Murray Chass and the shaky ethics of the sports section

December 18th, 2006 → 12:02 pm @ // 11 Comments

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 Ramírez.” (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 hadn’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 “[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.”) 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 Mets’ 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?


Post Categories: Media ethics & Murray Chass & New York Times

11 Comments → “Murray Chass and the shaky ethics of the sports section”


  1. branatical

    11 years ago

    I find it fascinating that Chass keeps outdoing himself.

    Good use of reference for outstanding works or journalism. I want to read that Theo book.

    You don’t have to look hard to find the crap: http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/articles/2006/12/16/column_whos_the_evil_empire_now/

    Reply

  2. Jack

    11 years ago

    Bro, you’re obsessed with this crazy old man. What are you trying to do, get the poor guy fired?

    If the Times axed Murray it seems to me he’d end up a cat-urine-reeking shut-in surrounded by ceiling high stacks of old newspapers and magazines.

    Do you really want that on your head?

    Reply

  3. J Michael Neal

    11 years ago

    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?

    Why are you assuming that things are different in the other sections of the paper?

    Reply

  4. hynes

    11 years ago

    I find the dichotomy between “preconceived notion” reporting vs. “fact-finding” reporting to be increasingly interesting the more I read sport-related stories across various newspapers. An interesting example of this is to juxtaposition your (Seth’s) on-going comment about the Theo/Larry relationship with an article in the NY Daily News on how this off-season shows that “Theo is no longer the boy wonder” and that the Dice-K acquisition shows only that Larry Lucchino is firmly in charge and Theo “only wishes for the power of Brian Cashman.”

    Be interesting to see your take on that article Seth.

    Reply

  5. Jenny

    11 years ago

    I’m not a lawyer, so I may be grasping at straws here, but if Chass continues to imply that the Red Sox tampered and they in fact did not, couldn’t that be grounds for a lawsuit? The claim is false and damaging to their professional reputation. This seems like the definition of a defamation suit. Along those same lines, I feel like Theo could sue Dan Shaughnessy for that false version of the Colorado trade he published that made Theo look like a weaselly little coward (I haven’t seen a correction on that one yet, either). But, again, I’m not a lawyer.

    Reply

  6. V06

    11 years ago

    “I can’t quit you, baby… but I’m gonna have to put you down for a while.”

    Ok, sports is generally considered a form of diversion or entertainment for the hoi polloi rather than a serious business. As such, sports writing (vs sports journalism) is likely held to journalistic standards below writing about art or food; but higher than other forms of entertainment like celeb gossip columns or grocery store tabloid publications.

    Some people prefer to read fiction while others prefer non-fiction. And some people can’t tell the difference.

    It’s evident that some members in sports media write journalism and some write sports gossip columns. Either way, it’s still entertainment for the masses. However, I’d much rather be entertained with the truth than with bullshit no matter what the topic.

    Reply

  7. SwankyMode

    11 years ago

    Im glad youve pointed out some of Murray’s recent shortcomings. Ive always liked his Sunday columns (he’s no gammons, but he’s good) but I read that article about the injuries comparison when it was in the paper. That was right before the 5-game massacre at Fenway where he totally called out Theo for the Sox’s sucking. He was right, but unnessasarily vidictive towards Theo. What is this old man’s obsession with bringing Theo down? Thats the scoop I want to read about.

    Reply

  8. Brian M.

    11 years ago

    Great minds think alike, I guess. I e-mailed Mr. Chass over the weekend about his ridiculous blurb. Our exchange:

    ME:

    Could you please just admit that you invented this entire Sox-Drew tampering rumor and be done with it? Your report that the Dodgers even considered filing such charges has been discredited by no less an authority than the LA Times, and you have yet to cite a single on-the-record source to support your invented claims. A drunken aside made at the Winter Meetings by some “old-time” baseball executive while he was grousing about the amount of attention Theo Epstein gets does not a properly-sourced quote make.

    Further, your reliance on unnamed sources for as innocuous a statement as “other GMs urged the Dodgers to complain” suggests that you are a rumor-monger rather than a reporter.

    For shame.

    HIM:

    I will base my reputation of nearly 40 years at the Times against anything the LA Times reported. Ask anybody in the business, and he will tell you my reporting is always correct, whether I’m quoting people by name or not. You don’t have to believe what I have reported, but that’s your problem, not mine.

    Murray Chass

    Reply

  9. overdone

    11 years ago

    Ai ai ai.

    This…

    “Ask anybody in the business, and he will tell you my reporting is always correct…”

    …makes my skin crawl.

    “My reporting is always correct”? When’s the last time anyone you know had a flawless career? I mean, who says that? A president who has God whispering in his ear? I don’t think four-letter words are the culture on this site, but che cazzata!

    Reading Chass makes me sort of sad, like talking with my Alzheimered grandfather. I wish them both peace and they should both stay off the road.

    Reply

  10. travisbickle

    10 years ago

    If I counted all the cash I`ve made betting against “homer” fans of all sports I might find I should have invested better.
    When I read these posts of dittoheads all agreeing with Seth, I only wish my book could post odds on things like tampering.
    In the real world $ rule everything and when all facts are considered, the idea that the Sox didn`t tamper is quite remote. But “fans” only want to think of thier team in a positive light. Please… do any of you also think those guys flew back to Japan to thank them again for selling the rights to Dice K? And you can bet that Boras had assurance from Boston that if Drew opted out he could do better.

    Reply
  11. […] of Feeding the Monster’s faithful readers actually beat me to the punch, as noted in the comment (#8) he made on yesterday’s […]

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