IT’S ALL HAPPENING! Friday, September 13

Starting Five

1. Steve Hymon, who was part of a team of reporters from the Los Angeles Times that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Tim Crothers, who teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina and who last year was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Profile Writing, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Josh Elliott, who now brightens your weekday mornings on ABC, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Jeff Bradley, for years a senior writer at ESPN the Magazine (and the brother of soccer coach Bob Bradley), was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Current editor of the Time Inc. Sports Group Paul Fichtenbaum, SI managing editor Christian Stone, executive editor L. Jon Wertheim, assistant managing editors Stephen Cannella  and Hank Hersch, senior editors Richard Demak, Mark Bechtel, Trisha Lucey Blackmar, Stefanie Kaufman, Kostya Kennedy and Richard O’Brien were SI fact-checkers…

(Deep breath)

…senior writers Kelli Anderson, Lars Anderson, Seth Davis, Austin Murphy (although his combination of apathetic fact-checking and formidable writing talent made this a brief tour of duty), Alan Shipnuck and Grant Wahl were fact-checkers. As were associate editors Mark Beech and Elizabeth Newman.

Staff writer Brian Cazeneuve, who is a walking Wallechinsky (the heretofore last word in Olympic facts and history), was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

USA Today’s Kelly Whiteside was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Cameron Morfit, a wonderfully gifted golf writer, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Teddy Greenstein, who is even more affable than I am (correction: than I used to be) and who is now a big-shot college football writer for  the Chicago Tribune, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Jeff Pearlman, who writes best-selling sports books and the F-word a lot on his blog, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Pearlman

Dave Gabel, the coordinating producer for NBCOlympics.com (basically, he runs the show) and a man who once hit a ball over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Mark McClusky, who now runs Wired.com, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Ashley Fox, who now covers the NFL for ESPN, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Julian Rubinstein, who has since written “The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber”, a highly acclaimed international best-seller that Borders named its “Original Voices” Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

 

Loren Mooney, who went on to become the editor in chief of Bicycling magazine, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Paul Gutierrez, who now covers the Oakland Raiders for ESPN.com and is NOT president of the Jeff Pearlman Fan Club, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Amy Nutt, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for the Newark Star-Ledger and whose business card at SI had a typo so that it read “Any Nutt” (I still have one of those cards), was a Sports Illustrated reporter.

As was Shelley Smith, who now reports on-air for ESPN and has done so for nearly two decades.

Candace Murphy, who is awesome, who grew up in Alaska and attended Yale and who appeared in Faces in the Crowd and is now married to KNBR morning show host Brian Murphy, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Candy Sue: Murphy

Michael Jaffe, who would go on to pen “Dance Real Slow”, a poignant novel with an unforgettable first line — “Calvin eats dirt” — that was later turned into a Vince Vaughn-Joey Lauren Adams film titled “A Cool, Dry Place”, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Chad Millman, who is the editor-in-chief of ESPN the Magazine, was a Sports Illustrated fact checker. As were ESPN the mag college football editor J.B. Morris and tremendously talented ESPN senior writer David Fleming.

Lisa Twyman Bessone, who went on to work at Outside magazine and now lives in Santa Fe, was a Sports illustrated fact-checker.

Armen Keteyian, whose new book “The System” is the latest to expose college football’s rancid underbelly, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Ivan Maisel, who covers college football in that inimitable Alabama drawl, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Steve Rushin, who is easily the most talented writer I’ve yet bold-faced here, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

Alexander Wolff, who was sharp enough to recognize Rushin’s talent when the latter was a senior at Marquette, and who went on to become the mag’s poet laureate of college hoops and is now the president of the Vermont Frost Heaves, a semi-pro hoops team, was a Sports Illustrated fact-checker.

As was I. “John Walters, a Sports Emmy-award winning waiter…”

(I survey all those names, realize I’m the one waiting tables and writing a free blog, and know that God has a sense of humor.)

All of us inhabited The Bullpen, as we referred to the reporters group. All of us, or most of us, aspired to become writers and/or editors at SI. It was the ESPN of that era. Most of the aforementioned names were my friends (I’ve attended the weddings of at least five of these people and took trips to Europe with three others) and many remain so.

But here’s the thing. I arrived at SI at a time when, with only a weekly magazine to concern itself with, the publication employed anywhere from 12 to 15 fact checkers, or “reporters”, as we were known, in order to be sure that every line in that rag was accurate. I fact-checked (and wrote) Faces In The Crowd. I mean, we even fact-checked THAT.

We even fact-checked the cover. The reporter who checked this was canned (notice Boog’s shoe).

Today, with its multiple platforms of the magazine, the website, the MMQB website, and various commemorative publications, Sports Illustrated employs TWO fact checkers. Two. Kelvin Bias, whom I  have known forever and is a likeable figure –although a person who admittedly would tell you that he is far more interested in being a filmmaker than he is in fact-checking sports stories– and Rebecca Shore, whom I do not know.

I have not asked anyone at SI how they vetted the five-part, Oklahoma State series co-authored by George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans. A story that has been shredded, at least to a degree, by both ESPN’s Brett McMurphy –a friend and former AOL colleague of mine whom, it should be noted, is a proud Oklahoma State alumnus — and Deadspin.com.

It would not surprise me one bit to learn that former chief of reporters Stefanie Kaufman, who is the most meticulous, anal (in a good way) person I have ever met, had been assigned to this detail, a task that is far below her pay-grade, but she’s the best they have. That’s just a guess on my part.

Let me tell you, briefly (or not so briefly), how we would fact-check stories at SI in the pre-internet age. The fresh-baked copy would arrive on your desk and then you would use every possible means –phone calls, books and previous magazine stories that our SI librarians had clipped and put into clip files categorized by name or team, or newspaper articles, etc. — to corroborate the facts.

Google had not yet happened.

The extended feature that would appear at the back of the magazine, which might run as long as 12 pages, was known as “The Bonus.” If you, or you and one other reporter, were assigned The Bonus to check, you might have as much as two weeks to fact-check it.

(An aside: the most dangerous writer to fact-check, in terms of his being loose with the facts? And all of the bold-faced names above know this: Rick Reilly. We all loved him. We all loathed fact-checking him.)

I once had two weeks to check a 1990 bonus entitled “Smart Guy Football”, about the game being played at Swarthmore and similar schools. I got every fact correct, but at the last moment one of our copy readers added a note about former University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins, who had abolished football at the prestigious institution, writing, “Hutchins was fat.”

This was pre-internet, kids. I had about 15 minutes to find a photo of a man who had died 13 years earlier. I couldn’t, but the editor loved the note, so it stayed in the story.

Guess what? Robert Maynard Hutchins was NOT fat.

Hutchins, left. Not obese. Not obese at all.

I almost got fired over that. And that was just one error in a story that was a surfeit of arcane facts and anecdotes –again, all pre-Google. I was nearly tripped up at the end by a copy reader who was trying to be facetious. But hadn’t bothered to tell me.

So fact-checking is not easy, even when a magazine devotes as many resources as possible to doing so. Which is not what magazines such as SI can afford to do today.

There were two levels of fact-checks: black checks, which were sort of a “We think it’s true, now we just need more corroboration” (e.g. a newspaper article) and red checks. When you struck your red pencil through a sentence –and you literally did this, and I mean the pre-2013 version of “literally”, by the way — you were verifying its authenticity. Yes, “Steve Garvey” is spelled S-T-E-V-E G-A-R-V-E-Y. I have it here on his baseball card; oh, and his mom verified it.

(Quick anecdote: former SI fact checker Roger Rubin, now with the New York Daily News, once phoned Joe Paterno after midnight on a Sunday night/Monday a.m. to red-check what type of car he drove. Paterno verified it. Or at least Sue did).

Get to the point, John.

First, SI used to employ far more people to fact-check stories than it currently does, which leads me to believe that said stories were much more finely combed through than they are today. The stories were read by lawyers, no matter how fluffy or controversial (the stories; not the lawyers), and if a lawyer had a question, he or she would phone. I imagine the lawyers nit-picked this Oklahoma State piece like vultures on a zebra carcass.

Second, the job was formerly a gateway to greatness, relatively speaking (after all, when all is said and done, we remain nothing more than sports writers; it’s not as if we can fix a sink). As the roster above suggests, highly talented and ambitious twenty-somethings landed those jobs.

I have no idea how carefully SI fact-checked the Oklahoma State piece, nor how many people or how much time was devoted to fact-checking it. I do know that the culture of fact-checking at SI has become much more of a “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” approach. Writers are expected to fact-check much more of their material before submitting it. But… the last person who should fact-check a story written by John Walters is….John Walters.

The problem with a piece such as the Oklahoma State series is that all it takes is a few errors, even if they are meaningless ones about a wrong year, to erode that story’s credibility. And that has two negative effects: 1) the public chooses to dismiss the story out of hand and 2) if SI is taken to court for libel, every factual error is one more nail in the coffin.

Another anecdote. In the spring of 1994, SI sent me to Jacksonville to write a piece on Charlie Ward, who was then trying to make it in the NBA by playing on a summer league team. After I arrived, senior editor Steve Robinson phoned and said, “We got a tip that there’s a veterinarian in Jacksonville who gave FSU players no-show summer jobs.”

That was it. No name, no further leads. Just a Jacksonville-based vet.

Well, I found him. And I interviewed people who worked for him. At one point during the week –this is all true — a man identifying himself on the phone as former FSU star Leroy Butler called and warned me that people there knew how to find me, knew where I was staying.

The trail was hot. The veterinarian was named Richard Blankenship, and at last he agreed to sit down for a face-to-face interview. But I was only a writer-reporter (one step up from fact-checker), so SI sent down a senior writer (I’ll spare him here by not identifying him) to accompany me. It was Colonel Jessup, Joanne Galloway and Daniel Kaffee having breakfast outdoors in Cuba.

We sit down, turn on our tape recorders. The room is filled with tension. And the first thing the senior writer says is, “Your name is Lance Blankenship?”

Lance Blankenship had just retired from the Oakland A’s.

Dr. Blankenship laughed out loud (I laughed inside). In five words the senior writer had eroded our credibility. That’s all it takes.

Time (as opposed to Time, Inc.) will tell how seriously the sports cognoscenti and college football fans in general treat this Oklahoma State piece. But already there are too many holes in the bow of this ship. Moreover, one wonders just what Dohrmann and Evans told the former players they interviewed as to what their story’s angle was going to be. Did they mislead these players? If not, how did this piece remain such a secret for so long?

It’s a fascinating topic.

One day after SI’s expose on Oklahoma State was released, Yahoo! Sports released its own thorough investigation on SEC athletes, most notably former Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, being funneled payments as players (belated congratulations on your 2012 national championship, Notre Dame!). What stands out about the piece is how meticulously it was reported: emails, text messages, bank statements. No one is going on The Sports Animal or any other radio show and ripping Yahoo! a new one. Why? Because it appears that Yahoo! conclusively made its case.

I don’t know that the same can be said for SI. And at the SI where I worked, in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was tremendous pressure to fact-check a story in time for its scheduled release date (thanks, Peter Carry). BUT, if as a reporter you had legitimate concerns about being able to verify that story, there were editors and others who had your back. Facts were paramount. People lost their jobs over such errors. And there was no sexy sexagenarian Jane Fonda publisher/owner who’d rescue you from unemployment when you told her that you’d lost the public’s trust by barking, “Get it back!”

Leona Lansing. If only media magnates like this existed in real life.

Rather, it was, “There’s the door.”

Magazines in 2013 simply cannot afford to devote the resources to fact-checking that they used to. On the other hand, they cannot afford to have their credibility undermined so swiftly when they endeavor to pursue transcendent investigative pieces. And it doesn’t help when a competing website releases a more highly praised investigative piece related to the same sport in the same week.

I’m sure everyone at SI will tell you that they fact-checked this story as thoroughly as any story we fact-checked in the 1990s. Perhaps that is true. What is also true is that the commitment to fact-checking, that culture, no longer permeates the halls of SI. They spend a lot less money on red pencils than they used to in the Time-Life Building. That’s just reality.

(2-5 to appear later)

17 thoughts on “IT’S ALL HAPPENING! Friday, September 13

  1. John, I’ve been begging for someone to write this since Monday. Exceptionally well done. A few months ago I was going through old SIs from the 90s – 2000s (my subscription in my teens-20s was a prized possession) and was struck by how much has changed. This week landed a body blow to SI from which they won’t soon recover. It’s sad to see an old reliable friend like SI reduced to this, but maybe they fire Evans and replace him with you. That’s a good start on the road to recovery.

    Again, helluva job. Going to link to this over at the Musket.

  2. “Of course, Brett Hull’s mom is correct. Her son would have never played in a hockey league where there was beer on the bench. I apologize for the error and it won’t happen again.” – Sincerely, Jeff Bradley, SI Reporter, 1989-1992

  3. Thanks so much for this peek behind the scenes, and also to reinforce why many of us have long given up our SI subscriptions. I was lucky enough to have landed an 800 word freelance piece for SI in ’97 (yes, it was and still is a big deal). It was about a toy from the 1960’s named Johnny Hero – he was the sports version of GI Joe. Even though it was only about a toy, I know that you contacted ALL of my sources for the piece. And we (me and SI) all had “officially” received a copy of the Sears catalog page that JH appeared on in 1965. That is what made SI great. Many thanks John for your past work and for this piece.

  4. “People lost their jobs over such errors.”

    Which is funny considering Peter King frequently makes errors (mostly grammatical, occasional factual errors) and now has his own website based on his mind-boggling long column about football that has more and more content that is NOT football!

  5. Just a note, you start the article with “1.”, but then we never see any other numbers. Other than that, terrific article! You shouldn’t be waiting tables!

  6. The phrase “The reader is correct, I regret the error” is seared into my soul.

    Also, point to emphasize — we called people and spoke to them, rather than emailing. It’s a huge shift, and I think has a material impact.

    And yes, I know this makes me sound like an old man.

  7. I just completed a front page story with the Wall Street Journal that also morphed into a video, slide show and podcast. I can tell you that the writer double and triple-checked every name and fact through me. I am not privy to how deeply the story was verified independently of me. The point being that even the Wall Street Journal does not appear to engage independent, impartial fact checkers these days.

    As to your Twitter query regarding CFB recruiting ‘hostesses’, the motivation was definitely free meals.

  8. You forgot Amy Ellis Nutt, who won a Pulitzer last year at the Newark Star Ledger. So that means that for several years I was wedged on the masthead between Pulitzer winners Hymon and Nutt. Keep the jokes to yourself.

  9. Some publications still employ old school red-pen slash-marking fact-checkers. Except they aren’t “employed,” really. I worked for six months as an unpaid intern at San Francisco Magazine fact-checking every single letter of every single inch of every single issue. Even though I was working my tail off and losing money in the process, it was extremely rewarding to know that the reason our credibility remained intact and the reason our legal team never broke a sweat could be traced back to my work. I’m only 24, but I can tell you that every Journalism class I took at Washington State required 100 percent accuracy on facts, spelling, and grammar, lest you receive an automatic F. It’s sad that the opposite is so prevalent now and that the general “credibility” of publications hardly exists. It’s more important to be first than to be right, which makes my heart sad.

  10. Pingback: Daily Bullets: Cowboys rise in polls | Pistols Firing

  11. I know that I tried to block working for Bambi out of my head. I must have blocked it out of yours, too…and B.J Schecter checked facts before his current gig as executive editor of SI.com. Cruel, JW.

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