After hitting paydirt with their Manti Te’o scoop, the response of Deadspin’s staff to legitimate questions about their methods has all the charm of an obnoxious touchdown dance that’s gone on too long.
Exhibit A: Why didn’t Deadspin’s staff put real effort into contacting Manti Te’o or Notre Dame before posting the piece? The lengthiest answer to this I’ve seen the site’s editor Tommy Craggs give in text is this one, from Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Program:
We did what we could to get those “critical components,” but we weren’t betting our shirts that Notre Dame or anyone from the Te’o camp would to talk to us. It’s fun to imagine some frictionless plane of journalism where potentially hostile sources return phone calls and grudgingly fill in all the blanks out of some sense of duty to the truth, but that’s now what we were working with. If we’d sat on the story for a day, maybe even hours, I have no doubt we would’ve been scooped by the story’s own principals, to say nothing of ESPN.
You’re misreading a native and natural anxiety over a big story as doubts about its veracity. We were reporting that the whole world had gotten something very wrong. If you don’t feel the least bit nervous after hitting the publish button on a story like that, you’re a better man than I.
Our corrections policy is to correct our mistakes. Is that a good enough answer? I get the sense from these questions that you’re trying to measure the distance between what we do and what Responsible Journalists do. So I’ll help: Is our bar for publishing lower than, say, The New York Times’s? Of course. Have we published stories that lacked perfect, according-to-Hoyle sourcing? Yes. We’re a tabloid at heart. You ask if we have a policy. There is no policy for this, or for anything, really. The whole point of the company is that we trust our reporters to be smart and judicious without having to adopt the ethical pretense that what they’re doing is anything but a sort of professionalized rudeness. I’ll get killed for this, but: Journalism ethics is nothing more than a measure of the scurrilousness your brand will bear. That’s it. Ethics has nothing to do with the truth of things, only with the proper etiquette for obtaining it, so as to piss off the fewest number of people possible. That works fine for a lot of news outlets; we don’t have to worry about niceties.
Yes, Deadspin made a bunch of old guard journalism outlets look like slack-jawed townsfolk for swooning over the snake oil salesman’s story. Yes, many sports journalists who published stories on the fake girlfriend have some soul-searching to do — and they’re doing it. And yes, the irony of journalists who failed Fact Checking 101 calling B.S. on Deadspin is quite rich.
But Deadspin’s followed a half-baked, cowardly hatchet job with presumptuous, talk-down-to-the-“traditional-media” douchebaggery. The routine is getting old.
And I’m not sure Deadspin’s in a position to lecture, because since breaking the story, some key pieces of it haven’t held up. Consider:
- One of few quoted sources in the original story — who was “80 percent sure” Te’o was “in on it” — isn’t looking so credible now. Te’o and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo have both denied on national television Te’o was a party to the conspiracy.
- Deadspin’s original piece “shot too high and missed.” In other words, Te’o and Tuiasosopo both gave their television interviews on talk shows, not news programs. (After talking off-camera to ESPN, Te’o talked to somewhat-lapsed journalist Katie Couric; Tuiasosopo, to Dr. Phil.) Because Deadspin couldn’t answer any questions definitively about motive, Notre Dame and Te’o — those Deadspin calls “the story’s own principals” — have controlled the story from the moment Deadspin hit publish. And their answers don’t exactly paint a full picture.
- “We weren’t betting our shirts that Notre Dame or anyone from the Te’o camp would to talk to us.” No shit. But Te’o gets a chance to comment. He gets the chance to turn you down in so many words if he chooses. That’s not journalistic ethics — I’ll get to that — or some outmoded vestige of the golden rewrite desk days. That’s decency. Anything less is exactly what Craggs called the Boston Globe: “craven” and “slipshod.”
And then there’s the Deadspin editor’s ethics point. “Ethics has nothing to do with the truth of things…” It’s just not worth addressing. Cragg went to Medill — I shouldn’t have to explain media ethics to him. (By the way, read my ethics policy and tell me which part dictates the “measure of the scurrilousness my brand will bear.”)
That said, I think the way Cragg starts with answer to the question shows how many shits he gives about actually reporting facts.
“I’ll get killed for this, but…”