Let's say, just to fantasize for a moment, that you own a one-tenth interest in a hotel in which Charles Manson also happens to be an investor. You're at poolside one afternoon when Manson's minions are seen entering the hotel. This means you belong to the Manson Family, right? Otherwise, why would you be there? Now suppose you're a big bettor. One day while painting your house you fall off a ladder and break your neck. Everyone assumes the Mafia controls betting and you're a heavy gambler, so one of the mob's enforcers must have pushed you off the ladder. Obviously, you owed the late Meyer Lansky some money.
This was the kind of flawed logic used on Frontline, the PBS series that on Jan. 17 began a 26-week run with a slippery production called An Unauthorized History of the NFL. Ignoring convincing evidence that former L.A. Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom drowned accidentally, the show suggested that he may have been murdered instead. Frontline also accepted a discredited source's word that he helped fix NFL games between 1968 and '70. And using that old McCarthyite tool—guilt by association—the program smeared the reputations of several team owners and former players. The much publicized show billed itself as an unprecedented TV investigation of links among gambling, organized crime and the NFL. In reality, it was a textbook example of grade B journalism, a poorly researched effort that rewarmed old allegations, substituted a tissue of innuendo for fact and ignored the canons of fairness.
To say that PBS threw an incomplete pass with this program—New York Times Sports Columnist Dave Anderson called it "An Unidentified History of the NFL"—isn't to say that all NFL owners have just come out of a monastery. It's also not to aver that no quarterback has ever intentionally thrown an interception or that no owner has ever bet on—or even against—his team. Betting exists. Not all mobsters sell tomatoes. Gambling's threat to the integrity of pro football is obvious and ever present.
However, the breezy implication that several owners are cozy with Mafiosos, and sensationalized charges of murder and game-fixing deserve corroboration before they receive a public airing. Senior Producer Mike Kirk was asked why Frontline offered no substantiating evidence when, for example, it stated that Dallas Cowboys owner Clint Murchison sought to do business with New Orleans mobster Carlos Marcello. Someone should preserve Kirk's reply. "Well," he said, "if there isn't [any corroboration], they can sue us, right? They can complain about it in public." Kirk has things backward. The burden of proof shouldn't be on the person the journalist is covering, but upon the journalist himself. Kirk went on to say that PBS does have corroborating evidence of Murchison's alleged ties to Marcello. Asked why PBS didn't broadcast that information, Kirk said, "It's only an hour show, right?" Wrong. The most basic rules of journalism and fairness demand that if you don't have time to air it right, don't air it.
Frontline's, host, Jessica Savitch, admitted having minor reservations with the show. "Did I get my way on every point?" she says. "No. But I think we did a good job. I'm supporting our people. And if I'm proven wrong, I'm proven wrong." One of Savitch's most serious wrongdoings was to allege guilt by association. A typical example: Chargers owner Gene Klein once invested in an Acapulco hotel. So did Sidney Korshak, identified by Savitch as a mob lawyer. Klein was once at the hotel when Lansky held an underworld meeting there. "Aha!" the viewer is led to infer. "Klein equals Korshak. Korshak equals Lansky. Ergo, Klein equals Lansky." Savitch, who is on loan from NBC News to PBS for the Frontline series, said such associations were mentioned for the supposedly higher purpose of demonstrating that the NFL doesn't enforce its own rules against owners' and players' fraternizing with gamblers. In this case, the end didn't justify the means.
The two segments that grabbed the most headlines for Frontline maintained a) that Rosenbloom, who reportedly was a big bettor, may have been murdered in the surf off Golden Beach, Fla. in April 1979, and b) that one John Piazza (a.k.a. John Petracelli) helped fix a total of 12 NFL games in 1968, '69 and 70. Frontline gussied up these revelations with Bela Lugosi suspense music, eerie winds blowing, shots of car headlights in the dead of night and—hold your breath!—a court reporter's fingers taking down sensational testimony. This was pure Hollywood: The weaker the script, the slicker the packaging.
Frontline paid someone it identified as a bookie's runner about $1,500 to repeat underworld gossip that a mysterious man in a wet suit lurked beneath the waves until Rosenbloom, an avid swimmer, went in the water, held Rosenbloom under until he drowned and escaped without being seen. We then heard an eyewitness, Raymond Tanguay of Montreal, say that he saw a "black object" in the water while attempting to rescue Rosenbloom. Savitch deduced from this that Rosenbloom's penchant for gambling "raises questions about how he died." But she suggested no motive for the bizarre episode.
Astonishingly, Frontline investigator Scott Malone talked to no one mentioned in the police report of Rosenbloom's drowning except Tanguay. Not to Alexander Papp of the Bronx, the last person to speak with Rosenbloom. Papp warned Rosenbloom before he entered the water that the undercurrent was especially strong that day. Not to retired Golden Beach Police Chief William Henrikson, who pulled Rosenbloom's body out of the surf and said at the time that the ocean conditions were the worst he'd ever seen. Not to two women who witnessed the drowning from a second-story window, one of whom last week described the "dark object" as possible debris or sea moss. Not to Officer Ron Nasca, who helped Henrikson retrieve the body. Not to Charles Major, the chief investigating officer, who last week said that Rosenbloom's body bore none of the signs one would expect from a struggle, such as bruises or broken fingernails.
Frontline made no mention of the severe ocean conditions on April 2, 1979. Indeed, the footage it chose to show of the Golden Beach surf was deceptively placid. Dade County Medical Examiner Joseph H. Davis, who ruled that Rosenbloom's death was accidental, says he advised Malone to interview witnesses besides Tanguay. "The National Enquirer does a better job of verifying its sources than these people did," says Davis. "This is the same stuff that happened with the JFK assassination—people dismissing evidence because it doesn't fit their preconceived plan."
As for the game-fixing allegation, Frontline provided no substantiation other than the word of Piazza, whom PBS interviewed in the North Dade stockade in Florida, where he was awaiting sentencing—he ultimately got nine years—on a federal weapons charge. Although Piazza did pass a lie detector test administered by PBS, Savitch failed to note that in a 1980 drug-smuggling trial Federal Judge Norman C. Roettger said Piazza had "impeached" his own testimony. "He has admitted to everything under the sun," said Roettger at the trial. Piazza has repeated his story of the fixed NFL games to federal and state grand juries for some 10 years.
Piazza told Frontline that he arranged the fixing of four NFL games a year in 1968-70 by enlisting the help of a quarterback, coach and defensive captain. He said his payments to the players and coach ranged from a total of $300,000 to $800,000 per game. According to Las Vegas odds-maker Bob Martin, for Piazza to make a profit he would have had to bet $3 million to $5 million on each of these games. "The amount of money he mentions, it's a fantasy," says Martin. "He's living a fairy tale." Martin, currently appealing a conviction for transmitting gambling information across state lines, points out that Piazza would have been forced to bet with thousands of bookmakers all over the country, because few bookies would take more than $3,000 on a game without becoming suspicious. Eventually, Piazza would have been unable to get his bets down. "The line would go way up and the game might be taken off the boards," says Martin. "Even if he bet with well-known names—he mentioned [lay-off bookies Marty] Sklaroff and Gil Beckley, and they knew almost everybody everywhere—even they couldn't bet 25 percent of that kind of money. This guy's credibility is zero. Plus, with Sklaroff and Beckley he picked two names who are dead [or missing and presumed dead]." Moreover, according to James Jay Hogan, a Miami criminal lawyer who represented Sklaroff and Beckley at various times from 1967 to '75 on several gambling charges, federal wiretaps of the two men's phone calls picked up no conversations between either of them and Piazza during those years, or at any other time.
The most disturbing facet of Piazza's allegations is that he evidently supplied names, dates and places to Frontline, but Executive Producer David Fanning chose not to reveal them for lack of corroboration. Says Kirk, "What we lacked to actually name names is enough evidence to go into a massive libel situation and have absolutely no risk of losing." Terrific. A story either is thoroughly checked out or it isn't. If you don't feel confident you can win a libel case, you have no business maligning people or organizations on national television.
"It was a difficult call," says Kirk. "There is an increasingly stern test applied to information in courts that makes it harder to go with something this explosive." In other words, PBS sort of believed Piazza—not enough to mention names and go to court, but, as George Wallace used to say, enough to put the hay down where the goats can get at it. "In this case we decided to put what Piazza said out there and let the viewers decide whether to believe him," says Kirk. "I don't know whether they will. I suppose time will tell."
Last week, SI talked with five of the six members of Frontline's at-large editorial advisory committee, a kind of sounding board for the show's producers. Two of them, syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman and University of Massachusetts journalism professor Lawrence Pinkham, said they missed the program. TV Producer Michael Ambrosino and Jonathan Moore, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, declined to comment. The fifth panelist, former CBS News President Richard Salant, who's now an adviser to NBC, said, "This puts me in an awkward position. I think I owe it to them to stay quiet and to talk to them about it. I can only say I have some questions—quite a number of questions."