Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Burning the wrong witch

VILLAGER #1: We have found a witch. May we burn her?
CROWD: Burn her! Burn! Burn her! Burn her!
BEDEVERE: How do you know she is a witch?
VILLAGER #2: She looks like one.
CROWD: Right! Yeah! Yeah!
BEDEVERE: Bring her forward.
WITCH: I'm not a witch. I'm not a witch.
BEDEVERE: Uh, but you are dressed as one.
WITCH: They dressed me up like this.
CROWD: Augh, we didn't! We didn't...
WITCH: And this isn't my nose. It's a false one.
VILLAGER #1: Well, we did do the nose.
BEDEVERE: The nose?
VILLAGER #1: And the hat, but she is a witch!
VILLAGER #2: Yeah!
CROWD: We burn her! Right! Yeaaah! Yeaah!
BEDEVERE: Did you dress her up like this?
VILLAGER #2 and 3: No. No.
VILLAGERS #2 and #3: No.
VILLAGER #1: Yes. Yeah, a bit.
VILLAGER #3: A bit.
VILLAGERS #1 and #2: A bit.
VILLAGER #3: A bit.
VILLAGER #1: She has got a wart.
RANDOM: [cough]
BEDEVERE: What makes you think she is a witch?
VILLAGER #3: Well, she turned me into a newt.
VILLAGER #3: I got better.
VILLAGER #2: Burn her anyway!
VILLAGER #1: Burn!
CROWD: Burn her! Burn! Burn her!

[From Monty Python and the Holy Grail]

Much has been made of Boston Herald writer John Tomase's apology and explanation for the Spygate story about the Patriots supposedly taping the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI. Deadspin has a reasonably fair take on Tomase's piece, while the Boston Globe had a decent piece on the Herald's overall apology. However, the real vitriol (perhaps as expected) comes in from the mostly-anonymous commenters, which must be making Buzz Bissinger as happy as a kid in a candy store. The 827 comments included such gems as "You are a complete idiot. May the fans never forgive you...I know I wont [sic]." and "It's not going to wash Mr. Tomase!!!!! You committed news falsification. There is no journalistic requirement to protect a source that provides a lie!!!!!!!!!! Maybe the government's witness protection program may provide you some shelter but Boston sports fans will not!!!!!!!! A reckless "reporter" added to negligent editors equals NO CREDIBILITY!!!!!!"

As Terry Pratchett famously wrote in Eric, "Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind." Beyond that, though, my general sense is that people are coming down on Tomase far too hard and making the real villains into heroes. Here's what he actually wrote in the original story (via Boston author Seth Mnookin's blog):

"One night before the Patriots face the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, new allegations have emerged about a Patriots employee taping the Rams' final walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI. …
According to a source, a member of the team's video department filmed the Rams' 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 league's investigation into the Pats included allegations that they recorded the Rams walkthrough in 2002.
'I'm not aware of that,' Goodell said.
'We have no information on that,' seconded NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. …
According to a source close to the team during the 2001 season, here's what happened. According to the source, a member of the team's video staff stayed behind after attending the team's walkthrough and filmed St. Louis' 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.’"

Consider what's actually here for a moment. The story makes it clear that these are allegations from a source close to the team: it never claims to represent them as fact, and it also includes one denial from the Patriots and three from the league, including two from Commissioner Goodell. That's certainly giving both sides. Moreover, all of the denials are fairly weak. Stacey James doesn't say that it didn't happen, she says that the [current] coaches have no knowledge of it. Keep in mind that this is a good six years later, and there's been significant turnover in the coaching staff: for example, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, defensive backs coach Eric Mangini and defensive assistant Brian Daboll have all moved on to other positions in the NFL or with colleges. Thus, taping could have gone on and been authorized at any level up to the offensive or defensive coordinator, and James' statement would still be perfectly truthful. That's not to say that this happened: it merely shows that her denial isn't particularly strong, and not likely strong enough to scare anyone off from a story. Also, she said that the coaches "have no knowledge of it": that sounds a lot more like an attempt to distance themselves from any controversy rather than denouncing the story as a lie.

The league's denials are also weak (they're "not aware" and have "no information" on the matter). This is also not out of the ordinary: it just means that they hadn't received whatever information Tomase did, which you wouldn't expect them to have given the highly controversial nature of the allegations. There's nothing here that tells inquisitive reporters or editors "move along, no story to see here". As Mnookin writes, "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."

Additionally, Tomase got this information from multiple sources, even though the final piece only referenced one anonymous source. He writes that "The story mentioned only a single, unnamed source because in the end, while I had multiple sources relating similar allegations, I relied on one more than the others." In my mind, it would have strengthened the story considerably to have the weight of multiple anonymous sources, but that's their newspaper's call. These also weren't all at one time: it started with a 2006 conversation with a trusted source, then was strengthened with a 2007 comment from a "stronger" source after the original Spygate scandal. Later, around Super Bowl week, two of his sources said they had been told that the walkthrough was taped. He also confirmed that members of the team's video staff (including the notorious Matt Walsh) were present at the walkthrough, and that a camera had been set up. It's hard to know exactly how much stock to put in this without knowing who his sources were, but the dots don't seem that hard to connect, and if those four sources are all separate, that's pretty compelling evidence. As Tomase points out, his crucial error was not checking if the cameras were in fact rolling during the walkthrough, which is why the story had to be retracted. Still, consider the ingredients present:

A. One team known for its spying on opposing signals.
B. A shady video guy who the New York Times had spoken to earlier in the week when the story broke, claiming to have more information on Patriots' taping and suggesting that it went back many years (it's now come out that Walsh taped his first signals in 2000 and the Patriots went to great lengths to keep his taping under wraps)
C. Said shady video guy being confirmed as present at the aforementioned walkthrough, along with other members of the team's video staff.
D. Team video cameras confirmed as set up during this walkthrough.
E. A heavily-favoured (14 points!) Super Bowl opponent that might lead a clever coach to think he could use every edge he could get.

It's hard not to envision that mix as a recipe for a spying scandal. When you throw in the weak denials offered by the team and the league, it seems almost assured. Yes, the story was flawed, but the brunt of the responsibility shouldn't fall on Tomase: the majority of the problem came from his sources. It's also not his job to kill a piece: that's where editors come in. The way I see it, his failings were not specifically confirming the most important detail (if the cameras were rolling), and not giving the Patriots adequate time to respond. The latter is tough to do: you don't want to even suggest those allegations unless the story is practically green-lighted, as that kills your relationship with the team, but you also don't want to get scooped by anyone else. This is especially difficult in the lead-up to something like the Super Bowl, where everyone from every paper imaginable is looking for things to write about. Many of them have their sources as well, and they're likely to hear that someone's been sniffing around the old Super Bowl story. Wait too long, and you lose the story: jump too soon, and you're off base. Thus, Tomase was under a lot of pressure and walking a narrow tightrope. Yes, he screwed up, and he admits it, which takes a lot of courage. He doesn't deserve the lambasting he's taken from the commenters on that story, many of whom have probably never had to deal with that kind of pressure while writing a sensitive story, and he definitely doesn't deserve to be fired. Unfortunately, he'll probably be forever linked with this in the public perception. In our fantastic society, it's okay for superstar athletes to be delinquent fathers or have relationships with 15-year old country singers, but a journalist who makes a mistake doing his job clearly deserves a burning at the stake.

The worst thing out of this is that the Patriots come up smelling like roses. All of a sudden, they're shouting "Vindication!" from the rooftops. Just check out these comments from owner Robert Kraft.

"I felt very good seeing this paper, because we've worked very hard over the last decade and a half to establish a strong bond with our fans," Kraft said on CNBC. "This story coming out the day before the Super Bowl . . . was very damaging and put a cloud over us for the last 3 1/2 months. I'm glad it's finally come to an end."

The story, and the cloud, shouldn't have come to an end. All the apology shows is the Patriots did not tape that specific walkthrough (in a way anyone can prove, anyways). According to Walsh, they were still taping, often clandestinely, ever since 2000. They may have started even before he arrived. The taping isn't even the big thing: as the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan points out, the key element is the Nixon-esque cover-up.

"Here is what Bill Belichick has done: He has placed Patriots fans on the defensive for the rest of their lives," Ryan writes. "He has been exposed as being monumentally disingenuous at best and utterly duplicitous at worst. There can no longer be any doubt that he engaged in a practice he knew was against the rules.
The big question we cannot answer is how important it all was, really. Did his illegal practice of taping opponents' defensive signals aid his team's chances of victory in certain games by 20 percent? Ten percent? Three percent? One-10th of 1 percent? Not at all? No one will ever know.
Right now, it doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter, because the only thing that does matter now is the image of the New England Patriots. The sports community now associates the Patriots with cheating. The three Super Bowl championships are, and forever will be, under suspicion. The thought will never go away.
Let Mike Martz, coach of the vanquished Rams in the 2002 Super Bowl, absolve the Patriots all he wants. A year from now, five years from now, 50 years from now, who will know or remember what Mike Martz said? The Patriots have been irrevocably stained. They will be, in the eyes of many, the reverse Black Sox. They will be the team that broke the rules. Their three Super Bowls will be regarded as ill-gotten gain.
And Bill Belichick still hasn't fessed up."

Indeed. Many more questions remain, and the digging into Spygate should continue until they've been settled and Belichick has been either suspended or fired. It's him, not Tomase, that weighs the same as a duck, but this time around, they decided to publicly execute the wrong witch.


- A great defence of Tomase by Keith Law.
- Bob Ryan's column on the cover-up.
- Seth Mnookin's post defending Tomase.

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