Barry's Bubble Bursts

Pop artist Andy Warhol once quipped that everyone in America would be famous for 15 minutes.

News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders had his 15 minutes this week when his charge that NC State fans "chanted" taunts at Wake Forest's Chris Paul caused a stir in the national sports scene. Yet Saunders's brush with fame led to his exposure as one who embellishes events to create false impressions.

As shown by Pack Pride (as well as Wolfpack site earlier this week, Saunders's first column painted a false picture of a "chant" from Wolfpack fans to Paul: "I killed your grandfather." Saunders wrote that this "chant" just "shows the power of the crowd, because individually none of the jock-sniffers making the chant would have had the nerve."

But the truth is that this "crowd power" consisted only of one or two misguided students. A reporter present at the game stated he heard the remark yelled once. Wake Forest Sports Information Director Dean Buchan, the sole source for Saunders's previous column, stated subsequently that he never heard the remark at all, but was reporting what he was told by Paul himself – whose initial defense of the Hodge incident was called out as false by numerous observers, including hometown sports columnist Lennox Rawlings.

How does the fact that only a couple of students engaged in this tasteless behavior change things? Unless the taunt was falsely inflated into a "chant," with the equally false implication that it came from a substantial number of Wolfpack fans, Saunders had no story. Without the "power of the crowd," behind the taunts, in short, one's left with a couple of louts yelling something nasty.

That's not newsworthy, and Saunders knows that. Hence his "power of the crowd" and "chant" descriptions, which he then embellished with his equally false implication that no Wolfpack fans objected to this ignoble conduct. For again by all reliable evidence, the taunters were immediately shouted down by other fans – a fact Saunders refuses to acknowledge in today's column as anything but a "conclusion" by NC State Athletic Director Lee Fowler.

Saunders writes today that "[n]ever did I say or imply that all of the N.C. State fans were engaged in the tasteless chant … look it up." Saunders is as disingenuous today as he was Monday. The point is not that some NC State fans refused to participate in the "chant," but that almost none of them did – and no one but Saunders claims there was a "chant" at all. Saunders's false picture of substantial participation made a story out of a non-story – a fact he either won't admit or can't understand.

Saunders's credibility began to unravel Wednesday on WPTF radio's Bill Lumaye Show. Lumaye, like other media picking up the story, first condemned the taunts under the impression there was widespread participation in the "chant."

In response to listener feedback, Lumaye learned the truth and invited Saunders to call in and give his side of the story. Saunders – this writer heard the WPTF crew saying they had heard from Saunders at the outset of Lumaye's show – failed to do so.

Why is this important? First, it shows Saunders ducking a venue where he was open to challenge. Second, it suggests that Saunders has problems with the truth. This writer was informed by a reliable NC State fan that he spoke with Saunders personally and asked the columnist why he refused to appear on WPTF. Saunders apparently responded by stating that he wasn't invited to appear.

If Saunders made this statement, it was false. Lumaye made multiple requests for Saunders to appear, both in this writer's hearing and on the air. When Lumaye moved on to another topic, he again invited Saunders to call in. Saunders was not "invited" on the show only in the sense that he didn't receive an engraved invitation, by mail.

Lumaye's reward for equal time was an apparent shot from Saunders in today's column, in which Saunders sarcastically described himself as "crushed" by "[t]he host of one local talk show" saying he didn't like him. Saunders may not be crushed, but his local credibility is. Unless Saunders's reference today is another example of his writing about remarks he didn't hear, he was aware of both the broadcast and the invitations to appear – and ducked the one and denied the other.

Maybe the person checking in with WPTF wasn't Saunders himself, but a racist imposter. For Saunders seems as plagued by racists as Ebenezer Scrooge was by spirits; Saunders rarely writes a column without playing the race card in some fashion. His column today was no exception; this time it was a "State fan" leaving a racist telephone message, a message which Saunders describes as "one of the kinder calls he received."

Here we go, as they say, again. Assuming this message was in fact left by an NC State fan, which this writer invites Saunders to prove, is it a fair description of general reaction to his first column from NC State supporters? Did NC State fans truly object to Saunders's color, not his liberties with fact? So it would seem, for Saunders's reference that this was "one of the kinder calls" implies that most calls from other NC State fans were worse.

Saunders, cannot, it seems, resist using exceptions, assuming the racist message actually exists, to create fictitious rules. Such is the world of Barry Saunders: two louts yelling becomes "the power of the crowd," and a racist message becomes a "kinder" example of fan reaction. Perhaps one or two NC State fans, should the Wolfpack defeat Wake Forest this evening, will shout for joy while leaving a local taproom. If so, expect a Saunders column: "State fans riot."

If Saunders writes such a column, though, don't expect to hear of it (or him) on ESPN radio any time soon. His credibility is shot on this issue, and today's bombast aside, he probably knows that. The national sports media aren't at all likely to take a Saunders column at face value again.

And that's good not only for NC State's reputation, but for journalism generally. While Wolfpack fans shouldn't expect an apology from Saunders, they can take satisfaction in his return to relative obscurity – precisely where he belongs.

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