At Long Last, Sir

Submitted by Brian on May 28th, 2010 at 12:32 PM

BONUS Dead Horse Beatin' during Dead Horse Beatin' Week on MGoBlog! A promise: this is the very last thing written about the Free Press in this space.

On the Day of Slight Reckoning I mentioned that the epic seven-page Free Press article addressing it failed to even mention the U's assertion that the initial reports were "greatly exaggerated if not flatly incorrect." I should point out that Rosenberg's follow up article which, like all of these articles, quotes some guy named Michael Buckner—the News, Free Press, and have all quoted this guy in the last couple days in multiple articles for each—touches briefly on the University's pointed shot:

"When the media reports painted a picture of serious student-athlete abuse, the university immediately investigated these claims, as its primary concern has always been the welfare of its student athletes. ... The university is satisfied that the initial media reports were greatly exaggerated if not flatly incorrect."

Numerous former players, current players and parents of players told the Free Press that the football team violated NCAA rules that govern practice and workout sessions during the season and off-season. The players also described quality-control staff members handling voluntary seven-on-seven scrimmages.

In any event, the infractions committee is unlikely to spend much, if any, time on media reports.

Obviously, this is a response that completely fails to address the criticism leveled by the university: the picture painted by the initial article made it seem like Rodriguez was an uncaring task-master violating NCAA regs willy-nilly in a demonstration of his will to power. It then dismisses the importance of "media reports" to the committee. As defenses go it's… well, it meets the exacting standards of the Free Press. Jon Chait demolished the original piece (again) a couple days ago and I'll just quote him:

The paper reported that "the Wolverines were expected to spend two to three times more than the eight hours allowed for required workouts each week." It further alleged, "Players spent at least nine hours on football activities on Sundays after games last fall. NCAA rules mandate a daily 4-hour limit." And it further portrayed this alleged epidemic of rule-flouting as the product of Rich Rodriguez's obsession with conditioning, and the near-mania of his prized assistant Mike Barwis - a natural conclusion from the article's anonymous sourcing from players and parents of players disgruntled with the new coaching regime. The Free Press article breaking the allegations is entitled, "A look inside Rodriguez's rigorous program."

Chait has also addressed the infuriating Free Press editorial, for which I thank him because now I can just close it and not write and delete several paragraphs with a curse density immense enough to make a Scotsman blush.

If you want a truly comprehensive breakdown of all the ways in which the article was sensationalized, this site will wear out even the most dedicated torch-bearer. The best high-level view from me is probably the Words on Agenda And Bias in the aftermath of the Great Albom What-Is-Your-Job Debacle. If you're looking for something shorter and in a very narrow column, that guy who still reads the Free Press because he wonders "how was Rosenberg supposed to determine what was true and what was not?"—guh—received a number of responses, the best from Section 1 and M-stache, in a thread that oscillated from dismissive flaming to patient explanation from better men than I.

After all of it poor neg-bombed MgoMatt, the poster of that thread, returned to edit his original post like so:

EDIT: Based on the responses below, I suppose my standards for responsible journalism are pretty low.  I blame 24 hour cable news.

True. But Matt's standards are also the exact same ones Rosenberg and the rest of the Free Press hold themselves to. Note the defense above: "players told us this." How were they to know different? People said things, the Free Press reported them. Asking for anything else is madness, and anyone questioning the framing of the story… well, we're objective. We just happen to find it "sad" that Rich Rodriguez is Michigan's coach, you know, objective-like.

ESPN's dealt with a number of screwed up recent stories featuring anonymous sourcing, leading to an apropos column from ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer:

In theory, anonymous sources are a last resort. Reporters are challenged to get people to speak on the record, but sometimes that's just not possible. If the source remains unnamed, it must be a trade-off for candor and quality of information. Of course, there are times when information a source ardently believes to be true … turns out to be false. That's why independent corroboration by a reporter is key. Bad sourcing or lax oversight can result in the equivalent of a journalistic drive-by shooting, aided and abetted by information cloaked in a shroud of anonymity.

Check, check, check, straight outta Compton. So it goes.


skunk bear

May 28th, 2010 at 12:55 PM ^

Not only does the Free Press give inappropriate anonimity to those they talked to, but they do their own summarization of what was said. Did players really say Michigan was breaking NCAA rules? Or did they say "We're working really hard and putting in long hours"?


May 28th, 2010 at 1:06 PM ^

"journalistic malpractice" in the Chait piece when the "story" broke best describes the "drive by shooting" excuse for an article and and Rosenberg's legacy as a journalist. 

On another note, I live in NYC and (thankfully) do not have to listen to Michigan media about this issue or sparty neighbors, etc.  But I do have very good friends here who attend other Big Ten schools (PSU and Wisconsin, in particular).  They are normally quite faithful about sending me emails/texts about Michigan's shortcomings as playful jabs.  I haven't heard one thing from them about this issue.  I can't believe that I'm going to paraphrase Albom, but here it goes:  there are no suitcases of cash, no Escalades, no dead bodies, no point shaving, no calls to agents, etc.  BFD. 


May 28th, 2010 at 1:08 PM ^

I plead guilty to the former.

MGoMatt does hit on a worthwhile point, though: 24-hr cable news, especially one network in particular, has so thoroughly dumbed-down the presentation of news and has altered expectations and standards so completely that now some media entities are trumpeting their new "fact-checking" operations as some sort of radical idea in journalism that shows they're going the extra mile in presenting news. If you had told Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite 50 years ago that by 2010, standards for accuracy were so low among major news media operations that "fact-checking" was seen as some sort of amazing, novel, "aren't-we-doing-a-great-job" extra-value additional benefit for the viewers, they would have put guns in their mouths.


May 28th, 2010 at 1:06 PM ^

Kudos, Brian, for referencing one of the great bitch slaps in American history. Regardless of what one feels about Sen. Joe McCarthy (there are legitimate reasons to believe that his efforts served a real national security purpose, though his methods were evidence of a serious god complex and a naked abuse of power) the Senate hearing with Secretary of the Army, in which Special Counsel to the Army, Joseph Welch, says, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" is a thrust to the gut for the ages.

It wasn't his only one in that meeting, however. Welch goes on to say, (and even more appropriate as an analogy for the Freep and Stretchgate):

Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this with you further. You have sat within 6 feet of me, and could have asked me about Fred Fisher. You have brought it out. If there is a God in heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further. I will not ask Mr. Cohn any more questions. You, Mr. Chairman, may, if you will, call the next witness.


May 28th, 2010 at 1:09 PM ^

I used anonymous source a lot in my career. But, not that often in print.

Meaning, I used this sources mostly to help point me in the right direction towards the real story. Or help me unearth info that I would be blocked from otherwise because others are stonewalling a reporter. And most effectively to give me insight before a big interview that helped me ask unique and just-the-right-questions to the people I needed to get on recod.

I had a ton of people always surprised at the information I had.  It helped me keep an upper hand in an arena where the goal is to keep the information from you. I cant think of a single time I would have interested or compelled to run a story with just anonymous sources as the quotables and the backbone of the story.

It was more for behind the scenes, stealth info gathering.

I know there are a few other journalists on this site, I wonder what their experience with anonymous sources was. Overall as a newspaper company, we tried our best to avoid them.


May 28th, 2010 at 3:19 PM ^

When you cover business, especially mergers and acquisitions, using unnamed sources is a fact of life. So you need to be very, very careful and thorough when you use them.

First, you and the editors have to be satisfied that unnamed sources have first-hand knowledge and are in a position to know what they're telling you. Also, you have to cross-check everything they tell you against other sources. A single secondary source might not know the whole picture themself, but you find several other people who each know a piece, all of which backs up your primary source who cannot be named.

Ideally, you'd like the source to show you a document or some other form of physical evidence that backs up what they say. Then you and your editors know you're not just relying on somebody's good word. That really helps the story along, because that's really two sources -- the person and the document. Sometimes you can report in the story that the document was reviewed, sometimes you can't (sometimes it would reveal who gave you the information and get that person fired.) But even knowing it's there gives a lot of security.

Some news organizations have very specific rules on how many unnamed sources you need. I think it's more important to insist on two or more and weigh that against the quality and track record of the source. A source with a track record of being spot-on is more credible than three first-timers, IMO. I have had stories held back that were accurate and later became public knowledge, but the editors weren't satisfied with the unnamed sources. I also have beaten the competition to the punch because my sourcing was better, though less in number, than other reporters had. One competitor in particular had pretty onerous rules for using unnamed sources and lost out on a quite a few scoops. I liked to try for the home run -- find that one golden source who was THERE and can show you something to prove it.  Somebody high up. Makes the cross-checking much, much easier. That way, you only need a couple of other unnamed sources to back it up or, even better, the info was strong enough to get someobdy to go on the record. That way the backbone of the story was confirmed, with the unnamed sources adding the "you are there" color that you can't get otherwise.

Often, when you have really good information from unnamed sources, you can confront your named sources with a lot of knowledge, clear that you have enough for a story. Then they often will give you something -- sometimes not the whole thing, but enough -- on the record.

Yes, they are best avoided. But I never worked in a "one-newspaper town" situation. I always had loads of competition. That meant developing a solid network of sources was a necessity.


May 28th, 2010 at 4:00 PM ^

Can you (or Jamiemac) comment on "how" a source comes to be "unnamed"?  I imagine in your situation, where you have repeat sources who know they can trust you not to out them, they may specifically request it.  But Rosenberg's "unnameds" were likely not nearly so sophisticated in dealing with the media, which leads me to believe that Rosenberg was the one who suggested going the "unnamed" route.  Do you think he first tried to get on on-the-record attributable comment, and resorted to the "unnamed" when he struck out time and time again?  Or do you think he called and said, "Hey, I won't use your name, but can you tell me how many hours a week you spend on football?"  If the latter, how does that square with traditional journalism ethics?  Thanks again for the informative post.

Doctor Sardonicus

May 29th, 2010 at 12:03 AM ^

I can comment on being an unnamed source for journalists.  Generally speaking, as noted above, the unnamed source is useful to the reporter in pointing him/her to the actual story. 

The source also can give background and context as well as the scoop -- and that information helps the reporter be fully educated on the matter before seeking on the record comments from the target of the story.

The whistleblower unnamed source is far less common than the "informed party who knows  where the bodies are buried" type of unnamed source.  Whistleblower information really has to be vetted thoroughly because it may be false, may be incorrect, or may represent a misunderstanding (such as players who, like Rosenberg/Snyder, didn't understand the countable/non-countable rule). 

In contrast the "hey, you might want to talk to John Doe about that sewage contract, there's something fishy there" information doesn't need as much vetting -- the reporter just calls John Doe.  Rosenberg and friends relied on the supposed whistleblowers, but it's clear that they did so in a very haphazard, sloppy manner.  Not that they or the Free Press will ever admit that.

Section 1

May 29th, 2010 at 3:57 PM ^

There are at least three things to note about Rosenberg's grants of anonymity in this case.

1.  Free Press ethical rules, which were removed from the website after this fiasco, were that anonymity would only be granted where sources themselves demanded it.  We have a window on just one guy, Toney Clemons, who talked to the press afterwards, and said that yeah he had been interviewed by Rosenberg and no he (Clemons) didn't demand anonymity and didn't much care about any anonymity.  Clemons, probably wisely, later said, essentially, fuck it I just don't want to talk to anybody anymore about Michigan.  As I mentioned in my post at MGoMatt's message-board thread, Rosenberg's response to this one particular part of the general fiasco is astonishing -- Rosenberg says, "We've never said whether Clemons is one of the sources."  In other words, nobody can prove whether anonymity rules were disregarded with Clemons, because nobody can prove whether Clemons was a source.  That's for the Free Press to know, and you to find out.

2.  The Free Press Ethics Policy, which might still be online, states (and you will love this):  "We name our sources.  The use of unidentified sources requires the apporval of a managing editor or the highest-ranking editor available."   That's a quote!

3.  The techical justification for any offer of anonymity to sources in this case has changed, even by Rosenberg's own admission.  The original August 2009 Freep story said, that anonymity was granted because the sources feared "retribution" from "coaches."  When I asked Rosenberg once why he'd think that (hypothetically) a Justin Boren had anything to fear from Michigan's coaches (and I raised with Rosenberg the Boren-as-RichRod-for-Halloween photo), or Ohio State coaches, Rosenberg retreated; Rosenberg said that if he were to rewrite the story, he'd write the anonymity-justification as "general retribution" or some such nonsense, and muttered something about how NFL scouts and team reps might think about such a player...  In the meantime, Paul Anger replied to me in an e-mail way back in September of 2009 and said that "The sources we have used have reason to keep their identities quiet - backlash from coaches or peers."   It is a changing, and never-satisfying, series of varied explanations that the Free Press has offered.  Basically, it is b.s.

And there may be blame to be spread around to others at the Free Press.  There should be a Managing Editor who specifically signed off on this.  We don't know who that might have been:  Jeff Taylor, Julie Topping, Gene Myers.  Others, perhaps.  We don 't know because the Free Press doesn't tell much of anything.  On the very simple issue of why to grant anonymity, the Freep has never attempted to offer any detailed analysis.

A funny thing in the Kwame Kilpatrick text-message scandal (before we knew that attorney Mike Stafani gave his copies of the text messages to the Freep, and that was how the Freep "broke" the story), back when Paul Anger was writing columns defending the paper against the then-mayor's counter-attacks.  Anger wrote this in one of his defend-the-paper's-use-of-anonymous-sources columns:  "The challenge for journalists is to use such sources sparingly, and when we do, to rigorously verify the accuracy of their information."  And in the Michigan story, we now know, there was no verification of the anonymous sources.  Rosenberg had no documents, other than perhaps the July Audit memo.  On September 1, 2009 -- after the big Sunday-paper story -- Jim Schaefer FOIA'ed Pat Sellinger at Michigan for "Any and all" documents regarding the football team produced by Judy Van Horn's office.  (You have to see the breadth of this FOIA to believe it.)  And, most of all, Rosenberg had not verified his anonymous sources with anyone at Michigan who was in a position to understand CARA.

And naturally, there is a lot more wrong with the Freep than simply its use of anonymous sources in this case.  But on anonymity itself, those are three things to consider.


May 28th, 2010 at 1:21 PM ^

Brian: I make this solemn offer: if by midnight on May 28, 2011, you have held fast to your pledge to not write another thing about the Freep, or its news coverage, in this space, I will take you and your GF/fiancee/wife/whatever she is to dinner at a place of your choice within the city limits of Ann Arbor. I will pick up the entire cost, alcohol and dessert included. You know where to get me.

The only condition I impose is that I will be able to post a comment, or diary, describing said dinner on MGoBlog. I will not attempt to take any photos or secretly use a recording device of any sort.

Frankly, given the toxic levels of assclownishness endemic to the Free Press, I do not think you can do it. I do not expect anything in return if you cannot.


May 28th, 2010 at 1:48 PM ^

It goes back to the fact that we, as Michigan fans, cannot win the war with the Free Press.  They will never admit they were wrong, and while we can throw out as many reasonable and rational Jon Chait pieces as we like, the reality is, they will be seen exactly as we expect, through the partisan spectrum of college rivalry.  The Free Press can hold on to the fact that Michigan did find that they did something wrong, which I am sure is why there will be no apology or acknowledgment of wrong doing.  They will keep on keeping on and we'll keep banging our heads against the collective wall.  It does not mean that vigilance is unwarranted or fruitless, far from it.  But as I mentioned the other day, I came to the realization that even if the Free Press did the unthinkable and apologized as big as they broke "the news", it wouldn't matter.  It's like dumping a bucket of black paint in to a bucket of white.  No matter how much white paint you put over it, you can never get it back to pure white.  So if Brian's done with talking about this and the Free Press, I can't blame him.

Bando Calrissian

May 29th, 2010 at 10:53 AM ^

And, honestly, it would be nice if the MGoCommunity as a whole would at least try to adhere to the same thing, because sometimes you want to come to MGoBlog to read about Michigan sports without having to wade through a sea of anti-Rosenberg/anti-Freep threads where people who claim to not read the Free Press or care about the guy at all post his articles and lengthy diatribes about them/him. 

I mean, people believe what they believe, whatever, but at the end of the day, I'd like to think we as a community can talk about sports a whole lot better than we can talk about journalism.


May 28th, 2010 at 2:00 PM ^

Things Brian isn't going to write about for the indefinite future:

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!  Our three weapons are . . . .