Yesterday, the Times‘s Murray Chass wrote about the internal debate supposedly taking place within the front office of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the first time since he “broke” the story on December 8 that the Dodgers were considering filing tampering charges against the Red Sox for their “signing” of J.D. Drew. “Maybe it’s the environment — laid-back Los Angeles,” Chass wrote. “Maybe he would have been tougher in a tougher environment — Boston. But Frank McCourt bought the Dodgers, not the Red Sox, and he is what he is. What he is not is a fighter. McCourt, who has been described as not being a troublemaker, chose not to pursue a tampering charge against the Red Sox over the recent signing of J. D. Drew despite the urging of officials from other clubs.”
It was an astounding item at the tail ends of an astounding week, even by Chass’s flimsy standards. (It’s also likely the first time ever that Frank McCourt has been described as a big softy.) In his original piece, Chass wrote that “many people” had “urged the Dodgers to file a tampering charge.” Chass went on to say that “[o]thers described Colletti as angry about the Drew development and said that relations between Colletti and Theo Epstein, Boston’s general manager, had become strained to the point where Colletti wasn’t returning Epstein’s telephone calls” and that “[a]n executive of one club said the Dodgers’ owner, Frank McCourt, was certain tampering had occurred.”
Within 24 hours, other news outlets began reporting on just how off-base Chass’s story was. On the 9th, the Globe quoted MLB CEO Bob DuPuy saying he “had not heard anything” about the topic. That on-the-record quote immediately put Chass’s the central premise of Chass’s anonymously sourced story — that the Red Sox “were a hot topic of conversation at the general managers’ meeting last month and at the winter meetings last week” — into doubt. (In the clubby world of Major League Baseball, DuPuy would have been among the first people to hear if tampering charges were seriously being discussed.) The Globe story also knocked down the patently ridiculous notion that Colletti wasn’t returning Epstein’s calls: “Through a Dodgers spokesman, Colletti also refuted Chass’s allegation that there was a rift between Colletti and Epstein, and that he refused to take Epstein’s phone calls in Orlando. ‘They probably talked about 20 times last week,’ said spokesman Josh Rawitch. Indeed, when Colletti arrived at the meetings late last Sunday night from the Dominican Republic, one of his first orders of business was to conduct an hourlong face-to-face meeting with Epstein on a possible deal for Manny Ramâˆšâ‰ rez.” (A hot conversation at both meetings most definitely was the potential of a Dodgers-Sox trade involving Manny.)
Three days later, the Los Angeles Times went one step further, writing that “[t]he Dodgers hadnâ€šÃ„Ã´t seriously considered asking Major League Baseball to investigate until a column last week in the New York Times suggested tampering had occurred.” (What’s more, Drew is still not signed, although in the scheme of things that’s a minor point.)
Chass’s creation of a story and his subsequent refusal to acknowledge his mistakes is nothing new for the Times‘s irascible sports columnist. (It’s also worth noting the likelihood that Chass is as agenda-driven as anyone on the paper; only a month ago, Chass asked — in all seriousness — if the Sox’s posting fee bid for Daisuke Matsuzaka was “evil.” He decided it was â€šÃ„Ãº[m]ind boggling perhaps, but not evil. Stunning perhaps, but not evil. Incredulous maybe, but not evil. Obscene, as an executive of another club said, but not evil.â€šÃ„Ã¹) On September 19, he wrote that the likelihood that the Mets would clinch their division at home meant the team “sold more than 10,000 extra tickets for last night’s game.” The attendance for the game Chass was referring to was 46,729. As I pointed out at the time, in the entire second half of the season, the Metsâ€šÃ„Ã´ home attendance had dipped below 45,000 only nine times, had been under 40,000 only three times, and under 35,000 only once.
A little more than a month before that, Chass wrote that the Red Sox should be embarrassed by the Yankees lead in the AL East because “the Yankees have played much of the season without a third of their starting lineup. … Bruised and bloodied, the Yankees have been winning with players named Melky and Bubba. With only a third of the season to go, they have won more than the Red Sox, who until catcher Jason Varitek had knee surgery last week, had not dealt with the extended absence of an everyday player.” That’s perilously close to an out-and-out lie: the Sox’s starting center fielder (Coco Crisp) and their starting right fielder (Trot Nixon) had both been on the DL; at the time Chass’s article ran, Nixon had already been out of commission for several weeks. What’s more, six members of the Sox’s pitching staff had been on the DL; David Wells had already been out on three separate occasions.
Chass’s stories seem to skirt many of the Times‘s codified ethics regulations. The paper’s failure to correct Chass’s errors also directly contradicts its stated policy on corrections: “As journalists we treat our readers, viewers, listeners and online users as fairly and openly as possible. Whatever the medium, we tell our audiences the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. We correct our errors explicitly as soon as we become aware of them. We do not wait for someone to request a correction. We publish corrections in a prominent and consistent location or broadcast time slot.” Let’s see: complete, unvarnished truth? Nope. None of the examples I’ve cited above have received corrections, and several of these have been pointed out to an editor or editors in the paper’s sports department (and not by me). Responding to a query about Chass’s piece about the MASH-unit Yankees, one editor explained in an email that since Coco was not still on the disabled list, he didn’t count. And Trot? Well, he’d only “recently been injured.” Finally, since “pitchers are not considered everyday players,” they didn’t count either. So not only did the Times fail to publish a correction on its own, it actively refused to run a correction after an error had been brought to an editors attention. I still haven’t heard any explanation of why there hasn’t been a correction on the contention that Ned Colletti wasn’t returning Theo’s calls, or why the fuzzy math used for the Mets attendance boost was never clarified, or why…well, there are lots and lots of examples, including such easily verifiable information as, say, a player’s age.
I don’t mean to pick on Murray. OK, fine, that’s not true; I most definitely mean to pick on Murray. (Before someone points out the irony of my having an axe to grind with the fact that Chass has an act to grind, let me point out — and not for the first time — that this is a blog. It’s entire reason for being is so I can put forth my take on things. I have no codified ethics policy, etc etc.) But I also want to raise a larger point: why is it that the ethical guidelines so scrupulously enforced in virtually every other part of daily newspapers are ignored when it comes to the sports section? In Feeding the Monster, I wrote how an article by Dan Shaughnessy that described the mood in the Red Sox’s baseball operations department on the day that Theo Epstein’s officially returned to the team was flat-out wrong; I knew that because I (unlike Shaughnessy) was physically there. There sure as hell hasn’t been a correction on that item. Reporters carry water for sources with some regularity. Information that’s known to be false is printed. There’s been lots of talk about how the media fell down on the job during the steroids era; that seems to be the least of the problems. There are, of course, daily examples of excellent journalism being committed by sportswriters. There’s also lots and lots of crap.
I understand that the sports section is not of the same import as national or international news. But arts sections and styles sections and food sections are all held to some standards. What makes sports so different?