I'll admit it...bad reporters in general (and sports reporters in particular) touch a nerve with me. Not reporters who occasionally get a story wrong, mind you, because everyone's wrong sometimes, but reporters who draw a paycheck to give informed, reliable information to a wide audience and yet consistently exhibit sloppy research habits, often engage in clearly flawed, lazy analysis, and constantly talk out of their mouth to the south. Irritates the hell out of me.
Part of that is probably because I'm a Chiefs fan and a long-time resident of a "flyover" state and so I see too many reporters in a national forum making inaccurate, lazy comments about my favorite team because they just couldn't be bothered to do any digging and find out what the real story is. And part of that is because I just don't like when people are getting paid to get a story wrong that they should have gotten right. Now I'm a blogger, and I'll be the first to admit that I'm as guilty of getting stories wrong as often as any reporter (and probably more)...but then it's also not my job to be right. And I doubt that there are too many people out there who are going to say that what I write has credibility on a par with the average newspaper or news service...rightfully so, since I don't have access to the resources (like press credentials and a locker room pass) or the time to dedicate to this craft that people who work for those entities have. A paycheck demands a certain level of accountability and when reporters consistently fail to be accountable for the information they put out there I believe they deserve to get raked over the coals for it. Few things make my day like watching a reporter with only a passing interest in accuracy get smacked down in the press...especially on a national level, and especially if I get to do some of the smacking (limited though my exposure might be).
Which brings us to ESPN reporter and "senior NFL analyst", Chris Mortensen. Mortensen's a guy who's been bugging me for quite awhile now, not just because he gets the occasional story wrong (like everyone else) but because over the last couple of years he appears to have almost no interest in getting his stories right...especially major stories. Like how the he reported, right after Herm Edwards had been fired, that the Chiefs were on the verge of signing Mike Shanahan to replace him. Problem was, the Chiefs were nowhere close to signing Shanahan. Apparently, they'd never even talked to Shanahan. And Mortensen apparently didn't have a single source willing to go on record to say otherwise...not to mention that every followup source ESPN talked to from the Chiefs and the NFL either shot the story down immediately or deemed it highly unlikely. Which begs the question, did Mortensen even bother to call anyone affiliated with the Chiefs before he ran the story? And who was his "league source" who passed along information on negotiations that apparently even the people supposedly involved in those negotiations had no information on? The Amazing Kreskin? Jesus? Some wino on the street corner outside the league office?
I'd be inclined to give Mortensen the benefit of the doubt that he actually talked to a "league source" except that over the last couple of years Mort's made kind of a pattern of putting out stories that appear to be at best rumor-mongering and at worst completely fabricated of out thin air. Here's a quick list of some of his most bogus ones:
Michael Vick's trial, July 17, 2007
Additionally, Vick is unlikely to be indicted in the dogfighting federal investigation, according to information gathered by the NFL and Atlanta Falcons, sources tell ESPN's Chris Mortensen. The authorities have told the Falcons and league that there has not been any evidence that can be tied to Vick with the alleged dogfighting ring, the sources said.
Eli Manning "separated shoulder", September 11, 2007
Manning, of course, didn't miss a single game.
Jeff Garcia's fractured back, December 3, 2007
Quarterback Jeff Garcia and coach Jon Gruden vehemently denied an ESPN report Sunday that suggested Garcia's badly bruised back is more serious than the team has indicated.
The report by Chris Mortensen said Garcia sustained a hairline fracture.
Garcia was hurt in last week's victory against Washington and was the inactive No.3 quarterback Sunday, one who is used only as a last resort.
"There's a lot of reports out there," Gruden said. "I just wish some of these reports were verified. (Mortensen) doesn't have a (expletive) idea what he's talking about. I can't understand why he would say that unless he got the X-rays himself."
Bill Parcells going to the Atlanta Falcons, December 19, 2007
Parcells, an ESPN NFL analyst, also has had limited dialogue with the Miami Dolphins about a similar role but the talks with the Falcons have been more urgent, a league source said.
It's interesting how few of the "league sources" that Mortensen uses for his stories ever seem to be willing to go on the record. Perhaps that's because their information is often so far removed from what's actually happening. Even the stories that Mortensen gets right seem suspiciously like guesswork rather than information gleaned from a source with inside knowledge. Like when Mortensen claimed (correctly) that Kurt Warner would be named the starting QB over Matt Leinart for the Arizona Cardinals. Mortensen's prediction (which had a 50-50 chance of being right no matter who he picked) ultimately turned out to be correct, but according to Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, the decision hadn't even been made when Mortensen reported it:
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, however, citing a team source, said Warner would be named the starter ahead of Leinart, who threw three interceptions against the Raiders.
“I haven’t read the paper today or seen the Internet,” Whisenhunt said. “Do we have a quarterback? … It seems like Chris Mortensen is making the decision on our quarterback for our football team. … But nothing has changed.”
So was Mortensen reporting information from a team source who had knowledge of what Ken Whisenhunt actually planned to do? Or did Mortensen see Matt Leinart throw three interceptions in a game against the Raiders and make an assumption that Leinart was going to lose his job so that he could get the story out early and scoop guys like Adam Schefter? It certainly wouldn't be the first time that sort of thing has happened...a nice thing about anonymous sources is that they're usually not available for questioning from anyone but the reporter himself. So if a reporter decides to use less than ethical means to get his story out there, it's not particularly tough to attribute information to them that they may not have passed on (or that the source himself doesn't even realize the reporter is attributing to him).
And it wouldn't be the first time that Mortensen never even bothered to try and find out if the story he was reporting on was true at all, as the story he did this month on a pending sale of the Raiders showed. I'd grab the original article from ESPN, but they actually pulled it after they found out it was completely bogus after their "senior NFL analyst" openly and unapologetically admitted he'd never talked to the Raiders about the story because he considered them to be liars:
"The Raiders have lost the privilege with me of running stories past them for comment," the e-mail stated. "This stems from their history of denials to most stories I have reported — as well as others in the media — when those stories have eventually proven to be true. The latest example is I reported that Al Davis planned to interview Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and, of course, the story was trashed by a team spokesman."
Mortensen got his hand slapped pretty hard for that one by ESPN's outstanding ombudsman, Le Anne Schrieber, in her column.
When I e-mailed my concern to Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, he promptly wrote back: "A call should have been made to Raiders."
Later, I talked directly to Mortensen, who said even before I could ask, "I was wrong on both counts: one, for not soliciting comment, and two, for daring to label it a privilege. I called Amy Trask and apologized."
Whew. A one-time lapse.
Apparently not, considering that less than a month later it seems that Mortensen floated a major story about Shanahan coming to the Chiefs without bothering to talk to either Shanahan or the Chiefs before running it.
But here is my unanswered question: Why didn't someone at either ESPN's television or online news desk remind Mortensen of that basic journalistic principle when he needed reminding? And just as importantly, after failing to do that, why didn't someone at ESPN elicit that straightforward "I was wrong" statement that Mortensen handed me on a platter?
It's a good question...equally applicable to yesterday's story. Because I've yet to hear Mortensen say anything resembling "I was wrong" and ESPN is still running the story about Herm-Shanahan on their site (albeit in an increasingly edited format). Which makes me wonder if Mortensen's penitance to to Mrs. Schrieber was less about regret over his lapse in journalistic ethics than about him being sorry he got caught. Journalists have been fired for less, after all, and I find it tough to believe that Mortensen's that bulletproof as their "senior NFL analyst"...even if ESPN is the same network that's put Cris Carter, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Skip Bayless, and Rush Limbaugh* on its NFL shows.
I'll be curious to see how ESPN handles this one in the coming weeks.
*Sorry, but I couldn't find the clip where Rush Limbaugh went off about how Mike Martz would never be able to take a team to the Super Bowl, just two years after Martz had taken the Rams to a Super Bowl (which Rush didn't realize, possibly because he never actually did much research on football for his job as a football analyst and because he knew less about football than any person ESPN has ever hired to cover football). It was really priceless.