Like everyone who writes, either for a living or for the love of it, I am occasionally prone to rants.
This is one of them, so you might want to stop reading now.
If your prurient curiosity gets the better of you and you end up reading further, I commend (and sympathize with) you. But there's something I've got to say about the state of the media and I just can't keep it to myself anymore.
Yesterday was April Fools' Day, and if there's one thing I've learned in my decade-plus of being an almost-professional word butcher it's that on April 1st, every story you get a tip about is a story that needs double- and triple-checking.
I've learned this the hard way. When I first started out with the writing thing, I had the habit of running with any story that had the whiff of legitimacy. The more predatory folks in our industry love young, inexperienced writers like I was, because they can essentially publish by proxy any story they want without worrying about it dying a quiet death by fact-checking.
Long story short, when I discovered that my irresponsible behavior had affected the involved parties negatively, I quickly changed my approach. For a while I was even over-cautious because... well, if you haven't experienced the vitriol of someone slandered by your ineptitude, it's kind of hard to explain, but think about how you might feel if, while working on your roof, you take a step backwards and discover that there is nothing under your foot. That feeling of knowing you're about to plummet two stories and likely injure yourself badly? That's how it feels.
Therefore, I am very sensitive about matters that pertain to failures in media accuracy - both of the inept kind and the intentional kind. See, I guess I have old-school beliefs about the role of the media in society. I was taught to believe that the media's role is to inform objectively and accurately. The whole concept of "gotcha" and scoop-based journalism - where the rush to gain ratings and get tongues wagging to benefit the bottom line comes at the expense of credibility - infuriates me, because it foments an atmosphere of irresponsibility in the media.
That is one of the reasons why I generally take April Fools' Day off - because I know there are elements out there that are bound and determined to take full advantage of this atmosphere and thus make the media look like actual fools. The sad part is, they nearly always succeed.
Two cases in point. By now most of you have heard of Eddie Gossage's prank on the racing media that had more than a few legitimate media outlets scrambling to be the first to publish the scoop that a Texas DJ had changed his name to "texasmotorspeedway.com" in exchange for $100,000. It was a hoax, an April Fools' gag, a promotion that was intended to provide free advertising at the expense of the media. And it worked like a charm.
Oh, the guys in the media who fell for it were not happy at all (see my SBNation colleague Jeff Gluck's fine rant about it here - Jeff was punked too but to his credit he took his lumps like a man). They were apoplectic that an April Fools' gag was sent out on March 30th, on official Texas Motor Speedway letterhead no less. But the harsh truth is that the folks who got fished in by this story were victims of the "scoop rush" mentality - get the news up and out before everyone else. In the hurry to get that done, they forgot Gossage's history at this time of year (remember the retractable roof he was allegedly going to build over Bristol Motor Speedway?), and they neglected to do any additional fact-checking (in some instances, they didn't even bother to call the DJ himself to confirm).
There was another non-racing April Fools' gag that I want to mention because of the context involved. David Shoalts, a hockey writer for the Toronto-based Globe & Mail newspaper, has spent the past year covering the Phoenix Coyotes' bankruptcy struggles. While his work has drawn accolades in some quarters, in others he has been criticized for publishing hearsay, rumor and innuendo as fact. He has made no secret of the fact that he does not believe Phoenix should have an NHL franchise and his coverage of the issues surrounding the Coyotes certainly adds weight to the idea that he is biased on the topic.
Yesterday, one of the partners in Ice Edge Holdings, a group that intends to buy the Coyotes out of bankruptcy and keep them in Arizona, played an April Fools' Day joke on Shoalts. Ice Edge's Daryl Jones called Shoalts and told him that the group would be terminating their bid for the Coyotes in order to pursue a $1 billion purchase of the Manchester United soccer club. Even though the "news" came only a couple of weeks after Shoalts had published an article claiming that Ice Edge didn't even have $140 million available to buy the Coyotes, Shoalts immediately published the story on the Globe & Mail's website as a top news item.
Now, even a cursory Google search would have saved Shoalts a lot of embarrassment. The $1 billion referred to in the story was to be funded through a public bond issue via the "Stonehenge Municipality" - which, of course, doesn't exist. And the idea that ManU might even be up for sale could have been put to rest by a simple phone call. But Shoalts, in his rush to publish (and, according to Coyotes fans, stick another dagger in Phoenix's hockey heart), ignored his due diligence and ran with the story verbatim.
When Shoalts discovered that the story was a hoax, he immediately deleted his Tweets about it from his Twitter account and had the story pulled off of the G&M website - but not quickly enough to keep visual proof of his story from being archived via screen shots. For a writer who has frequently and publicly boasted about his credibility and knowledge of the inside story of this issue, it was a major blow.
Both of these examples showcase the ineptitude of people who really should know better. While the context of the first case is a little more sympathetic to those who were "punked," both situations could have been resolved with far less egg on the face by some very basic follow-ups by folks for whom due diligence should be a foundational part of their training.
As embarrassing as those two examples are, however, there is a third case that is equally as infuriating... but for a different reason.
During an IZOD IndyCar Series teleconference announcing John Andretti's entry into this year's Indy 500 with Andretti Autosports and Richard Petty, a writer named Jim Pedley piped in with a question. He wanted to know if Michael Andretti were planning to follow in the footsteps of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi and branch out into owning a NASCAR team in addition to his IndyCar operation.
The question was a non sequitur considering the topic at hand, but Andretti answered it genially:
JIM PEDLEY: One other question. Chip Ganassi and Roger, of course, have entries in both IndyCar and in NASCAR. Any inclination on your part to explore that or get into stock cars?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Never say never. You know, I think there's always a possibility of that in the future. You know, we just have to wait and see.
Right now I've just taken over the team at the end of last year, so I haven't ‑‑ it's going to take us a little time to get things going here the way we like it. But I think we're in the sport, in auto racing, and we're a racing team, and we always look at opportunities, and if an opportunity comes up to do NASCAR, we may jump on it.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? Which is why Pedley's conclusions on the subject are more than a little confusing. Reading Pedley's column, one gets the sense that Michael Andretti will be jumping ship to Sprint Cup racing as soon as he possibly can. By virtue of splitting the actual quotes and filling in the gaps with his own suppositions and theories, Pedley created a sensational and almost completely false story:
There are open wheelers out there who are toying with defection. And if not defection, at least splitting their loyalties.
And it appears that there is at least one team owner doing the same.
Of course, this kind of out-of-context writing is almost standard procedure these days. People with agendas can take any quote and make it say something completely different than its original intention by strategically altering them to suit. But to anyone who is concerned with truth, the blatant twisting of the truth to suit an agenda is even more egregious than a simple failure to fact-check.
What burns my britches the most is that even I, a writer with far less professional credibility and training than these "brighter lights" in the media firmament, can see the erosion of standards in this profession clearly enough to rant about them. The outrage I am expressing here should be coming from within the media itself and not from a blogger who does this stuff essentially for the fun of it and not for a paycheck.
Some would say it's not my place to say these things. I'm sure there will be more than a few "professionals" out there who will snigger into their sleeves and say, "Who does this punk think he is, telling us how to do our jobs? I haven't seen him in the media center lately. Easy to criticize when you're typing on a laptop in your basement. Har har har."
You know what, boys? At least I didn't finish out the day yesterday apologizing and ashamed.