that while the New York Times story did introduce some new details, as others have noted it offered no bombshell revelation. The article did not answer the question readers most want to know, about Winston’s guilt or innocence.
But the story nonetheless lands some real punches, especially on the Tallahassee Police Department. After reviewing the coverage, I find it hard to understand why the Democrat seems to have ignored Bogdanich’s impressive article in its pages—and also why no Florida-based paper beat him to it, since the story was fundamentally based on documents that any journalist could have obtained under the state’s expansive public records law.
To be fair, the hometown Democrat covered this investigation extensively until it ended. When news of the investigation first broke, before Winston had won the Heisman or FSU had won the BCS national championship, the Democrat was among the first outlets on the news. (The Tampa Bay Times was on it from the start as well, but for whatever reason, this has never been the Herald’s story.) That coverage is behind a paywall now, but Gabordi’s blog post explaining how the paper struggled with how to report the story is here.
The Democrat reported that prosecutor Willie Meggs, the woman’s family, and the woman’s attorneys repeatedly criticized police handling of the case. A few days after the case was closed, the prosecutor released recordings of interviews done with witnesses and friends of the woman who accused Winston. “Additional details of the delayed investigation into a year-old rape allegation against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston were released Wednesday by the office of State Attorney Willie Meggs,” the Democrat reported. But the paper didn’t fully explore those delays, as Bogdanich did.
The federal government is investigating whether FSU violated Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. USA Today broke that news two weeks ago, and the Democrat picked up USA Today’s story. On Friday, the Democrat published another story about the Title IX investigation.
When I asked more specifically what stories the Democrat had done that laid out the flaws in the Tallahassee Police Department investigation, Gabordi referred me to a Nov. 29 article headlined, “TPD defends handling of Jameis Winston case.”
That story, done shortly before the prosecutor decided not to file charges, questions whether the department followed its own policies in the investigation, which is a reasonable question to ask. It notes the Tallahassee police were criticized for sharing information with defense attorneys. It also notes that attorneys swirling around the high-profile case had accused the police of not interviewing witnesses.
So why not test their claims once the investigation was closed? As soon as the prosecutor decided not to charge Winston, many of the records in the case became public.
The difference between the coverage in the Democrat or other Florida papers and the New York Times account is the difference between raising questions or noting inconsistencies and delivering a searing, well-documented indictment. Even without a new “bombshell,” the Times marshaled the evidence, and turned over some new stones, to deliver a tale of shoddy policing that was more powerful than anything else that had been written.
In criticizing the Times piece, Stossel, the Democrat’s sports editor, wrote on Twitter that Meggs, the prosecutor, “has been ripping the TPD investigation from day one.” Yes—but Bogdanich showed just how right Meggs was.
I spoke with Grimes, the Herald columnist, on Friday. He said he hadn’t seen anything nearly as penetrating as the New York Times account in any Florida paper.
“They did some decent stuff,” Grimm told me, referring to the Democrat’s reporting. “But they made no effort to put it together and they didn’t press the cops.”
“There was a time when that would have been our story,” he added. “I think the Tallahassee Democrat deserves to be embarrassed, and we deserve to be embarrassed too.”
Even if you’re not inclined to be so critical of the Florida press, I’ve seen nothing here that offers the context, depth, comprehensive narrative, and overall impact of Bogdanich’s reporting. The lagging Herald, at least, served its readers by picking up the Times article.
The Democrat made a different choice, which I don’t entirely understand—but if the Tallahassee paper believes the New York Times didn’t get the story right, I’d love to see it take its own crack at the definitive coverage of this story.
Correction: The original version of this post overlooked the fact that The Tampa Bay Times ran a condensed version of Bogdanich’s piece. The post has been updated. CJR regrets the error.