If you live in New England, watch C-Span, tune in to ESPN, or regularly peruse the Internets, there’s no way you avoided the culmination of what’s been portentously referred to, alternately, as Spygate and Videogate. (When did every flap or scandal–no matter how minor–take on the import of the only national crisis of the last century to bring down a president? But I digress.)
Tomase, as everyone now knows, is the Boston Herald reporter who wrote, in a story printed the day before the Pats lost the Superbowl to the Giants, about allegations that someone on the Patriots payroll had taped the Rams’ final walkthrough before Superbowl XXXVI. Before we go any further, let’s review what the story actually said:
One night before the Patriots face the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, new allegations have emerged about a Patriots employee taping the Ramsâ€šÃ„Ã´ final walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI. …
According to a source, a member of the teamâ€šÃ„Ã´s video department filmed the Ramsâ€šÃ„Ã´ final walkthrough before that 2002 game. …
When contacted last night, Patriots vice president of media relations Stacey James said: ‘The coaches have no knowledge of it.’ …
After his state of the NFL press conference yesterday, Goodell was asked if the leagueâ€šÃ„Ã´s investigation into the Pats included allegations that they recorded the Rams walkthrough in 2002.
â€šÃ„ÃºIâ€šÃ„Ã´m not aware of that,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Goodell said.
â€šÃ„ÃºWe have no information on that,â€šÃ„Ã¹ seconded NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. …
According to a source close to the team during the 2001 season, hereâ€šÃ„Ã´s what happened. … According to the source, a member of the teamâ€šÃ„Ã´s video staff stayed behind after attending the teamâ€šÃ„Ã´s walkthrough and filmed St. Louisâ€šÃ„Ã´ walkthrough. …
Asked yesterday if he believed the Pats used similar films to achieve their three Super Bowl victories, Goodell was adamant. ‘No,’ he said. ‘There was no indication that it benefited them in any of the Super Bowl victories.’
So, to review: the story made clear it was referring to “allegations” from “a source” that was “close to the team.”** Neither the Pats’ PR head nor the NFL issued a categorical denial…and in the ever-evolving dance between reporters and the people they cover, “no knowledge of that,” “not aware of that,” and “no information on that” are all the type of hedges that set off alarms.***
What else do we know? That the Pats did videotape opposing teams in ways that violated NFL rules and regs–repeatedly–even when the opposition was clearly inferior (see: Jets, regular season, 2007) and the game was less than season-changing (ibid).
There are, and should be, real debates concerning Tomase’s story, including: What is the threshold for running controversial stories? When are single sources adequate? When can anonymous sources be used? When is it appropriate to out anonymous sources? Why, with the country facing a possible recession and the armed forces stretched perilously thin, is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee so fixated on a football game that was played more than six years ago?
(There’s also this issue, which I haven’t seen brought up once: what responsibility do other media outlets have in running with controversial stories they’re picking up from another news source, and, crucially, what responsibility do those other outlets have in making the limitations of a story’s sourcing as clear as the original article did?)
John, as he readily admits, screwed up by letting his concern about getting beat on a big story result in misplaced confidence about the story itself. (I’ll argue, as many reporters likely would, that it’s a reporter’s job to get excited about a story and it’s an editor’s job to rein him in when needed, but that’s another topic for another day.) But the vitriol and derision being directed at Tomase is over-the-top. (And getting angry at him or at the Herald is a bad way to displace frustration/anger over the Pats slightly-less-than-perfect season.) He had what he thought was a big story, and he thought he had made the limitations of his story clear in the piece itself. The allegations contained therein logically followed from what was already known. And nobody he interviewed would say, flat out, that the piece was wrong. Both Tomase and the Herald are owning up to the fact that major mistakes were made, and that, in my book anyway, involves taking a deep breath and manning up. I’ve screwed up in my career, and when I do I try to correct those mistakes as quickly and as publicly and as prominently as possible. That’s never fun, and from where I’m sitting, it’s hard not to admire a guy who sucks it up and writes the following:
First and foremost, this is about a writer breaking one of the cardinal rules of journalism. I failed to keep challenging what I had been told. … I take immense pride in what I do and the paper I work for. I truly believe itâ€šÃ„Ã´s a privilege to serve as a link between the fans and their team. On Feb. 2, I let you all down. Today I hope to begin the long road back.
One final thought: Ironically, at the end of the day, the net result of Tomase’s story is likely positive for the Patriots. The larger storyline–that the Patriots had been caught breaking NFL rules multiple times–has become one about media malfeasance and how the team was unfairly accused of breaking NFL rules on one single occasion.
* Disclaimer: I know Tomase–fairly well, actually. He helped me tremendously during the writing of Feeding the Monster, and he gave me a much-used sandwich press when I got married. The reason I asked him to help me on the book was because of how much I admired his work as a Sox writer for the Eagle Tribune. I especially admired his resourcefulness–it’s hard, as a beat writer required to write game wraps, to also ferret out enterprising stories, which John did–and the way he went forward with a story even when he knew he was going to get the shit kicked out of him, as occurred with an ’05 piece about how frustrated the Sox brass were with Manny.
** We now know, in fact, that there were multiple sources for the story, although none with firsthand knowledge of the taping.
*** Important caveat here: As Tomase explains in his mea culpa, he didn’t give the NFL or the team adequate time to investigate the allegations.