Media Sensitivities in a Sports Celebrity World: The Handling of John Wall's Story

The Washington Post's Eric Prisbell discovered the murderous past of John Wall's father while conducting research for a profile on Wall. What would you have done?

You come across sensitive information. Knowledge that will affect your job, and others. How do you handle that information? With courtesy to the information and those whom it affects? Or with courtesy to the job?

Well, you came across the information as a result of your job, so does that now make the integrity of the information at the behest of that job?

These are questions the Washington Post's Eric Prisbell recently faced when he came across information pertaining to future NBA draft pick John Wall while performing research for an in-depth profile on the future pro basketball star. Prisbell found out that Wall's now deceased father served time in prison for murder, among other crimes, before Wall was born. Wall knew of a robbery his father committed when he was barely one years old but had no clue about the other convictions.

Prisbell informed Wall of this fact during an interview and included the scene that unfolded in his story for the Post.

Before doing so, Prisbell consulted with Post editors and others. He felt unsettled, uncomfortable. He empathized with Wall and struggled with if and how he should reveal such sensitive information to the player.

Well, actually, there never was an "if", only a "when."

"I wanted to write the most comprehensive story ever written on John," Prisbell tells Bullets Forever's Mike Prada. Naturally this involves a review of the criminal records of Wall's father. If Wall mentioned his father serving time to the Post's Michael Lee who then relayed that information to Prisbell, that means the player opened the door for the journalist to be a journalist, to pry deeper into a previously unknown layer.

And once the archived microfilm of a Raleigh, North Carolina courthouse divulged to Prisbell the charge of murder, the father, John Carroll Wall, went from a key influence in his son's life life to becoming what Prisbell calls "THE" most compelling person of the story.

Yes, compelling because the shining star in a future No. 1 draft pick's life, one whose brief brightness still stands out in the faded, idealistic childhood memories of his son (Wall's father passed away just short of his ninth birthday), was perhaps compromised with the blood of an unknown victim. 

Prisbell tells Prada, "Make what you want of him as a man -- and I am not here to judge -- but indications were that he was a good father. And given his criminal record between 1969 and 1999, I found that to be very interesting." And the elder Wall is painted as a repentant man in Prisbell's profile. Stricken with liver cancer and allowed to leave prison a month early, he did his best to leave his son with good memories and to steer him down a path that was different than his own.

Wall's mother, Frances Pulley, was not open to discussing the past. "We had a good talk," Prisbell writes in a chat on WashingtonPost.com, "But when I started to reach into that territory, her tone changed and offered a quick and terse 'I don't discuss that.' John was open about his feelings, and that's what mattered most to me. I chose not to press his mom; a decision I feel was right."

Prisbell spoke to Wall about his father's past murder before attempting to speak with his mother about it. "She was the one I really wanted to talk to before John," Prisbell writes in an e-mail. "I did everything in my power to do so, but it did not happen until two days after I talked with John."

And well, Wall is a grown, 19-year-old man. Maybe his mother need not give her blessing to reveal to her son what she has kept from him and his siblings for years. But was it Prisbell's place to let Wall know?

"If you're writing about a kid's background and you find that out, you have to write it. Better to tell him in person than in print," tweets Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post's DC Sports Bog.

Correct. Prisbell took the precautions and did his job right.

"While I was talking to him at length, I was not surprised that we were able to talk about such issues," e-mails Prisbell. "He was very good at articulating his feelings and understanding them. And it was clear that he had an unconditional love for his dad, so no matter what anyone told him it would not change his view of his dad. That says a lot about the person John is and about the relationship he cherishes with his dad."

So why are people still uncomfortable with the fact that a journalist revealed intimate information to a subject who says, "I was not curious," when it comes to his father's criminal past? It seems that Wall was perfectly fine not knowing.

But Wall was also stoic in his reaction, unwavering in his love for his father, or at least how that's how Prisbell conveyed his reaction. We don't know Wall's inner thoughts or the demons he might struggle with as a result of the implanted information which was forced upon him. Prisbell was only able to convey his immediate reaction, not necessarily feelings behind closed doors days or weeks later.

Prisbell did nothing technically wrong, but he was also party to a cultivated situation which transferred the property of the information to the job of being a journalist and away from the tight-lipped wishes of John Wall's mother. And it all happened as a result of Wall being a helluva basketball player.

Being a celebrity has its pitfalls. This is one of them. Once Prisbell came across the information, telling Wall was unavoidable. Here, there are no winning parties. That's life.

And that's why it just doesn't sit right with some people. But just like John Wall has moved on, grasping the positive memories his father has given him, you should too.

"He brought me onto this earth and, like everybody, makes mistakes," Wall told Prisbell. "Everyone is not going to be perfect. Sometimes people do some stuff because of certain situations they are in, or the people they are around."

To understand and accept ills of the past, but to not get entrenched in them as a fatalistic determinant of the future ... are we sure that John Wall is only 19?

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