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LIVING WITH A LIE WHEN CBS DECIDED TO DEFEND ANNOUNCER BEN WRIGHT, IT ATTACKED THE TRUTH

Dec. 04, 1995
Dec. 04, 1995

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Dec. 4, 1995

LIVING WITH A LIE WHEN CBS DECIDED TO DEFEND ANNOUNCER BEN WRIGHT, IT ATTACKED THE TRUTH

In the community of golf, Ben Wright, the CBS golf broadcaster
and longtime golf writer, is invited to the best parties. He's
an amiable, well-spoken man bursting with opinions and stories,
delivered in a lovely British accent that isn't quite Oxbridge,
but close. He describes his mother as a "minor Scottish
aristocrat," and he prepared for London University at an
all-boys English public school, Felsted. He has spent four
decades in golf's elite circles. Everything about him
contributes to a veneer of refinement. His boss's boss, David
Kenin, the president of CBS Sports, calls Wright "a complex,
sophisticated guy." John Bentley Wright, corpulent and jolly,
highly compensated and often smelling very good, calls himself
"a ham."

This is an article from the Dec. 4, 1995 issue Original Layout

Every so often he slips up, and a coarser element of his
personality, a Fleet Street side, emerges. In a recent
interview with SI he described a former editor of his at the
Financial Times as "a raging fag." (And he followed that with "I
have nothing against homosexuals.") In 1992, writing in Southern
Links, an American golf magazine now known as Links, Wright
alleged that Muirfield's club secretary demanded "girlie
pictures" in exchange for press credentials for the 1959 Walker
Cup, which Wright was to cover for the London Daily Mirror. "I
pleaded that I had no access to the newspaper's pin-up
photographs, which were in any case nothing like as daring as
the bare-breasted lovelies daily exposed nowadays in the British
tabloids," he wrote. Later, to settle a libel suit, Wright
dispatched a letter of apology and a $1,000 check to the
secretary, the late Paddy Hanmer. "Seldom right but never in
doubt"--that's what they say about Wright, good-naturedly, in the
CBS trailers.

It was in a CBS trailer--on the second Thursday of May, shortly
before noon, on the grounds of the DuPont Country Club, in
Wilmington, Del., site of the 1995 McDonald's LPGA
Championship--that Wright met Valerie Helmbreck, a reporter on
the News Journal, a Delaware newspaper. They spent a half hour
together, and neither his life nor hers has been the same since.

Helmbreck began her story, which ran on the front page of the
News Journal on Friday, May 12, with a quote from Wright: "Let's
face facts here. Lesbians in the sport hurt women's golf."

He was also quoted as saying, "They're going to a butch game and
that furthers the bad image of the game." He was quoted as
saying that homosexuality on the women's tour "is not reticent.
It's paraded. There's a defiance in them in the last decade."
And, "Women are handicapped by having boobs. It's not easy for
them to keep their left arm straight, and that's one of the
tenets of the game. Their boobs get in the way."

Wright, the story said, believes that the LPGA's homosexual
image hinders corporate support; that the tour's leading
players, including Michelle McGann and Laura Davies, lack
charisma; and that modern women pros are wrong to emphasize
power over finesse.

And with that, all hell broke loose.

Before the story was published, word of the interview reached
Wright's boss, Frank Chirkinian, the executive producer of golf
for CBS, who was in Wilmington. Early that afternoon, Chirkinian
called Helmbreck at the News Journal and told her that they
needed to meet. Helmbreck, who did not know Chirkinian, asked
him to spell his name and reveal his title. He ignored her
request, and the terse conversation ended when Helmbreck hung up
on him. The story had been out only a few hours on Friday
morning when Wright, who is 63, was urged to leave Wilmington
and go to CBS headquarters, in New York. There, for six hours,
Wright and Kenin discussed the interview and the story it
produced. Each man was accompanied by a lawyer. At the News
Journal on Friday, Helmbreck and her editors received scores of
calls, some from readers voicing opinions but many more from
newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television programs,
seeking comment. Helmbreck wouldn't talk, and the newspaper's
editor said the paper stood by the accuracy of its story.

Late on Friday, Kenin released his findings: "I am convinced
that the offensive statements attributed to Mr. Wright were not
made." He also said that both Wright and CBS Sports had "been
done a grave injustice in this matter." Wright offered two
releases of his own. In a statement for reporters, Wright said
he never used the words "boobs" or "butch" with Helmbreck. He
maintained he never said lesbianism on the women's tour is
"paraded" or that lesbians were bad for the image of the game.
He wrote that he would "not discuss lesbianism with a stranger,
just as I would not discuss my three divorces with a stranger."
In a statement for the players, posted in the DuPont Country
Club locker room Friday morning, Wright wrote, "I am disgusted
at the pack of lies and distortion that was attributed to me."
He said the same thing on CBS's Saturday coverage of the
tournament. Looking directly into the camera and perspiring,
Wright called Helmbreck's story "not only totally inaccurate but
extremely distasteful."

Helmbreck's piece, an 1,100-word story in a cautious,
responsible small-state daily, had all the elements needed to
ignite a modern press brushfire: gay sex, male chauvinism,
political incorrectness, sports, network television and a
faintly famous figure--a TV personality--to wrap the whole thing
around. The New York Post captured the moment in a five-word
headline for its Saturday paper: THE BOOB ON THE TUBE.

The story had a short shelf life. It was a national story for a
day or two, then interest sagged. Ultimately, the
Wright-Helmbreck escapade proved to be an unsatisfying little
saga, lacking a clear resolution. The interview wasn't
tape-recorded. CBS put its word up against Helmbreck's and
created reasonable doubt. "They could easily stomp on her," says
Richard Sandomir, who covered the story for The New York Times,
"so they did. Had it been a reporter they knew, Ben would have
been gone."

In 1988 CBS fired Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder when he said on TV
that blacks were physically better suited for sports than
whites. In 1990 CBS suspended Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes for
three months for making remarks that some gays and blacks found
offensive. CBS was pressured into pulling Gary McCord from this
year's Masters because the Augusta czars didn't like McCord's
idea of humor. But Ben Wright stayed onboard. He didn't have to
defend the opinions and quotations, which many people viewed as
defensible, because, he said, they weren't his. LPGA officials
gave him the benefit of the doubt. When gay-rights groups called
for Wright's head, or at least an apology, he ignored them; in
his view there was nothing to apologize for. He said the story
was a "pack of lies"; his network supported him; and the duo of
Bentley and McCord, a team valued by CBS, was saved. Later,
Wright received a four-year contract extension. The only victim
was Helmbreck and her reputation as a reporter, and no one at
the network seemed to care about that. "The woman has
disappeared, as far as I know," Wright said recently.

Then Ben did a silly thing. The great raconteur didn't stick to
his story. On June 13, a month after the incident, at the summer
home of Nancy and Jack Whitaker in Bridgehampton, N.Y., during
the week of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Wright attended
an elegant dinner party. Barbara and Jack Nicklaus were there.
So was Dan Jenkins, the sportswriter and novelist who helped
Wright get his start with CBS in 1973. "I asked him, 'Did you
say it?'" Jenkins, a former SI writer, recounted recently. "And
he said, 'Of course I said it. But I was granted complete
anonymity.' What I don't know is if he was joking. He'd had
about two bottles of wine."

Details of the interview emerged in other places. Ken Doig, a
veteran tour caddie and a part-time CBS employee, said he
eavesdropped on the interview because he couldn't believe what
Wright was saying to Helmbreck. Doig, the oldest son of a
well-regarded Canadian golfing family, said he likes Wright but
that Wright's response to Helmbreck's story was disingenuous.
"Her story was accurate," said Doig, who works occasionally for
SI as a photographer's assistant. "I heard Ben say boobs. I
heard him say lesbianism hurts in getting sponsorships." Doig
has worked odd jobs for CBS at the Masters, and at other
tournaments, since 1977. Asked why he wanted to come forward in
the matter of Wright versus Helmbreck and jeopardize his
employment with CBS, Doig said, "I'm a golfer, and golf is a
game of integrity. I believe in telling the truth."

When contacted by SI last month, Wright, an incorrigible talker,
said that he could not discuss the Helmbreck story without
permission from Kenin, and permission was not granted. ("I'm not
going to give him the opportunity to talk and get himself in
trouble again," Kenin said.) In a brief telephone interview on
the subject, Wright characterized Helmbreck as divorced,
involved in a custody battle, possibly a lesbian. It was, Wright
said, his bad luck to run into her around Mother's Day, when
Helmbreck was upset because she wouldn't be able to see her
children. Wright described Helmbreck as having a feminist,
gay-rights agenda. "I was totally misquoted. She put into my
mouth words she told me," Wright said. "She granted me
anonymity. She chose to nail me. It's hurt me terribly. It's
aged me 10 years. She's a very unhappy woman."

But none of Wright's statements check out. Helmbreck is
married--"happily married for 15 years," she says--to an assistant
city editor at the News Journal. They have three children. She
has been a reporter on the News Journal for more than a decade
and has lived in Delaware most of her 43 years. She is currently
a features writer and was formerly a TV critic, which is why she
was assigned to write about the television coverage of the LPGA
Championship. Helmbreck writes often about food and in October
wrote a light piece comparing herself with her mock heroine,
Martha Stewart, to whom she bears a resemblance. In her 12 years
on the News Journal, she has been charged with misquoting
someone on only one other occasion. That was in 1990, when
actress Kathleen Turner was staying in Wilmington at the Hotel
duPont. Helmbreck quoted the hotel manager as saying that Turner
was not as attractive in person as she appears on the screen.
The manager said he was misquoted; the News Journal backed
Helmbreck. For her foray into golf, Helmbreck said her original
plan was to write about the differences between women's and
men's golf telecasts. Helmbreck says she took notes throughout
the interview with Wright and that the entire session was on the
record, except when Wright told her it was not. She declined to
reveal what was not on the record. SI secured an internal memo
from the News Journal that describes the part of the interview
that was not on the record. According to the document, Wright
said that Helmbreck could use, but not attribute to him, the
"fingernail test." According to the memo, Wright said that
players with short fingernails are gay, and players with long
fingernails are not. Helmbreck made no reference to the
fingernail test in her story.

Wright has many supporters, JoAnne Carner among them. The LPGA
Hall of Famer said Wright's line about women golfers and their
breasts was originally her own, a joking way to explain the
differences between men's and women's golf. Dottie Mochrie, an
LPGA player, said she couldn't imagine Wright intending to say
the things he was quoted as saying. Still, she was surprised by
what Wright said at the Oct. 2 opening of a golf course, Cliffs
Valley in Travelers Rest, S.C., designed by Wright. The
ceremony, attended by 1,500 people, featured an exhibition by
Mochrie and Jay Haas, among others. During the introductions
Wright mocked Haas for his performance in the Ryder Cup. When he
was through, Wright, according to people present, said to the
crowd, "This is payback because at dinner last night Jay asked
me about lesbians." There was nervous laughter. "I was a little
disappointed that it was brought up again," Mochrie says. "I
thought he could've been more sensitive."

At this point, more than six months after the interview,
Chirkinian recognizes that Helmbreck's story must be at least
partially true. "Something must have been said, for it to get
into print," he says. Kenin's view appears to have evolved over
the past half year. "CBS never said it was a pack of lies," he
said recently. "There's a community element to it. She's outside
the community. Ben didn't know that at the time. This was a case
of one not understanding the other."

Chirkinian said Helmbreck did not understand Wright's sense of
humor. "[But] whether Ben Wright was serious or joking, if he
admits to [the quotes], he's fired," Chirkinian said. "With our
corporate lawyers? Ben would have walked the plank. And to walk
the plank for that? I don't think so."

Helmbreck is still in Wilmington, a working reporter. Sometimes
when she calls people for a story, they recognize her name. They
know she was involved in some messy thing with a golf announcer
for CBS. It's frustrating for her. Wright, she says, is a man of
his generation, that's all. She has had to live with the
consequences. "In this business," she says, "you can be a nut,
you can be a drunk, but the one thing you can't be is
dishonest." Helmbreck stands by her story. Given the chance, she
would write it the same way again.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JULIAN ALLEN Helmbreck took notes throughout the interview and honored Wright's request to go off the record. [Drawing of Valerie Helmbreck interviewing Ben Wright]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JULIAN ALLEN When he called, Helmbreck asked Chirkinian to spell his name. [Drawing of Valerie Helmbreck talking on telephone to FrankChirkinian]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JULIAN ALLEN For six hours, Wright and Kenin discussed the interview. [Drawing of Ben Wright and David Kenin]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JULIAN ALLENDuring the week of the Open, "I asked him, 'Did you say it?''' Jenkins recounted. [Drawing of Dan Jenkins and Ben Wright]