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Chad Finn | SPORTS MEDIA

Chris Mortensen should have faced the music

Chris Mortensen’s  erroneous report in January started a firestorm.
Chris Mortensen’s erroneous report in January started a firestorm.(Photo courtesy of ESPN)

I’ve always had sort of an appreciative bemusement for how ESPN sometimes allows its reporters to get caught checking their smartphones from time to time while on television.

Maybe it’s because the image adds an air of suspense or perhaps it’s just because it gives the appearance that their reporters never stop hustling for the story.

It does have a beneficial effect for the network, I think. You can’t help but wonder as a viewer, “Who is [Ace Reporter] texting? Is news about to break? I’d better stay tuned!”

I fear that some of that mystery of the on-air phone check was lost this past week, however, when Chris Mortensen — one of ESPN’s more prominent scoop-pursuers, if not necessarily the one with the highest recent completion percentage when it comes to accuracy — chatted with Dan Le Batard on the latter’s ESPN Radio program Monday.

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Mortensen, whose erroneous report in January that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the Patriots in the first half of the AFC Championship game against the Colts were 2 pounds per square inch below the permitted minimum, played a significant role in turning what might have been perceived as a petty misdemeanor at worst into literally a federal case, explained to Le Batard about why he didn’t believe the ESPN.com piece or a now-infamous tweet spreading the same false information should be retracted.

In doing so, he briefly went with the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, I-don’t-understand-your-complicated-technology defense.

Turns out Mortensen isn’t always texting sources or trying to come up with a last morsel of intel on a player’s game-time status when we see him checking his phone on TV. Sometimes, it seems, we’re watching a common man trying to solve that bewildering dad-gum Twitter machine.

“What needs to be corrected has been corrected. I didn’t correct it on Twitter, which was a mistake by the way. Twitter, I’m still trying to figure it out,’’ said Mortensen, who has been on Twitter (@mortreport if you’re so inclined) since April 2009, has 1.87 million followers, and has tweeted more than 19,000 times.

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Still trying to figure out Twitter? Sure. Next you’re going to tell us you still prefer the ol’ rotary phone, right?

After filibustering in circles about PSI for a couple of sentences, Mortensen returned to the topic of his reporting.

“Let me ask you this question,’’ he said to Le Batard. “If I had simply reported, which I did include in the original report, that 11 footballs were found to be significantly underinflated, what would the reaction have been?”

He seems to be suggesting that the reaction would have been the same, and he’s going to be in a very small minority with that assumption.

The detail that the balls were 2 PSI under was the hammer, the salacious bit of misinformation that allowed the suspicious mind to wander: “Two PSI? That’s a lot, right? Holy cow, the Patriots took all of the air out of the footballs! They cheated their way to the Super Bowl!”

Without that patently inaccurate, very specific, collectively misunderstood detail, this story doesn’t become one of the strangest sports-related phenomena of our time. That detail is exactly why — pardon the expression — it blew up like it did.

Maybe it goes without saying, at least to the more cynical among us, but Mortensen’s radio show Monday was a standard bit of ESPN in-house public-relations damage control.

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The previous Friday, Mortensen had backed out of an anticipated and much-promoted appearance on WEEI’s “Dennis and Callahan” show.

His reasoning for cancelling, according to an e-mail he sent to the station, was that he did not like how aggressively it was being promoted.

“You guys made a mistake by drumming up business for the show and how I would address my reporting for the first time,” Mortensen wrote in the e-mail. “I will not allow WEEI, [Robert] Kraft or anybody to make me the centerpiece of a story that has been misreported far beyond anything I did in the first 48 hours. Maybe when the lawsuit is settled, in [Tom] Brady’s favor, I hope, we can revisit. Don’t call.”

It’s understandable if he felt like he was walking into a verbal ambush. At the least, it was clear he was going to face some difficult questions from some unsympathetic questioners.

But bailing was not a good look for him. After all, it was his own blunder — and its role in turning Deflategate into a national story with a relentless six-months-and-counting news cycle — that put him on the defensive.

He’s the one who turned on the music. He should have faced it.

Some have suggested Mortensen should reveal his sources, to scorch them. But it would essentially be a career-ender for him.

No source — even an honest one — would ever trust him again, and it’s just not realistic to expect him to sacrifice a successful and lucrative career in order to reveal where the misinformation started.

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“You cannot touch [speculation on the identity of sources],’’ said Mortensen. “The reason why you create trust with sources is you don’t even go there. And it could be very unfair to the person identified by somebody as a source.

“And by the way, we have sources. It’s not a single source at the time. What you do is you have to keep your distance. That’s how you keep your credibility with your sources anyway — just to maintain that level of trust. You’re never going to bend in terms of identifying them. Who those sources are will forever remain in my confidence.”

The problem is not that the information will remain in Mortensen’s confidence. It’s that he had confidence in the people providing the information in the first place.


Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.