By Daniel Libit
In early 2017, Kent Walz, the Albuquerque Journal’s long-time editor-in-chief, retired to the role of senior editor.
From this fallback perch, Walz took up the essential task of penning single-sourced puff pieces about New Mexico’s elite — the sorts of people (officeholders, CEOs) who newspapers are supposed to hold accountable — for a semi-regular feature called “Face-to-Face.”
The stories, which are accompanied by a big portrait photo of the subject, get prominent play above-the-fold on the Journal’s front page.
In the journalism biz, these kinds of ingratiating profiles are often known as “beat sweeteners,” with the assumption that they will produce reporting dividends down the road.
There’s something questionable (if not problematic) about this reporting practice, in general, but it’s fair to acknowledge that it long pre-dates Walz’s waltzes with the bold-faced names of Bernalillo County and beyond. That said, its purpose becomes even more dubious when the writer isn’t covering a traditional beat — or, as in this case, when the beat is the sweetener.
In his doing, Walz has come to embody the Journal’s struggle in confronting the biggest game in town, Lobo sports, during its recent era of ignominy. While the paper has done yeomen’s work covering the UNM athletic department’s ongoing debt crisis, for example, it has dropped the ball on many of the beat’s biggest stories — particularly those requiring the scrutiny of VIPs. Most conspicuously, the paper was nearly catatonic in the face of numerous allegations made against UNM football coach Bob Davie, which eventually led to his one-month suspension at the start of last season. Rather than seriously investigating these claims, which publicly circulated in a 2013 anonymous letter from former Lobo football players, the Journal wrote two inconclusive articles and left it to a Chicago-based freelance blogger to pick up the pieces at some point in the future. Meanwhile, the paper dispatched Walz in 2017 to sugarcoat the story.
“Davie, of course, hears the critics,” Walz wrote, without touching on any of the most poignant criticism. “And he mostly tunes them out as he focuses on finishing the job he started six years ago – building a winning culture in his program.”
In his lengthy recap of Davie’s professional career, Walz failed to mention any of the various controversies the coach had been embroiled in while at Notre Dame, Tulane and Arizona. Nor was there any mention of the charges of racism and player abuse at UNM that had been reported in Walz’s own paper four years prior. The conceit of the piece was that Davie, an emerging pillar of the community, had been left a mess by his predecessor Mike Locksley and was being grossly unappreciated for all his effort. That, no doubt, is the story that Davie would have wanted to be told.
“For a guy who took over a train wreck of a football program and built it over five years to a 9-4 record and a bowl game win in 2016, Bob Davie doesn’t always feel the love,” wrote Walz, the willing scribe.
Last month, Walz returned to the Lobo beat to offer a similar pretext for UNM’s second-year athletic director, Eddie Nuñez. “UNM sports boss undaunted despite two tough years,” went the headline from Walz’s August 25 story.
An editor’s note prefaced the story this way:
Eddie Nuñez has taken plenty of flak since coming from Louisiana State University to run UNM athletics. He sat down to talk about the challenges he’s faced and why he thinks things are better.
Sure enough, Walz seemed happy to oblige.
“(O)ne of the characteristics that best defines Eduardo Nuñez, a former architecture student and the son of Cuban refugees from the Castro regime, is chin up and look for the silver lining,” Walz wrote.
Curious about what kind of back-and-forth precedes a “Face-to-Face” feature, I submitted a public records request to UNM for emails between Walz and Nuñez. What I discovered was a conversation that should concern any proponent of independent journalism.
On June 24, Walz emailed Nuñez to schedule an on-the-record sit-down for the story. “As discussed,” Walz wrote, “I appreciate your willingness to do a profile interview. I need about an hour.” Walz suggested that Nuñez read his Bob Davie profile, in anticipation.
Then Walz pivoted to the other matter at hand: “the role the Journal could play in (UNM’s) marketing efforts,” as he described it.
Quoth the reporter:
….off the top of my head a couple examples of nontraditional approaches could range from a sponsored advance section for football and basketball to sponsored short profiles of Lobo athletes…
Our digital traffic is pretty strong and I think there’s a great crossover between your fan base and Journal readership. Bill Lang also has an interest in this area and both he and Cecelia [Uebel] are copied here.
Lang is the publisher and president of the Albuquerque Journal, who also happens to be a board member of the UNM Foundation. Uebel is the newspaper’s senior Vice President and chief revenue officer.
Just to be clear: The Journal’s senior editor, in his capacity as the story’s reporter, was pitching his profile subject on specific paid sponsorship opportunities with the paper while scheduling an interview. WTF?
In the journalism biz, this kind of thing is called a conflict of interest. (And in case that’s not readily apparent, I direct you to the “Act Independently” section of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.)
However, reached by telephone Tuesday, Walz politely disagreed with this characterization. He explained that Nuñez had initially brought up the subject of UNM’s marketing during their initial coffee klatch. Walz said all he then did was to connect Nuñez with the Journal’s businessfolks.
“I didn’t set up a meeting to pitch advertising,” Walz said. “(Nuñez) set up a meeting with me. We had a long discussion, covered lots of topics…He talked about the challenges and issues of marketing out there, and so it was just a natural part of the conversation. It just came up during our discussion.”
Walz further explained that there was no discussion of “specific transactions” and that he never had any subsequent follow-ups with Nuñez about advertising in the paper.
“To me, that’s not a conflict,” Walz said.
Asked to comment about the exchange, the Journal’s current editor, Karen Moses, issued the following statement (emphasis added):
I am aware of the email. In it, senior editor Kent Walz is informing Eddie Nunez of services the Journal provides that are widely known, but also letting him know about special sections that Journal editorial and advertising departments have teamed up on in the past. We have produced special sections in advance of both the basketball and football seasons.
Kent’s Face-to-Face features, including the one on Eddie Nunez, involve interviews with interesting and well known New Mexicans — often showing a more personal aspect of that individual. These are not in-depth or investigative pieces. The Journal does plenty of those.
As senior editor, Kent continues to represent the Journal in the community — touting our award-winning news coverage as well as opportunities the Journal can offer businesses that want to contact our marketing and advertising teams.
Before his current mercurial role, Walz sat atop the Journal’s masthead for 22 years, cultivating the reputation as a crusader for governmental transparency and accountability. In 1989, Walz was one of the co-founders of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, the state’s most prominent First Amendment advocacy group. At the same time, he presided over a newspaper that increasingly lost its gumption when it came to watchdogging the state’s powerful people and institutions, as former Journal reporter Jeff Proctor explained last year on the NMFishbowl podcast.
“Kent and (NMFOG) and the Journal for many, many years, back when there was some ambition and all of that, they were the push-back machine against the old, Democratic Party patron network that ran the state of New Mexico,” Proctor told me.
“People often have this idea of the Journal that it is just a Republican-boosting newspaper. That is not true…What is really at the root of that is that the masthead and Kent, in particular, became part of the power structure rather than remaining apart from it.”
I asked Walz about the purpose of doing light features about civic bigwigs, Lobo or otherwise, when there’s critical things to query about.
“They talk about the controversies,” Walz said, “but in large part it is a vehicle to let people talk about how they see things, where they come from, what they’ve done.”
In the journalism biz, that kind of thing is regarded as self-promotion; it doesn’t require the aegis of a news organization.
It would be one thing if Walz’s beat sweeteners were a saccharine treat in an otherwise meaty diet of arm’s-length reporting. But in the case of Lobo athletics, at least, New Mexico’s paper-of-record has gotten only more lethargic with keeping ’em honest since this website ceased regular production four months ago. To date, Walz’s Face-to-Face feature stands as the Journal’s most “in-depth” examination of Nuñez, two seasons into the AD’s tenure — not that there hasn’t been plenty of stuff worth digging into.
Accompanying the Nuñez blandishment last month was a credulous string of Journal stories and headlines that could make a reader wonder if the newspaper is all too eager to flip the script about the state of Lobo sports, regardless of the facts on the ground.
“UNM athletics stays within 2019 budget,” blared the headline of an Aug. 8 story which, by the fifth paragraph, acknowledged the Lobos’ latest book-balancing act was a $1.8 million fiction.
An Aug. 22 story uncritically carried water for Bob Davie’s far-fetched claims that the lives of UNM football players were imperiled if the team couldn’t stay in a hotel the night before home games.
On Aug. 24, the Journal reported about the relocation of 225 UNM Hospital workers to a new downtown office building, while failing to mention (as it had previously reported) the move was prompted by the athletic department’s wish to move into different digs.
On Aug. 30, the Journal finally got around to reporting that football season tickets were again down from the previous season, nine days after football beat reporter Steve Virgen had tweeted out that fact. With the help of UNM Deputy AD Dave Williams, Virgen’s story strained to prove that fan apathy owed to everything other the state of the program and its head coach.
“Back in June, the Lobos lost a key man in their marketing department,” Virgen wrote. “Jon Washington, the assistant athletic director for marketing, left to work at Lamar University.”
Then there are the questions that the Journal just refuses to ask.
Davie, for example, still has not been pressed on his long-ago pledge to address “every fact, from A to Z” about the allegations that led to last year’s unpaid suspension. On Monday, in the coach’s first interview since his Aug. 31 hospitalization, another media outlet finally got around to inquiring about them. (“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Davie told the Chicago Tribune. “The investigations found no wrongdoing. I don’t want to say anything other than it was confusing.”)
You’d think those beat sweeteners would pay dividends, in such an instance. Perhaps a sponsorship deal is still in the offing.
Daniel Libit is launching a national college sports accountability project, The Intercollegiate, this fall. You can read more about it here and follow it on Twitter or Facebook. Send future email queries or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.