Two months after Deadspin.com alleged then-Jets quarterback Brett Favre sent cell phone photos of his penis to a team sideline reporter, the scandal has finally penetrated the mainstream media. Now that the NFL is investigating possible sexual harassment, at least one local journalist alleges compatriots covered Favre’s butt.
It took a New York Post reporter to confront Favre at a Winter Park press conference Thursday. City Pages — which has written about the allegations at least nine times since Deadspin’s Aug. 4 item — did a little end-zone celebrating on Friday with an item titled “Brett Favre’s penis pictures too hot for local front pages.”
So why, outside of CJ’s gossip column, did the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press and local TV news operations wait until Thursday or Friday to tell their audience about allegations floating around since August?
On a very basic level (see “Timeline” at the end of story), it’s another iteration of tabloid versus mainstream media values.
Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio admitted the sideline reporter, Jenn Sterger, told him about the 2008 incident off-the-record; Daulerio decided to publish it anyway. Between the initial story and last week’s follow-up, Daulerio only heard one “friendly good ‘ol boy” message — as he noted, “nothing incriminating.” He never saw the photos, and wrote that Sterger refused to turn the information over.
For two months, all readers and competitors had to go on was an editor’s second-hand account. On Thursday, after paying a third-party source “more than we ever have,” Daulerio published voicemails and a crotch shot. While the voicemails sounded like Favre, even Daulerio couldn’t conclusively tie them to the quarterback.
For me, the initial allegations weren’t enough to retransmit. It’s not that I’m above Deadspin’s tabloid allure; I’m addicted to Drew Magary’s operatically profane NFL “Jamboroo,” and I enjoy idiocy and eye candy enough to watch a four full minutes of this Florida Gator football braggart.
But when it comes to Favre, my bottom line is: even potentially skeevy celebrities deserve fairness. Until the voicemails emerged, there wasn’t enough for me to add my professional voice to Deadspin’s megaphone.
At City Pages, tabloid values … up to a point
At City Pages, editor Kevin Hoffman took a different view. The alt-weekly’s initial web item included no original reporting, other than finding four photos and three videos of Sterger. A few days later — with no new evidence implicating Favre — CP emitted one of its interminably paginated slideshows, eight web pages entitled “Naked in Crocs: A Favre Fantasy.” (The photos allegedly involved the QB wearing said footgear.)
Hoffman is about the closest thing we have to a Deadspin guy around here; he loves the muck, and fights with ethical prigs like yours truly. So I was flabbergasted when, six days and at least two CP items after the scandal broke, Hoffman criticized Daulerio for burning his source.
The post — which came after a media ethicist weighed in elsewhere — had Hoffman asking, “How many shekels did Daulerio earn by selling his source down the river?”
Noting CP’s own page-view games, I accused Hoffman on Twitter of having it both ways. Deadspin, typically, was more to the point, tweeting that Hoffman was a “moron.”
The scandal’s new evidence and wider attention have Hoffman feeling vindicated: “The fact that the NFL is now looking into the issue makes clear that we were right to cover it thoroughly from the start,” he said when we chatted (more amiably) over the weekend.
Hoffman says he made the “gut” call to go with the initial story based on the specificity of Daulerio’s report, and the lack of an immediate Favre denial. But doesn’t that put Favre in the box of answering the “When did you stop beating your wife?” question?
Replied Hoffman, “The correct answer is, ‘I never have and never would.'”
He makes this distinction between covering the item and criticizing Deadspin’s source-burning method: “I wouldn’t have published it first. But when a major national sports site gets 1 million pageviews, it’s not a secret anymore. We want to give our audience the info they need to participate in conversation.”
I’d quibble with Hoffman’s contention that CP covered the story “thoroughly” — they did no original reporting on the essential Favre allegation (though, update, Hoffman did interview Nick Denton for his media-criticism piece.) The alt-weekly even found time for an effusive September cover story on Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. They may have had the guts to re-blog Deadspin’s story, but not to publicly press Favre as the New York reporter did.
The mainstreamer’s case
So what was the traditional media thinking while Deadspin and Hoffman were whipping up page views?
Before Deadspin published the Oct. 7 voicemails and photo, the only mainstreamer who went with the scandal was C.J. — the Strib’s repository of all things Deadspin-ish. She blurbed the item Aug. 6, two days after the story broke, and mentioned sending an email to Favre that apparently went unanswered.
That was it until the press-conference question following Deadspin’s Oct. 7 update. Some local TV stations referenced the Favre’s non-answer in their late-afternoon and evening newscasts. In the Oct. 8 print version of the Star Tribune, Vikings beat reporter Judd Zulgad buried Favre’s answer under the subhed “Etc.” in a page C7 notes column. The Pioneer Press didn’t mention the scandal in print until Oct. 9.
The PiPress also waited for pro football bosses before publishing. “Once the NFL said it would review the situation, that became the story and we reported that,” sports editor Mike Bass said in a one-sentence email.
In comparison to Hoffman’s caffeinated sensationalism, Bass’s approach seems too deferential to me. By then, the voicemails and photo — plus Favre’s evasive comment on the matter — had been out for two full days. The sexual harassment angle was baked into this story from the beginning (even if Deadspin underplayed it). Even though no one could conclusively prove last week’s cell phone disclosures came from Favre, the editors could’ve analyzed the facts as boldly as the NFL did.
WCCO-TV sports director Mark Rosen — whose station also held off until the league acted — disagrees. “It wasn’t clear-cut how to report something like that,” he says. “Yes, Deadspin reported, but Jenn Sterger is not saying anything, and it seems like it’s inside bedroom doors. It wasn’t like Tiger Woods crashing his car into a tree with a police report.”
Says another local journalist who asked not to be named because he or she is not authorized to comment, “I can tell you we’re not going full-guns after the story because we — like many, possibly — are doubting it’s actually Favre in the voicemails and photos. This story is still gossip until something is confirmed. While we’re working as hard as anybody to try to get that confirmation … we don’t report gossip. It’s a dangerous precedent.”
The NFL’s investigation, like Woods’ crash, legitimized the story for organizations with tougher sourcing standards.
The Star Tribune, meanwhile, did publish Zuglad’s note before the NFL acted. However, the Strib did the bare minimum until Sunday’s paper (page C11); the scandal didn’t become front-section news until Monday.
Rosen notes that two on-the-field stories — the Randy Moss trade and the Twins’ tiny playoff run — competed with the murkier Favre story for lead-story attention. Says Star Tribune sports editor Glen Crevier, “I think so far we have taken a responsible and prudent approach to the story. And we’ll certainly continue to monitor it closely.”
‘Why would we protect Favre anyway?’
What about the notion that locals were too cowardly to broach the subject once Thursday’s evidence emerged? That they’re too afraid to sully the Great Quarterbacking God because they are homers, or their organizations are too chicken to go first?
“Give me a break,” says Rosen, noting the lavish attention the media has ladled on scandals such as then-starting quarterback Tommy Kramer’s drunk driving arrest or the infamous Love Boat scandal.
Says the unnamed journalist, “What’s very interesting in this whole thing is watching the media — mostly the notorious national windbags — chiding each other for not pursuing this story. It’s journalists daring each other to report gossip. That’s dangerous.”
The source insists, “Why would we protect Favre, anyway? He’s done us no favors… drove us crazy for two summers… and has no semblance of a relationship with any of us. What’s to protect? Do people think we’re going fishing with him? Having beers with him? I’d say he has less of a relationship with the local media than anybody in town.”
Evidentiary standards may explain why mainstreamers waited at Favre’s Thursday news conference, but it’s also worth remembering that they lack a key tool in Deadspin’s belt: they don’t pay sources who can disgorge the proof needed to confront an alleged perp.
Cash may allow Deadspin to overcome Daulerio’s blatant violation of Sterger’s confidence, even if the rest of the media suffers the drive-by effects. A source should be more interested in his or her relationship with a specific professional, rather than the profession, but my experience is anything toxic pollutes the water table for all of us. Aside from smug finger-pointing, that’s one reason to stand up for ethics even if we sometimes fall short.
Then again, Deadspin’s story has gotten more, not less, credible as the weeks have rolled by. It could turn out to be a fraud, or truly a private misdeed with no broader significance, but a lot more of us are watching now.
Aug. 4: Deadspin published its initial item.
Aug. 4: City Pages blogs the Deadspin report roughly three hours later.
Aug. 6: Strib gossip columnist C.J. blurbs the item.
Aug. 13: After a journalism ethicist decries Deadspin for violating a source’s confidence, City Pages editor Kevin Hoffman also criticizes the site.
Oct. 7: Deadspin publishes voicemails and a penis shot. The website says the items were procured from a “third party” it wouldn’t name. The voicemails sound like Favre, but Deadspin acknowledges it can’t confirm it’s him.
Oct. 7: At a regular weekly press conference, New York Post reporter Brian Costello asks Favre to respond to allegations he sent inappropriate messages to a female Jets employee. Favre says, “I’m not getting into that.”
Oct. 7: Several TV stations mention Favre’s non-answer on their afternoon and evening newscasts. It’s the first time they’ve referenced the alleged scandal.
Oct. 8: C.J. notes Favre’s answer.
Oct. 8: First Strib print sports-section mention, in a staff-written notes column on page C7, under “Etc.”
Oct. 8: City Pages: “Brett Favre’s penis pictures too hot for local front pages.”
Oct. 8: The NFL announces it will investigate Favre.
Oct. 8: First story from Associated Press. A spokesman say a “miscommunication in-house following Favre’s remarks” prevented a story from running Oct. 7.
Oct. 9: First print Pioneer Press mention, on page C2. (Oct. 8’s edition featured a story titled, “Happy Birthday, Brett.”)