News & Observer reporter Dan Kane has won the Frank McCulloch Award for Courage in Journalism for his dogged coverage of the athletic and academic scandal at the University of North Carolina.
The award was announced Wednesday by the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.
During the past four years, Kane has written a series of investigative stories that have led to the exposure of bogus classes for athletes at UNC-Chapel Hill. In naming Kane one of the most influential people in higher education in 2014, The Chronicle of Higher Education called him “the quiet force” behind the information revealed in the October report by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, who documented 18 years of bogus classes that helped keep athletes eligible to play for the university.
McCulloch was a war correspondent and editor whom President Lyndon Johnson tried to have thrown out of Vietnam because of his reporting there.
Previous McCulloch winners have included David Rohde, then a New York Times reporter who escaped after being held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan for seven months; Adela Navarro Bello, a Tijuana editor whose magazine has reported aggressively on drug cartels even as several staff members were murdered; and Barbara Davidson, a Los Angeles Times photographer who documented innocent victims trapped in the crossfire of Los Angeles’ deadly gang violence.
“To Frank McCulloch, it was all about tenacity and persistence in getting the story,” said Al Stavitsky, the Reynolds School dean. “Resistance can take the form of physical violence, or it could be bureaucratic resistance and obstacles. By that measure, Dan’s work fits the bill.”
Kane’s work has not been well-received by all in the world of higher education, especially in Chapel Hill. He received violent threats from fans, had his family and personal information posted on the Internet, and was the subject of a website titled dirtydankane.com.
John Robinson is a lecturer at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism and former editor of The News & Record in Greensboro.
“There has been a tenacious determination to get to the bottom of a story that had no bottom,” Robinson said. “Dan and The N&O did what so many newspapers used to do and so few do now, stay on the story until they get their questions answered. It took a lot of backbone and determination, and I’m glad they did.”
Kane, 54, has been a staff writer at The N&O since 1997. He joined the newspaper’s investigative team in 2009. His 2010 series that led to more open state personnel records won the Associated Press Managing Editors’ top award for First Amendment reporting and the Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Award from the University of Florida.
The ‘paper’ trail
Kane began reporting on UNC in 2011 with a story about a plagiarized paper in African and Afro-American Studies by former football player Michael McAdoo. He later reported on how football star Marvin Austin had been placed in a high-level African studies class during his first summer on campus – before his freshman season. He received a B-plus.
With the help of whistleblower Mary Willingham, Kane reported on the department’s “paper classes,” which never met, required only a paper and resulted in high grades. He has broken many other stories, including the reliance on the fake classes of the 2005 NCAA champion men’s basketball team.
A series of internal investigations produced little until the university hired Kenneth Wainstein, a former high-ranking U.S. Justice Department and FBI official.
Wainstein’s investigation, released last October, found that more than 3,100 students – about half of them athletes – took bogus classes in African and Afro-American Studies over 18 years from 1993 to 2011. The NCAA has now accused UNC of five serious infractions, including a lack of institutional control of its athletic programs.
N&O Executive Editor John Drescher called Kane’s reporting on the UNC story “brave and exceptionally good.”
“After numerous university investigations, Dan continued digging, even as many UNC fans and alumni said there was nothing else to see,” Drescher said. “Dan’s persistent reporting, in the face of harsh and unwarranted criticism, helped uncover much of what is known about what went wrong at Carolina.”