Saving Face? CNN Launches ‘Upon Further Review’ Segment With BYU Mea Culpa

CNN offered another clue Monday morning into how a properly-run CNN under Discovery and boss Chris Licht might look as New Day introduced a new segment called “Upon Further Review” to reexamine stories that, once facts emerged, showed something was different than the initial narrative. With the ever-pompous John Avlon at the helm, the first installment touched on the debunked claims of racist taunts from Brigham Young University fans to a Duke women’s volleyball player.

Having promoted the story herself, co-host Brianna Keilar began by informing viewers that “[t]wo weeks after a Duke volleyball player alleged she was called racial slurs during a game against Brigham Young University, an investigation into the incident found no evidence to corroborate the report.”

Avlon took over and said he’d be “starting something a little different” (versus his smug “Reality Check” lectures) called “Upon Further Review” that would provide “updates” on “the initial official version of the story once more facts come in.”

He explained that the incident at BYU put volleyball at “the front of the outrage Olympics two weeks ago when a Duke starter named Rachel Richardson make the explosive accusation.”

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Noting that Richardson received support from “stars like Lebron James” as “the country rallied around her” (which was dubious to suggest), Avlon conceded “her family appear[ed] here on CNN, amid some 65 separate articles” in the press “about the controversy” and it resulting in the University of South Carolina cancelling a lady’s basketball game against BYU.

Avlon then said BYU “offered a wholehearted apology” and “banned a fan who had been identified as making the racist slurs,” but still “launched an internal investigation.”

As a result, however, Avlon said “that’s where the narrative started to fall far short of the initial indignation” as BYU found zero evidence to corroborate Richardson’s tall tale after having “review[ed] all available video and audio recordings and reaching out to more than 50 folks who attended the game, including Duke personnel and athletes.”

Avlon argued that while “healthy skepticism is always a virtue…this doesn’t read like a cover-up” as opposed to “a rush to judgment because of a well-intentioned impulse to believe the Duke player’s accusations.”

What Avlon wouldn’t admit was those defending Richardson indeed wanted the racist slurs to be true in order to further their preferred narratives about humanity or, more specifically, those that lean conservative (such as Mormons).

“Now, we need to note that the investigation does not call Rachel Richardson a liar or a fabricator. It leaves open the possibility that she sincerely believed that she heard repeated racial heckling and that some sort of misunderstanding occurred,” he added, as if to offer an olive branch.

Moments after saying “facts always have to come first,” Avlon came back to argue that, when more facts come to light, both journalists and the public should “acknowledge it and adjust,” no matter the topic.

He then concluded with more sage advice:

Fidelity to the facts is all that we as journalists and citizens should ask. It’s understandable that there’s a desire to believe people when they say they’ve been victimized, but the accusations have to be backed up by facts and when the facts don’t fit upon further review, we need to set the record straight with as much intensity as the initial reports.

Exit question: How much do you think Avlon and his CNN colleagues will apply this to conservatives, Republicans, and former President Trump?

To see the relevant CNN transcript from September 12, click “expand.”

CNN’s New Day
September 12, 2022
7:47 a.m. [TEASE]

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Upon Further Review; BYU Reverses Ban on Fan After Finding No Evidence of Slur]

BRIANNA KEILAR: A university investigation into a racist incident is turning up empty. We unpack the fallout from the allegations, next.

(….)

7:52 a.m. Eastern

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Upon Further Review; BYU Reverses Ban on Fan After Finding No Evidence of Slur]

KEILAR: Two weeks after a Duke volleyball player alleged she was called racial slurs during a game against Brigham Young University, an investigation into the incident found no evidence to corroborate the report. John Avlon joins us now to unpack the story.

JOHN AVLON: That’s right. We’re starting something a little different today. It’s a new segment that updates the initial official version of the story once more facts come in. It’s a form of journalistic accountability and we’re going to call it “Upon Further Review.” Now, volleyball is rarely the source of serious controversy, but it went straight to the front of the outrage Olympics two weeks ago when a Duke starter named Rachel Richardson make the explosive accusation that she and other Black teammates were subjected to racist heckling while playing a game against Brigham Young University.

Now, obviously, this kind of heckling is totally unacceptable and the country rallied around her with stars like LeBron James offering a statement of solidarity, her family appearing here on CNN, amid some 65 separate articles written about the controversy. The University of South Carolina women’s basketball team even announced their decision to cancel all games against BYU. Now, for their part, Brigham Young University offered a wholehearted apology. BYU athletics pronounced a zero-tolerance policy against racism. They banned a fan who had been identified as making the racist slurs. They also launched an internal investigation, but that’s where the narrative started to fall far short of the initial indignation because when BYU released its findings after reviewing all available video and audio recordings and reaching out to more than 50 folks who attended the game, including Duke personnel and athletes, they stated that they had not found any evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans engaged in racial heckling or uttered racial slurs at the event and they lifted the ban on the fan with apologies. They also invited anyone with,“evidence contrary to our findings” to come forward. 

Now, healthy skepticism is always a virtue, but this doesn’t read like a cover-up. Instead, it feels like there was a rush to judgment because of a well-intentioned impulse to believe the Duke player’s accusations. Now, we need to note that the investigation does not call Rachel Richardson a liar or a fabricator. It leaves open the possibility that she sincerely believed that she heard repeated racial heckling and that some sort of misunderstanding occurred. For its part, Duke issued a statement saying it was standing by its players. But notably, the Richardson family has not yet responded to CNN’s request for comment. Look, systemic racism is real and corrosive to the soul of our country, but facts always have to come first. Listen to ESPN host Stephen A. Smith, who covered the controversy extensively.

STEPHEN A. SMITH [on ESPN’s First Take, 09/09/22]: Racism, prejudice still exist in this country. We all know it. We know how prevalent it is and we know that it’s something that completely needs to be eradicated. Having said that, we’re not doing ourselves any favors if we bring it up and broach it when it doesn’t exist and that’s the key that we need to focus on.

AVLON: That’s right and that’s why it was surprising to hear the head coach of the South Carolina women’s basketball team, Dawn Staley, say that she was still okay with canceling her team’s games against BYU regardless of the results of the investigation. Staley says that she’s standing by her decision because of her own personal research and commitment to the well-being of her team. But when investigations turn up a very different fact pattern, it’s incumbent upon everyone to acknowledge it and adjust. Fidelity to the facts is all that we as journalists and citizens should ask. It’s understandable that there’s a desire to believe people when they say they’ve been victimized, but the accusations have to be backed up by facts and when the facts don’t fit upon further review, we need to set the record straight with as much intensity as the initial reports. Bri?

KEILAR: John Avlon, thank you so much for that.

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