The ethics of the scoop: There are none

Adam Schefter did something that would get a young reporter fired. That's just a small part of the recipe for success at the front of the hot-scoop parade, though.

Couple pieces of housekeeping before I get on my soap box and start preaching about the morals and ethics of journalism.

First, if you missed my explanation for how Jon Gruden’s exit as Raiders head coach can be traced back to Daniel Snyder’s hunt for the source of Internet innuendo — including a suggestion he rename his team the Epsteins — well, you might want to take a look right here.

Second, and perhaps more exciting, I’ve joined Christian Caple of The Athletic to do a weekly podcast on UW football. We recorded — and posted — our first episode on Wednesday. It’s a very DIY deal, starting with the fact we’re still coming up with a name. I hope you’ll give it a try because I think we’ve got something pretty fun here.

Now back to your regularly scheduled newsletter:

Adam Schefter is one of the most prominent sports reporters in the country.

The way he performs that job, however, bears very little resemblance to the way journalism is taught and — in most cases — practiced. For most reporters, providing a sneak peek to a league source the way Schefter did would be a fireable offense. Instead his employer — ESPN — shrugged it off, saying it wouldn’t get into the reporting process of a story that was published 10 years ago. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

First, here’s what happened. In 2011, Schefter emailed a copy of a story he had written for ESPN.com to Bruce Allen, who was then part of the Washington football team (back then it was lower case because the nickname was a slur). Schefter included a note to Allen in the email: “Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked.” He then referred to Allen as “Mr. Editor” and offered thanks for the trust. The story — as submitted to Allen — was later published on ESPN.com under the byline of Schefter and Chris Mortensen.

The Los Angeles Times found this email — and others — in a court filing in Arizona. The email was submitted as evidence to a federal court to contradict Allen’s sworn statement that he kept a low profile with the media and never served as an anonymous source in a story. The email was submitted as proof that Allen does in fact interact with reporters and serve as a source. This provides a window into how Schefter reports on the NFL, which in this case contradicts some very basic guidelines of the profession. Specifically, Schefter gave Allen — a man whose activities he is responsible for covering — an opportunity to suggest changes to his copy before filing it. Fact-checking this was not. He indicated he was open to suggestions. It’s not the biggest no-no in the reporter’s handbook, but it’s up there.

Rule One: Don’t make (stuff) up.

Rule Two: Don’t pass off someone else’s words as your own.

Rule Three: Don’t take money or any other (stuff) from people you cover.

Rule Four: Maintain a professional distance from the people you’re covering or as one editor memorably said, “If you’re going to cover the circus, you can’t (mess with) the elephants.”

Schefter providing a source the opportunity to review copy compromises Rule Four. You’re giving the source an opportunity to not just influence, but manipulate and steer the coverage you’re providing. Schefter tried to say he didn’t do that in a statement released by ESPN last night.

“In this case, I took the rare step of sending the full story in advance because of the complex nature of the collective-bargaining talks,” Schefter wrote. “It was a step too far and, looking back, I shouldn’t have done it. The criticism being levied is fair. With that said, I want to make this perfectly clear: in no way did I, or would I, cede editorial control or hand over final say about a story to anyone, ever.”

Man, does he think we can’t read? He asked Allen for anything to “be added, changed, tweaked.” He said when the story would publish. He called Allen “Mr. Editor.”

The reason this is a problem should be obvious, especially in this specific story: Schefter was writing about negotiations between the league and the players union during a work stoppage (in this case a lockout). He is talking to someone who’s on the management side of the negotiation. Did he provide a union representative the same opportunity to review this copy? That wouldn’t be kosher, either, but at least it would fair. Better than giving one side an opportunity to massage the phrasing or influence the framing.

So why is Schefter doing this? There’s only one answer that makes any sense. He is getting information that he believes is valuable in that no one else has it. And that is at the essence of not only why it’s a problem but how it becomes one.

At its core, breaking news in the NFL like Schefter does requires someone in a position to know a specific item telling you that information before they tell other people who want to know that exact same piece of information just as badly as you do. At that point, are you really an independent, unbiased reporter? You're asking someone to do something for your benefit or -- perhaps more troubling -- that source is doing something for you because they know they will benefit from it either directly (by release of the info) or indirectly. Perhaps they hope you will provide favorable coverage or give them the benefit of the doubt or maybe pull your punches a little bit.

It is an ecosystem that isn’t just ripe for corruption, but I would argue that it’s built-in. Another series of emails filed in Arizona showed Allen receiving an email from agent Drew Rosenhaus, stating that linebacker Navorro Bowman was available in a trade. Allen forwarded this email to Schefter who then reported it on Twitter. In a vacuum, this doesn’t seem so bad. When you consider that this is the exact same person Schefter was inviting to suggest changes to his copy and it’s pretty evident why this is a problem.

Here’s a more personal example of how the whole thing works. My first job as a pro-beat reporter was covering the SuperSonics. I was 27, and I was naïve about how these relationships worked. I just assumed the agents for various players called you back based on whether they wanted information out in that specific market whether it was provided anonymously or on the record. Maybe it would help if they recognized your name or had spoken with you before. I didn’t realize they worked with specific reporters to the exclusion of others. At least I didn’t realize this until Jeff Wechsler finally picked up the phone. Wechsler represented Kenny Anderson, a guard who was in the final year of his contract in Seattle. Anderson played half a season with the Sonics, and I had left at least a dozen messages for Wechsler relating to Seattle’s acquisition and later to inquire about a potential trade. He never once called me back. At the trade deadline that year, Anderson was traded to the Hornets for Elden Campbell. No one remembers this deal because it happened the same time Gary Payton was dealt for Ray Allen. Being a dutiful young reporter, I wanted to cover all my bases so I called Wechsler only I did so from one of the telephones in the team’s practice facility. Wechsler answered, but as soon as I identified myself, he said he had to go and hung up without me saying another word. I then realized that Wechsler answered because he recognized the number, but thought it was somebody else calling from the media room. It wasn’t that Wechsler didn’t talk to reporters or return messages. He didn’t talk to me, and I realize now it was nothing personal, but that he had a “relationship” with another reporter.

Is that unethical? Nope, but it sure made me wonder what the other reporter provided that I didn’t. It also made me realize what a weird and hollow exercise reporting on personnel moves is. I’ve done plenty of it. I covered the Sonics for three seasons as a beat reporter, the Seahawks for eight and when I took a full-time job at 710 ESPN Seattle one of the things I was the happiest about was that I would never have another copy editor call to say, “Did you see what Schefter/Rapoport/Pasquerelli/Dinglenuts is reporting?” with the real question lingering, unspoken, on the other end: Why didn’t you have it?

Well, I didn’t have it because I didn’t have those relationships and more accurately, I didn’t really have that job. Those copy editors really didn’t understand how the game is being played. There are reporters out there whose job bears absolutely no resemblance to a beat reporter covering a team. They don’t go to press conferences or ask coaches questions. They don’t write stories. Hell, they don’t attend games. Their primary responsibility was to report personnel moves that had not been made yet and to do this they worked a network composed (almost entirely) of agents and front-office employees. I don’t even think they report information so much as they trade it.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski is someone whose ability to break NBA news has become so well known that there’s a hashtag for it on Twitter: #WojBomb. He’s got his relationships, too. For years, Joe Dumars was considered one of Wojnarowski’s best sources for information, and it was certainly an absolute coincidence that for years Wojnarowski was extremely generous with Dumars despite the Pistons’ on-court struggles. At one point, Dumars was fined $500,000 by the NBA for leaking league memos, which reportedly were provided to Wojnarowski. Unethical? Wojnarowski was just getting the information. This is simply how the game is played at that level.

There are tons more examples. Shams Charania is another guy known for his ability to break news. One method for doing this is pretty apparent. Just go look at his mealy-mouthed attempt to frame Kyrie Irving’s decision not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as some sort of moral stand being made on behalf of the voiceless. It is one of the most confusing pieces of prose you’ll come across, and it doesn’t take much straining to realize that it’s written that way in an attempt to make Irving look as valiant as possible.

We can debate whether it’s reporting or not, but it certainly isn’t good journalism. Maybe that’s the differentiation. These guys are reporters but they function in what amounts to a trade press where everyone knows the rules are a little bit different. We should not expect anything impartial or objective, but understand the whole endeavor is one big conflict of interest.

Schefter makes more money than I ever will in sports media. He is more well known, and that’s because he does his job better than I ever could. He’s just no longer a journalist. At least not according to the way I learned the profession.

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