Media miscue

The Baltimore Sun

Over the past few years, sports journalism has become as ripe a topic for discussion as the games and sports personalities the journalists cover.

The trend started with talk radio but really picked up steam when some cyber caveman invented the first blog.

A fair amount of blogging, regardless of the subject matter, focuses on other media -- print, broadcast and even cyber -- because many bloggers are motivated by what they perceive as a disconnect between institutional media and the public that media is supposed to serve. And bloggers believe they can bridge that gap.

Which brings us to the granddaddy of all sports media stories to date -- the Boston Herald's now discredited Super Bowl eve report that the Patriots taped the Rams' walkthrough before the Super Bowl in 2002. By now, even penguins in Antarctica know that's not true, and the Herald has fallen on its sword with an unusual front-page apology to the team and its fans.

Yesterday, the reporter responsible for the article that appeared Feb. 2, John Tomase, donned sackcloth and ashes in writing a lengthy apology and explanation of what went wrong.

You can study and pick apart Tomase's explanation all you want -- the reliance on hearsay accounts, the degrees of distance that certain sources had with events, misinterpretations of events that Tomase did confirm -- and it really comes down to two things. There was a fatal urgency in getting it first, and there was a breakdown in the checks and balances that are supposed to be a prudent and essential part of the machinery in any newsroom operation.

If you follow Tomase's narrative and put yourself in his place, you can see how he could have been seduced into arriving at the mistaken gut belief that the Patriots taped the Rams' walkthrough six years ago. But in committing a gut belief to ink and paper, or even pixels, most reporters turn into Hamlet. Contemplating another type of irrevocable action, the Bard's melancholy Dane says, "Conscience does make cowards of us all."

Grafting that sentiment onto the practice of journalism, we should all be suitably apprehensive about going into print until we are absolutely sure we have the story cold.

In Tomase's case, the scoop -- too often journalism's fool's gold -- contributed to making him braver about the merits of his story than his reporting warranted.

But even more concerning is how the system apparently broke down at the Herald.

Journalism, in most instances, is a highly collaborative enterprise. Above the reporter is an assigning editor. That assigning editor will usually consult with still another higher editor on a major story, such as the earthshaking one that ran Feb. 2 in the Herald about the Patriots' alleged transgression in 2002. Then, there is the last line of defense, the copy desk, where at least two more editors often take a look.

Sometimes, in this business, having someone's back means protecting him or her from a self-inflicted wound. Unless Tomase bamboozled his superiors (and I doubt he would still have a job if he did), others at the Herald -- some with more stripes on their shoulders than Tomase -- failed in their duties as well.

In his article yesterday, Tomase made a personal observation that was particularly sobering. He called the Rams' walkthrough story something he'll have to live with the rest of his life. I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but he's right. This is the sort of thing that can wind up in a person's obituary.

And Patriots fans who think that the article might have had some impact on New England's Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants three months ago are probably convinced it should also be etched on the guy's tombstone.

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