Thursday, October 28, 2010

Getting Back to the Ethics of Sports Journalism: Spitgate

Jerome Preisler, a New York Times best-selling author and regular contributor to, wrote the following blog today in response to media reports surrounding the now-controversial USA Today interview with Kristen Lee, wife of Texas Rangers ace Cliff Lee. I decided to re-post this here on Bomber Boulevard for my followers.

The lack of ethics in journalism has become common amid the wealth of news articles, magazine articles, blogs, etc. Particularly in sports, where journalists seem more apt to report content that is subjective rather than objective.

In this piece, Preisler questions this practice and calls certain writers to justice. Pay close attention to the summation, where he dispatches a warning for the "ethically challenged."


As the Yankees sputtered through the final weeks of their regular season last month, I was observing the postgame happenings at Yankee Stadium when a senior baseball writer for one of the major New York City dailies asked manager Joe Girardi if he thought his team was playing “tight.”

Seated behind a microphone in the interview room, Girardi answered that it was not his view at all, and went on to give his reasons in some detail.

In the Yankee clubhouse minutes later, the writer posed the identical question to Alex Rodriguez at his locker. Rodriguez also insisted without hedging that the team was not playing tight.

The writer then went directly up to the press box to write his piece.

Curious what his story would be, I read his column in the newspaper the next morning. He wrote unequivocally about the team playing tight. There was no mention of Girardi’s rejection of his suggestion. Nor any mention of Rodriguez’s similar dismissals.

In fairness to the reporter, he may have asked his question to other members of the team or coaching staff at some earlier point and gotten answers different from those I heard. But nowhere in his column did he cite a source for his assessment of the team mood, or even state that he had a source. And, again, there was no mention that his hypothesis was rejected outright by the team’s manager and its star third baseman.

This struck me as the height of irresponsibility. If he was going to ignore all the answers to his questions, why had the reporter bothered asking them? His piece simply did not pass the sniff test. In fact, it had flipped the most basic of journalistic tenets on its head not once, but twice. Instead of following a story to its conclusion, he began with the conclusion and sought to prove it. And then when he couldn’t prove it, he went ahead and stated it in print anyway.

Which brings us roundabout to another Yankees-related story that drew a lot of attention from the New York sports media this week--and was covered with even greater slovenliness. Most of you have heard about it by now. For lack of a better tag let’s call it Spitgate.

The furor apparently started with remarks that pitcher Cliff Lee’s wife, Kristen, made to a reporter for the national daily USA Today. In the piece she was quoted as having commented negatively about her experience with fans at Yankee Stadium during the American League Championship Series. The article suggested that her feelings might impact Lee’s impending offseason decision about whether to play in Texas or New York.

Here is the relevant passage:

Perhaps the Rangers’ greatest sales pitch simply was having Kristen sit in the visiting family section at Yankee Stadium during the playoffs. She says there were ugly taunts. Obscenities. Cups of beer thrown. Even fans spitting from the section above.

“The fans did not do good things in my heart,” Kristen says.

“When people are staring at you, and saying horrible things, it's hard not to take it personal.”

In a separate Post piece, columnist Mike Vaccaro appeared to accept the allegations at face value when he wrote:

Let’s just say that on the list of smart recruiting tactics, re-enacting the Seinfeld magic loogie gag on your team’s most coveted target isn’t something {college basketball coach} Steve Lavin would probably endorse. Lee himself downplayed the incident, but then he wasn’t the member of his family who needed a roll of Bounty, either.

Also in that day’s Post, writers George King III and Mike Puma mentioned the incident without even mildly questioning its veracity, though their slant was to downplay its overall importance in the Yankees’ free-agency pursuit of Lee.

Over in the Daily News, meanwhile, Yankees beat writer Mark Feinsand typed this:

Lee’s wife Kristen, had a horrifying experience at Yankee Stadium during the ALCS, telling USA Today that she and other Rangers wives were taunted with obscenities, spit at and had beer thrown at them while seated in the visitors’ family section in the mezzanine along the third-base line.

While citing a source that said the Yankees were investigating whether any such incidents were in fact reported, Feinsand went on to call the supposed perpetrators of this act “thugs” who had
“harassed” Lee’s wife.

But, gee, Mark ... how do you know that’s exactly how it happened, bearing in mind that you yourself wrote the episode was still under investigation? Before reporting it as fact, shouldn’t you, and George, and David and Mike, and the rest of the Post staff, and USA Today, and everyone else in the media who jumped on the story have waited for independent verification that spit and beer were really and intentionally sent in the direction of Mrs. Lee and other Rangers wives? Or is another contradictory version of events out of the question?

This isn’t to at all to suggest Mrs. Lee isn’t telling the truth as she perceived it. But it’s worth recalling the old Japanese film Rashomon, in which a crime is witnessed by different people, all of whom have different and conflicting versions of what transpired. And also worth keeping in mind that eyewitness testimony—subjective recollection—is considered the most unreliable sort of evidence in courts of law.

Moreover, the incident as it’s been reported evokes skepticism and credibility strain even on first blush. I wonder, for example, how the culprit was able to precisely target one particular individual amid the tens of thousands in the crowded stands despite blowing wind and other weather conditions—and identify this individual as the wife of a Texas player. Was he a spit sniper, able to hit his mark with deadly accuracy?

The bare bones USA Today account also leaves me wanting to know if anyone was actually seen hawking up saliva—or is it possible the moisture that fell on the wives was something besides spit? The remnants of a spilled beverage? Or some drops of standing rainwater from the precipitation that had passed over the New York area during the playoffs, like the droplets that splashed down on me and other fans in Section 106 during the ALDS. And like the liquid from overturned beverages on the upper tiers that fans in the lower sections have been complaining to the Yankees about for quite some time.

As for the tossed beer: the published accounts leave it unclear where it came from. If it streamed from above, the logical question would be whether there was any reason to conclude it didn’t spill accidentally. If it was deliberately, maliciously flung from someone in the same section as the Rangers wives, on the other hand, why wasn’t the person responsible stopped by security? In all my decades of attending Yankee games, I’ve never seen an incident of that type be witnessed by or reported to Stadium security guards without a subsequent ejection—and in this case it is said to have occurred in a section reserved for VIPS that was presumably under careful watch.

These questions aren’t asked lightly or coyly. If the behavior occurred as reported it is patently unacceptable and possibly criminal--and also the work of a small handful of fans among the nearly fifty thousand who attended each playoff game. But to assume it happened without any corroboration, and then hold fans responsible in advance should Cliff Lee opt to remain in Texas next season, exposes nothing but lazy, biased ineptitude of certain media members—and the generalized contempt they have for their audience.

For now, though, the story seems to have been written, if not at all proven. But if fans are to be called thugs and held accountable in the event Lee ultimately rejects an offer from the Yankees, then those who assign the blame can similarly look to their own professional failures—their lack of adherence to basic journalistic standards and practices—when their respective outlets are eventually abandoned by readers and listeners, leaving them to sell their stories only to themselves.

Follow Rasheeda Cooper on twitter: @ra_cooper

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