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.