Out-Maneuvering the Media Is Easy:Simply Tell the Truth

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I told some friends the other day that I was going to write a column about Julius Erving and Alexandra Stevenson.

They said, "Julius Erving and who?"

I told one of the researchers at Fox News that I wanted some background on the Julius Erving-Alexandra Stevenson story.

She said, "Never heard of it."

I told my editor at FOXNews.com that my topic this week was Julius Erving and Alexandra Stevenson.

He said, "But nobody even remembers what happened."

"That," I said, "is precisely the point."

Yet it was only two years ago, the summer of '99, when Erving, a Hall of Fame basketball player and one of the game's most respected senior citizens, admitted that he had fathered a child in 1980 by a woman who was not his wife.  The child's name is Alexandra Stevenson, and she, too, is an athlete; at the time of her father's confession, she was playing the best tennis of her life in the biggest tournament of her life.

But as she was serving and volleying her way to the semi-finals of Wimbledon, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel published a copy of Stevenson's birth certificate listing Julius Winfield Erving II as the young lady's father.

Dr. J's initial reaction was denial.  But he got over it in a hurry.  Yes, he admitted to the media after a few seconds thought, I am Alexandra's father; my wife and our children have known about this for a long time and they have forgiven me.  Erving said he had been providing financial support to Stevenson, and hoped that by acknowledging his paternity he could persuade reporters to concentrate on his daughter's tennis rather than the circumstances of her birth.

Reaction in the press was swift.  Erving was criticized, vilified, raked over the coals, and then made to lie down so the coals could be raked over him. 

It lasted for, oh, maybe a day or two. 

Then the media turned their attention to other matters, whereupon Erving went back to being a dignified ambassador for the NBA and Stevenson went back to being a tennis player who would never make it as far as the Wimbledon semis again.

Why did the story go away so quickly? Because Erving told the truth.  Simple as that.

Julius Erving told the truth quickly and completely, denying the media a chance to keep the tale alive through speculation.  There was no work for pundits to do, no grist for the prognosticators; Erving had already fessed up to the worst of what the analysts could analyze.  Case closed.

And that, as you might have guessed, brings me to the still-open case of Rep. Gary Condit, who, by "coming clean" with Connie Chung last week, looks even dirtier than he did before the interview.

Now people are asking not only whether he had an affair with Chandra Levy, but whether Levy's parents really told him not to discuss the matter on national television and whether Condit really told D.C. police the truth about his relationship with the intern during the first interview.  Condit now seems guilty of more lies than he did when he wasn't saying anything! 

And, as a result, he has kept the story alive.  The analysts are now on golden time, the talk show producers unwilling to consider other subjects.

I don't know who Gary Condit's media adviser is.  I don't know who told him to answer Chung's questions as evasively and perhaps dishonestly as he did.  I do know, however, that if there is any justice in the workplace, the guy's next job will be bagging groceries.

Telling the truth is always the right thing to do morally.  Most of the time, it's the right thing to do pragmatically.  Condit should have known it.  It's simple.  It's obvious. 

It's a slam-dunk.