When I first heard about the Deadspin-ESPN war, I wasn't particularly impressed. Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio (who I previously interviewed here way back when) is one of the top bloggers out there these days in terms of influence, and he's done a lot of great things with Deadspin, but I didn't think this would be one of them. From his initial post on Steve Phillips and subsequent ESPN horndoggery posts, it sounded like he was only slightly deceived by an ESPN PR guy and decided to go ballistic with unverified rumours as a result. I read the posts on the matter by Chris Littmann and Brian Cook and thought they made good points, particularly on how this might affect the credibility of the blogosphere.
However, time does change some things. For one thing, there's been no all-out war against the blogosphere by the mainstream media. The organizations that have discussed the story (ESPN itself, Time and The New York Times, to name a few) have mentioned Deadspin specifically, not going with the too-frequently-used "a blog" or "a sports website". It's hard to go after Daulerio for ruining the credibility of the sports blogosphere when there's no corpus delicti and no apparent intention of doing so.
Second, but perhaps more importantly, Daulerio's been willing to explain his actions, and he's come off much better by doing so. That's one thing that's always impressed me about him in everything from the commenter debacle to the current situation; he isn't afraid to face criticism and talk about what he's trying to do. He's granted interviews to tons of media outlets and given his side of the story in this one; in addition to the above Time and New York Times pieces, I recommend checking out his interview with Jerod Morris on the Midwest Sports Fans and his interview (and subsequent responses to commenters) with my colleague First Derivative over at The Phoenix Pub. Here's four key points I picked up from those interviews:
1. These weren't unsourced, anonymous rumours:
Say what you like about Deadspin, but they generally do a very solid job of reporting. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, I'd argue they do more tough reporting than most blogs and many mainstream newspapers' sports sections. The Josh Hamilton story is a good example, as are the recent ESPN revelations. Now, Daulerio hurt his cause with his initial comments about just printing whatever was sent in, but that doesn't seem to be what he actually did; his conversation with Morris suggested that he got pretty substantial confirmation for everything that ran. This would be supported by the fact that ESPN has been highly critical of Deadspin's decision to run the stories, but doesn't seem to have disputed the facts they published too much (an important distinction if there ever was one), and Katie Lacey has confirmed the story about her. You can still argue about if these stories should have been published or not, but publishing the truth (or what at least seems to have a solid chance of being the truth) is always, always better than publishing weak, unsubstantiated rumours, regardless of what the subject under investigation is.
2. At least part of this was for show:
Why mention publishing any and all rumours if that's not actually what's happening? I think Daulerio illuminated this in his response to Sculptor in the TPP discussion when she asked about why he didn't preface his posts with a clearer explanation of his motivation and reporting process.
"I think the tone and lack and perceived groundless-ness(probably not a word, but we’re all friends here) is what caught people off-guard the most," he said. "I wanted to add a sense of panic to the equation. It confused a lot of readers and turned off a lot of readers, but at the end of the day, it was fun to watch. (IMO, obviously.) Part of how I do things is theatrical. I like it that way. There’s an element of professional wrestling to how I approach blogging (as I’m sure many of you have noticed, for better or for worse). And in sticking to that WWE metaphor, we all know that even though some of the show is staged, people can still get hurt. Not saying it’s the right way or wrong way, but that’s how I handle things. It’s a risky approach, but so far it’s paid off for the site in terms of increased visibility. You have to weigh long-term v. short-term in most of these situations and I think this one will definitely pay off."
The theatrical is a huge part of this in my mind. By making such a broad proclamation, Daulerio installs himself as a villain on the grand scale in ESPN's eyes, not a pesky annoyance. He talked about the panic he caused, and I think that's a great description for this; everyone in Bristol was probably wondering if they were next. If the standard of proof was as low as he claimed it was, they needn't even have done anything to wind up with potentially career-destroying information out there on the Internet. That's a pretty good Damoclean sword. Moreover, the revelations themselves may not have lived up to the hype, as they were mostly about little-known ESPN types no one really cares about, but they sure drove plenty of traffic to Deadspin and spawned plenty of frantic refreshing, which is good for the site. The WWE analogy is a good one, as they tend to create thoroughly despicable villains, not ones who barely step over the line. If Daulerio's goal was to pull a heel turn, he might as well do so on the grand scale.
3. ESPN does seem to have a double standard:
Something that seems to have been lost in all this is the debate over the Steve Phillips situation, his eventual firing and the existence or non-existence of clear ESPN policies on workplace relationships. Keep in mind that Phillips doesn't appear to have committed a crime (in fact, the affair came to light when he went to the police over threats and stalking committed against him). He certainly made an ill-advised decision to cheat on his wife with a production assistant, but are affairs really cause to lose your job? If so, many professional athletes would be out of work. Phillips wasn't exactly loved as a baseball analyst, which probably led to the lack of tears for him, and you can make a good argument that viewers wouldn't be able to take him seriously any more (if they ever could).
The question, though, is if there is an ESPN policy around workplace relationships, and if so, how is it enforced? If Harold Reynolds was apparently let go for a hug and Phillips was canned for having sex with a coworker, why are there no issues with the romance between senior marketing vice-president Lacey and vice-president for programming David Berson? Moreover, ESPN hasn't exactly shied away from taking a holier-than-thou stance on athletes' affairs (see their coverage of Roger Clemens - Mindy McCready and Steve McNair). Personally, I don't think athletes' affairs are really huge issues, and I'm not particularly concerned with which ESPN employees are in workplace relationships. However, if ESPN wants to moralize about the personal lives of those athletes they cover, they should make sure the same kind of coverage can't come back to haunt them. In the words of the old proverb, "Man who live in glass house should not throw stones."
4. It's just Deadspin being Deadspin:
In my earlier piece on the future of blogs, I wrote that I foresee plenty of room in the blogosphere for just about every kind of sports-based analysis you can think of, as long as there's at least a minor audience for it. The pageview numbers suggest there's a very large audience for stories about the private lives of those at ESPN and other sports media personalities. That doesn't mean I'll be writing those stories any time soon, and it doesn't mean every blogger should follow in Deadspin's tracks, but there is a substantial audience for coverage of the sports media, and I think that is a good thing. I obviously have a bit of an outsider's perspective on ESPN (thanks to their network not being carried in Canada), but they certainly do seem to dominate the American sports media scene. That dominance isn't always a bad thing, and I don't think ESPN is necessarily the evil empire they're often portrayed at; they've done a lot to reach out to blogs, including sending ESPN.com editor-in-chief Rob King and baseball writer extraordinaire Amy K. Nelson to Blogs With Balls, offering a special discount to allow more smaller bloggers like myself to attend the event and even hosting a stellar party for attendees (complete with a partial screening and DVD copies of the excellent 30 For 30 documentary "Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL", which I'm planning to review here this week). Still, as I discussed in the earlier post about the future of sports blogs, large sports blogs hold a tremendous amount of power; multiply that by about a million and you'll come up with ESPN's influence. It isn't necessarily bad that they have all that influence, as they've done a lot of great things to promote sports in North America over the years, but it brings up the eternal question posed by Juvenal, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (loosely, "Who watches the watchers?"). Deadspin's made a name for itself partly thanks to its coverage of ESPN, and potential ESPN hypocrisy is right up the site's alley. It's far too simplistic to paint ESPN as a villain (especially considering that many of these "horndoggery" cases really don't amount to much; office relationships happen everywhere) and Deadspin as the hero keeping tabs on them, but there's room for both of their perspectives on the Internet, and I think we're better for having both of them.
I don't agree with everything posted on Deadspin. There are many stories there I wouldn't touch, and both writers and commenters sometimes go too far for my liking. On the whole, though, it's an excellent site, and one of my daily reads. I think this situation shows that Deadspin is its own unique entity, however. Under Will Leitch, during a time when the sports blogosphere was still relatively young, Deadspin somewhat epitomized sports blogs. It was a generalist place with strong writing and some unique features. Many of those positive elements are still there, but the site has evolved into something more unique. It's become more about sports media, unique situations and off-the-field stuff, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing; many pine for the Leitch era, but both approaches have their merits.
The interesting thing, though, is that the Daulerio approach actually bears a lot of similarities to ESPN. It involves much more reporting than anything on a standard analysis-based blog, and both ESPN and Deadspin have always been interested in athletes behaving badly. In fact, for these kinds of pieces, Deadspin isn't generally competing against other blogs (as few bloggers have the time and connections to pull off these kind of investigations), but rather against mainstream news organizations; remember, this all started because the New York Post scooped Deadspin on the Phillips story (but wouldn't have if Daulerio's PR contact hadn't denied the whole thing). Now, Deadspin's still much farther out on the fringe than ESPN will ever be, but there are similarities between the two organizations (especially if you look back at ESPN's younger days when they were the upstart underdogs).
This doesn't have to be a bad thing, though, and it might just be the natural evolution of the blogosphere. It's promising to see this kind of original content and investigative research on sports blogs, even if the subject might not be what many of us prefer. By contrast, I was thrilled by Deadspin's decision to publish incriminating excerpts from Tim Donaghy's book after it got mysteriously nixed; in my mind, this is a great thing to do on a blog, especially if you have access to the powerful legal resources of an organization like Gawker Media.
Regardless of which kind of content we'd rather see, as sportswriters, bloggers and readers, I don't think any of us outside of Deadspin really have the right to tell Daulerio and his coworkers how to run their site. The blogosphere is not one giant cookie-cutter mould; it would be very boring if it was. There's room out there for the kind of approach Leitch took, and there's room for the current approach at Deadspin. In some ways, the growth of the sports blogosphere has made this aggressive mode of reporting more viable than it ever was, as there's now so much analysis out there that you need some actual news to remain important.
It's also advantageous that Deadspin doesn't really represent all sports blogs the way it used to in the eyes of the traditional media. If this ESPN war had happened back in 2006, I think it might have had the kind of implications for the sports blogosphere that Littmann and Cook discussed, as at that time, Deadspin pretty much was the sports blogosphere to many mainstream writers. Now, it's one prominent site among many, and others are less affected by the decisions made there.
In the end, I don't entirely endorse Daulerio's actions with regard to ESPN. The situation could have been handled better, and initial clarity on his motives and process would have helped a lot. I don't think he really deserves the beating he's taken from the blogosphere, though. Daulerio's the editor of one site, albeit a large and influential one; as long as he isn't claiming to speak for all blogs and mainstream organizations aren't treating him as the de facto blog spokesman, what he decides to publish is up to him and his bosses. Moreover, his posts on ESPN have revealed some real issues, including a potential discrepancy in how they address workplace relationships; they're not entirely rumour, and they may well have accomplished something. He may not be the blog Messiah, but I'm not convinced he's a very naughty boy.