by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans. It has been a very busy 2017 already and interesting media stories keep coming. Please continue to help me by sending along good and bad reads, interviews, and segments. DMs are always open. If you’re more comfortable sending things anonymously, put whatever it is in a text or image file and use this link to send it to my dropbox. I won’t see any info about you.
Last request: if you come here faithfully every Saturday and keep reading things you don’t like, rather than stew about it, consider writing to me to let me know why you think I got it wrong or what I failed to consider.
The Work Speaks for Itself
The header image this week is from my favourite Toronto photographer, The Star’s Steve Russell. Follow him for a different look at the news. (Note: I can take the photo down if The Star wants).
The main topic of discussion this week is the responsible use of anonymous sources. Let’s get one thing out of the way: a principle that says never use anonymous sources is too rigid. Some of the most famous journalism has been the result of publishing information from anonymous sources. This quote from the Society of Professional Journalists sums up the dilemma fairly well:
“Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens. But sometimes, anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp.”
Despite decades of case history, there is little agreement about what is and is not acceptable when it comes to anonymous sources. The truth I have discovered in talking with journalists and other members of the media is that what counts as an “ethical swamp” is very much in the eye of the beholder. One person’s swamp is another’s swimming pool. A confounding factor is that, at least when it comes to sports, there is very little oversight of the work of established journalists in 2017. Some of that is due to cutbacks, but some also appears to be a change in standards.
NPR’s ethical guidelines on sourcing for its employees states:
“While we recognize that some valuable information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny.”
With that in mind, let’s look at Dave Feschuk’s May 7th story on Kyle Lowry. (The previous times Feschuk wrote about the Raptors were April 26th, April 16th, February 13th, and January 24th. In other words, this is not his regular beat.)
Reporters are expected to stick to the facts, and always describe all sides of the issue fairly. Columnists are paid to have opinions. As a columnist Feshcuk has earned the right to speak in his own voice. This means he doesn’t need to be balanced or fair, unless he wants to. Feschuk certainly has an opinion on the toughness of Kyle Lowry:
“Lowry has hit roadblocks and too often curled up in the fetal position when they seemed impassable. He abandoned ship against the Wizards a couple of years ago, when he knew he was no match for the quickness of John Wall.”
Dave makes a statement about what Kyle “knew” and connects that to his poor performance as a cause. In Dave’s eyes, Lowry chose to quit in the face of adversity because he is weak. Presumably all of those items are controversial, but Dave is not paid to give the other side; he is paid to give his side.
So far, so good. Things go off the rails in the next paragraph:
“And there are those around the Air Canada Centre who cast a sceptical eye at his decision to forgo Games 3 and 4 on account of a sprained ankle. One insider wondered: Why did Lowry, who often takes his warmup shots in the Air Canada Centre’s practice court, make a show of shooting on the main court before Games 3 and 4? Nobody’s saying he wasn’t truly injured. Some were suggesting it was telling that he needed to publicly demonstrate the extent of the hurt. “It’s all a show,” said one NBA source. Speaking of Lowry’s over-arching history as a less-than-reliable post-season performer, another source said: “The bright lights get to him.””
Let’s unpack this. In the earlier paragraph Feschuk says that when faced with roadblocks Lowry chooses to curl up in the fetal position. Now he is saying that he doesn’t doubt that Lowry is truly injured, yet this statement is bracketed by an anonymous quote expressing skepticism about the extent of the injury, and another bolstering Feschuk’s claim that Lowry wilts under pressure.
The implication is this: Feschuk believes Lowry could have played but chose not to because, as with John Wall and the Wizards, he knew the Raps couldn’t beat Lebron & the Cavs. Rather than coming out and saying this, Feschuk puts this in the mouths of anonymous sources. Why would he do that when he is paid to have an opinion and he clearly has one?
The “it’s not me who is saying it” trick is part of Feschuk’s portfolio. That was what led to the legendary Kessel quote: “this guy’s such an idiot.” Media response to that case was mixed, as you’ll recall, with Jeff O’Neill (verified, 94k followers) publicly criticizing Feschuk for asking a bad question, and Damien Cox (unverified, 70k followers) publicly praising him, actually. I covered that incident here, actually.
Actually, I think the question was a good one, and gave Kessel a chance to take a share of responsibility for his team. But he chose not to.
— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) January 6, 2015
The use of anonymous sources to attack a player’s character is also part of the Feschuk playbook. That was the dominant theme of his infamous story on Kessel’s coachability. (That story, like the Lowry one, ran at a time when Star Sports lacked an editor.) Cox, actually, went as far as to call Feschuk’s story “gutless” on the FAN airwaves. This was back in the heady days when Cox was full-time on HNIC and would show up occasionally to write a column for the Star. He is now back to writing 2-3 columns a week for the Star since being promoted by Sportsnet to PTS co-host.
And finally, Feschuk’s ethics have been questioned in the past when he enraged Brian Burke & Co by calling James Reimer’s mum to get her to confirm the secret that he had indeed suffered a concussion. (Aside 1: can you imagine how this incident would have been handled by the current Leafs administration? Aside 2: I don’t have a problem with a reporter doing some investigation when a team is being intentionally obfuscatory. I am not sure if families are off-limits in such cases.)
Howard Berger wrote a long blog post titled “Feschuk Uncomfortable in Leading Role” about the Reimer controversy. Dave is quoted as saying:
“My colleague, Damien Cox, defended the journalistic view as well as anyone possibly could in [Wednesday’s] newspaper. It’s important to me that people know I showed up at [Leafs] practice the day after the story appeared and spoke with James Reimer – face-to-face – for 20 minutes.”
The article Feschuk cites is this one. The relevant part of this quote is Dave’s statement that he doesn’t duck subjects when he writes something that angers them. However, by his own admission on TSN1050’s morning show, he wasn’t at Lowry’s end of season press conference where most media had a chance to ask the player about his injuries, his future, and so on. If showing up to face the music is important to him, why wasn’t he there to talk to Lowry?
Back to NPR’s ethical guidelines: don’t put your thoughts in the mouths of anonymous sources. This is the ethical swamp out of which it can be hard to climb. If you set it up properly you can find someone to say pretty much anything you want. To test this theory out I ran this tweet:
I’m looking for anonymous quotes about Dave Feschuk’s character & credibility as a journalist. I can guarantee your anonymity. DMs are open
Obviously I’m not going to publish any of the responses I received. However if I wanted to attack his credibility without owning it then I have all the cover I need: “it’s not me who is saying it; it’s these anonymous people who think you’re a coward!”
In other news, The Star is worried that the public no longer trusts it. They think this is largely the audience’s fault due to failures of “media literacy” and a “significant gap in understanding.” Nevertheless, they have set up a special email — email@example.com — where you can tell them why you don’t trust them. Their goal is to learn “the various ways people are losing faith with what we do.”
Once this column runs I’ll reach out to the Star and ask what oversight there was on Feschuk’s column, whether his editor knows the identity of his sources, and whether they endorse NPR’s ethical principle or if they have some other one they follow. I’ll report back with their reply.
Finally, plenty of other people had opinions on Lowry’s toughness and his value to the Raps. Here’s Grange, here’s Simmons. Neither of them use anonymous quotes to make their points. Interestingly Bruce Arthur, also of the Star, includes anonymous quotes but manages to balance them out:
“As one league source put it, “The problem with Kyle is he’s short, fat and slow.” As another said, “He’s a hell of a player.””
If you want to think more about ethics, don’t forget to read the roundtable discussion we hosted recently with several prominent journalists on the subject of what makes a story newsworthy.
Over to you: does Feschuk’s track record make you question his ethics? Is this an instance where anonymous quotes add any value to the story? When do you think anonymous quotes are appropriate?
NHL’s Concussion Calamity
The other big story this week was the fine print on the NHL’s concussions protocols. These came to light when Sidney Crosby suffered another concussion. We learned:
- that a player’s history cannot be countenanced when deciding whether to remove a player from the game after a head hit
- the in-arena league-employed spotter does not need to be certified and is not allowed to initiate the player’s removal. That must be done by the person watching on TV in the league office
- hitting your head into the boards cannot trigger a concussion protocol
You couldn’t make up less coherent rules, yet these were apparently the product of wide consultation with the NHLPA. The obvious flaws reinforce the criticism that the NHL is simply not interested in protecting its players, stars and grinders alike, from brain injuries. Unlike the NFL, who are also facing concussion litigation, the NHL continues to double-down on its tolerance, both de facto and de jure, of hits to the head.
One of the most curious things in the discussion surrounding Crosby was the number of people who were critical, not of the NHL, but of those criticizing the NHL. Despite the clear gaps in the NHL’s protocols there were loud voices proclaiming that the public was being misinformed by observers.
One of those voices was Elliotte Friedman, who appeared on FAN590’s morning show (May 5th, 8am) to speak out against what he described as a “cottage industry” around concussion diagnosis. Here are some of the claims he made:
“I hate people who weigh in on other people when they have no idea what they are talking about […] I don’t like “well, I’m an expert on concussions and he shouldn’t be able to skate.””
“We are doing all this research into concussions and we don’t know why they affect one person a one way and one person another way. We don’t know the answers. Just a week ago the Globe&Mail came out with a story saying that maybe the worst thing after a concussion is rest […] A lot of us are guessing, we’re trying to learn and that’s why I don’t like the whole cottage industry on guessing should Crosby play or not play.”
These comments reminded me a lot of the following statement, courtesy of Gary Bettman.
“The confusion in the press about CTE – no doubt further fueled by plaintiffs’ counsel in the NHL litigation – relates to the simple and incontrovertible fact that none of the brain studies conducted to date can, as a matter of accepted scientific methodology, prove anything about causation [.]”
The league has been criticized for adopting an “anti-science” stance on the evidence surrounding concussions that is reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s. This can be seen in their efforts to undermine the research being done on CTE. You might also recall the comments by Don Cherry attacking Dr. Charles Tator when the medical knowledge around concussions began to come together.
I reached out to Elliotte to clarify whether when he says “we don’t know” he means the same thing as Gary. Here’s his statement:
“I would never downplay the work [linking concussions to CTE] because I think it is very legitimate. What I don’t like is people who don’t know a situation sitting miles away saying Sidney Crosby shouldn’t be allowed to play. I do believe in the science. It’s just not as simple as everyone makes it out to be.”
That helps. As a casual observer I have not seen the kind of armchair expertise to which Friedman is reacting, but I believe him that it is out there.
My own opinion is, given that we don’t know — that, as Elliotte put it on HNIC, we are in the “infancy” of understanding the causal mechanisms at work — we should adopt a cautionary approach. In light of how much we don’t know, if we had to err on one side then I would opt for the side of keeping the player out. As an analogy, if my mechanic tells me he doesn’t know if my brakes will work, but that he also doesn’t know that they won’t work, I am going to wait until we know for certain that they are safe before driving on the DVP. When I hear people criticizing those who endorse keeping a player out longer I am inclined to ask what good this serves.
Another point Elliotte made is that the Penguins are under so much scrutiny now versus 6 years ago when they botched the handling of Crosby’s previous concussions. Based on what other hockey writers say, I am not convinced. We know that players will lie to coaches and trainers.
“Players lie to trainers, as Dennis Wideman did a year ago in Calgary when he would not leave the ice after cross checking linesman Don Henderson, then made the fact that he was concussed the primary pillar of his defence. Coaches, history tells us, are more than happy to agree with their player, so adverse are they to having a short bench in times of battle.”
That’s from Mark Spector‘s piece on the McDavid cautionary removal last year. The piece continues:
“[H]ere is Oilers winger Pat Maroon’s take: “This is a man’s game, […] People are going to get hit, get high-sticked. They’re going to go through the middle and get hit.” […] Of course, many of the retired players who have joined class action lawsuits seeking retribution for varying levels of brain injury might have held the same attitude as Maroon, back when they played. Even if they hold on to those beliefs, you can count on the families of middle-aged men suffering from early onset dementia not clinging so firmly to that tough guy stance.”
When there is a judgment call to be made about keeping a star player in a playoff game, the league and teams share an interest in erring on the side of getting the player back on the ice. The player’s ‘current’ self shares that interest, while his ‘future’ self does not. In light of this I am less trusting of the league’s ability to make a “better safe than sorry” decision regarding the player’s long term health, especially in light of their track record. Like other armchair experts, I don’t have a solution beyond changing the defaults to be more strongly in the direction of player safety. I don’t think that should be a controversial stance.
The most entertaining thing to come out of this discussion was Scott Wheeler (Athletic/PPP), who has written at length about concussions, getting tag-teamed by the father-son McKenzie combo. Few people in the world can claim that distinction.
Over to you: is the NHL doing the best they can to protect players from brain injuries? Should there be more independent medical presence at rinks? Who are the armchair experts and what are their motives?
Jobs! Check out some of the positions available at Sportsnet Vancouver. Predictions on how many of these jobs are already filled by internal candidates? My guess is most of them but good luck to the applicants. Here’s hoping for some outside the box hires.
If you have time, this very long read on the sordid history of the Expos sale is worth every minute. I couldn’t find a single page version of the story, so be warned that this one is paginated.
This is a little old, but I wonder how many consumers care about Rogers and Bell raising rates for bars that show sports. I do. Big corporate bars can easily afford it but local bars might not. This is another case of squeezing your existing customers at a time when many are questioning the value of cable sports.
Also old news, but I was raised on Bob McCown’s views when it comes to public money for private arenas. Gary trying to monorail Calgary into funding a new development by riling up the rivalry with Shelbyville is pretty transparent.
Low Hanging Fruit
- Is there a better athlete interview than PK Subban? Incredibly articulate and good-natured. Great stuff on PTS (May 9, 6pm). He handled the tough questions very well. Just an all around great interview.
- Noodles thinks there’s nothing wrong with giving someone with a disability a related nickname (e.g. peg-leg) because, according to Jamie, we all have things that are not great about us that others could pick on.
- Can we please try to refrain from using the words “outrage” and “hysteria” to describe views with which we disagree? All it does is send a clear signal to the audience that you’ve already dismissed the opinion you’re about the discuss and aren’t going to give it a fair hearing. See, for example.
- I am trying to listen to a wider array of podcasts these days so I thought I would check out what has become of Tim&Sid. Here’s how they are promoting their show to potential listeners:
- Why would I bother downloading if you can’t be bothered to tell me what the episodes are about? In a thriving age of podcasting it is notable how many shows can’t handle the basics.
- Speaking of Sportsnet’s very expensive network stars, they appeared in my twitter feed as a promoted tweet this week. Molson sends people by helicopter to deserted lakes in the arctic to play hockey. Wiser’s pays Tim&Sid to narrate highlights of a men’s beer league team.
— Tim and Sid (@timandsid) May 10, 2017
- Was anyone else expecting Tim&Sid to bust through the door like Kool-Aid man at the dudefest? I can’t believe they sent a camera crew up to film these guys reacting to something so lame. Just an awful attempt at buzz marketing.
- Dirk Hayhurst has joined the Sick Not Weak project. That’s cool.
Join us over at https://t.co/4UxmThg4Xl to talk about mental health and personal struggles, tonight, live. Very candid, open, and safe.
— Dirk Hayhurst (@TheGarfoose) May 13, 2017
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)