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Leak of Andrew Luck's retirement provides journalism lesson

The journalism classes I teach at SUNY Buffalo State started Monday, two days after the National Football League gave me my first media lesson for students.

When the news that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was retiring leaked Saturday night, a day before he planned to hold a press conference to announce, there actually was a journalistic debate on Twitter on whether ESPN’s Adam Schefter should have reported the news or allowed Luck to do it when he planned to do it.

The question arose because the news broke during a Colts preseason game Saturday night, leading to Luck being booed as he left the field by some fans who should be ashamed of themselves. In the process, Colt fans now rival for insensitivity the Toronto Raptors fans who cheered the injury of superstar Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors during the NBA Finals.

Schefter’s report led Luck to hold an impromptu 25-minute news conference after the game that was must-see TV for the class, intelligence and emotion he displayed.

Luck started by saying it wasn’t the way he planned to announce his retirement. He didn’t say it out of any anger.

He and the Colts management should have realized that news like Luck’s retirement couldn’t be kept quiet.

Of course, Schefter should have reported it after confirming it. It is called journalism.

It was news. Shocking news. Big news that went beyond sports. It was carried in the national network news programs on Sunday night. If Schefter had not reported it, it would have leaked quickly by some other reporter after the game.

After all, Luck said in his news conference he planned to tell his teammates after the game. There are 89 teammates in the preseason. You don’t think the news would have leaked before Sunday afternoon?

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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, shown against the Bills last year. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

It was a helluva story. A superstar athlete in his prime at age 29 preparing to prematurely leave a game he loved because of constant injuries and pain that were ruining his ability to enjoy life.

Renowned NFL writer Peter King may have dealt with the controversy the best when he tweeted: “I’d have done exactly what @AdamSchefter did. Not his job to worry about the consequences. His employer is ESPN, not the Colts.”

Journalistically, it wasn’t a close call. As I tweeted Sunday, "Journalists don’t wait for newsmakers to announce news. They report it as soon as they know it is true with a few exceptions. This isn’t one of them. If someone has personal family news you may let them announce when they are ready.”

I have had to deal with several personal stories involving people in the news that were among the few exceptions. Most recently, I sent a private message to WGR radio personality Jeremy White, congratulating him after learning he and his wife, Molly, were expecting quadruplets.

The message was sent a few weeks before White and his wife were ready to announce the news.

“Please do not report it,” he wrote me.

I told White, of course I would not. He and his wife deserved to announce that news when they were ready to announce it. The last thing any reporter would want to do is upset an expectant mother, especially one dealing with the potential health issues concerning carrying quadruplets.

I also told my editor about the messages White and I exchanged. My editor agreed with my decision.

White announced it on Aug. 20 on the morning radio show he co-hosts with Howard Simon.

He also sent me a great quote: "It's been a roller coaster to this point. ... It's a lot of fun telling family and friends and watching their joy and shock. Then there's understanding that it is high-risk and learning all that comes with that. But if everything goes well, we will be over the moon to welcome our four near the end of the year."

In another case, renowned Buffalo television writer David Milch told me after an interview I did with him in Santa Monica, Calif., more than two years ago that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Over the years, we had developed a relationship in which he shared things that he didn’t want to be reported. This was one of them. I agreed not to mention his diagnosis until he was ready to do so. Once again, I told my editor.

Milch announced his diagnosis in April to a couple of writers who were doing a story about the premiere of “Deadwood: The Movie.”

Was I upset I was scooped? Not at all. Milch deserved to tell his personal story when and the way he wanted to tell it.

Irv Weinstein at his home in California.

Similarly, I learned that the late WKBW-TV legend Irv Weinstein was suffering from ALS – more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease – long before it was announced in 2016.

I wrote the story only after Weinstein agreed in an interview that he was ready for it to be known.

I was first alerted to Weinstein’s condition by former WKBW-TV General Manager Phil Beuth in an email sent to many people who knew Irv. Beuth noted that Irv “might enjoy a call” and left Weinstein’s cell number in Mission Viejo, Calif.

I decided to put my news hat to the side, call the man that I had covered for decades, wish him well and see if he wanted this private situation to go public.

He didn’t initially answer a couple of my calls, so I sent him an email telling him I was thinking of him and praying for him and asking him to give me a call if he could. He responded briefly in an email with his diagnosis and added: “No complaint. I’ve had a great life, and the love and support of family and friends that will carry me through to my last breath.”

That response led me to write another email in which I told him that I wouldn’t write anything without talking to him first and having his permission. Then I called his cellphone again.

This time, he answered.

After a brief conversation, I asked him if he would like to tell his fans in Buffalo about his condition, thinking a story would lead to many messages of support from 3,000 miles away. He said that would be fine and we proceeded with the telephone interview for about 18 minutes, with the last five or so with his incredibly supportive wife, Elaine.

They both made it easy for me.

In Weinstein’s case, spreading the news led to an outpouring of love from his fans and former colleagues.

Some journalists might disagree with some of my choices. But believe it or not, journalists have hearts. They don’t want to appear heartless by announcing personal news like a couple having quadruplets, someone having dementia or someone being diagnosed with ALS before the subjects were ready to announce it.

Having a superstar change the timing of his retirement announcement by a few hours hardly is in the same category.

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