Cleveland Browns Owner NOT indicted by FBI, TV station retracts

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Browns Stadium (Credit: Erik Drost via Flickr)

Cleveland ABC-affiliate WEWS News Net 5 unpublished a story after wrongly reporting that Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the Cleveland Browns football team, was indicted by the FBI.

“There was zero truth” to the story, Pilot Flying J lawyer Aubrey Harwell told iMediaEthics by phone. Harwell noted that he is the lawyer for Pilot Flying J the company, and not Haslam individually.

“Any time a company is involved with the Department of Justice and major media runs a story saying the CEO has been charged, there are issues,” he said. “There were issues here.”

Harwell said he called the station about the “totally inaccurate error” after hearing about the story from a few people. He wasn’t sure if the station already retracted the story before his call.

Haslam owns the NFL team the Cleveland Browns and is CEO of Pilot Flying J. Pilot Flying J identifies itself as ” the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas in North America” with “more than 650 retail locations.”

The FBI is investigating Haslam’s company, Pilot Flying J, for fraud.  The FBI says that the company was not giving trucking company customers a full rebate as promised for using Pilot stations.

Forbes reported last year with more detail on the accusations: “The truckers exclusively refill at Pilot rest stops and in turn receive rebates based on the amount of gasoline they purchase. However, the FBI claims that for more than five years Pilot withheld the full rebate from many of its smaller customers for whom the discounts were calculated manually.”

Seven employees had pleaded guilty to charges related to the investigation, according to a 2013 Associated Press article.

In a retraction statement on its website, the station indicated that it didn’t intend to have the story published. Therefore, one is led to infer that it wasn’t a reporting error — as in the story was supposed to be published but the facts were wrong — but instead the story wasn’t ever supposed to be posted.

NBC Sports suggested the fake story was a draft story about a possible indictment that was “accidentally published.” (As an example by comparison, often the media writes obituaries in advance for well-known figures especially those who are in poor health or are elderly. That way, when the person does die, the media just has to update the draft story with the details of the death and hit publish.)

The retraction reads:

“A report erroneously posted on earlier Friday claiming Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam had been indicted is inaccurate and has been removed from the station’s website.

“An internal investigation is underway to determine how the erroneous report was posted.

“Jimmy Haslam has never been charged with any crimes related to an ongoing FBI investigation into alleged fuel rebate fraud and has consistently denied having any knowledge of the alleged fraud.”

The retraction was written by Chief Investigative Reporter Ron Regan.

A spokesperson for Flying Pilot J told iMediaEthics by e-mail it didn’t have any comment on this incident.

iMediaEthics has written to WEWS asking how long the fake story was up before being unpublished, how the station learned of the error, who wrote the story, and what the station’s internal investigation will entail. We’ll update with any additional information.

Last year, the same station, News Net 5 apologized for and unpublished its story about Charles Ramsey’s criminal record. Ramsey is the man who helped rescue Amanda Berry from Ariel Castro’s house, where she had been held kidnapped for years. News Net 5’s apology admitted the story was a “poor judgment call” and “not in good taste,” even though it was “factually sound.”

Hat Tip: Poynter

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Cleveland Browns Owner NOT indicted by FBI, TV station retracts

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