ESPN’s Patriots coverage continues to raise flags
Roger Goodell’s chronic overuse, misuse, and out-and-out abuse of the word “integrity” as his go-to reasoning for why he pursued and attempted to punish the Patriots so vigorously in Deflategate has turned a noun worthy of aspiration into a punch line, at least as it applies to the NFL.
The integrity of the game apparently matters to Goodell given how often he cites it. The irony is that no one has done more to damage whatever shards of integrity a high-stakes professional football league can actually have than he has during his commissionership.
It’s probably not coincidence that integrity has been scarcer than one would hope in recent national coverage of the NFL and its various controversies — particularly by ESPN, where Chris Mortensen’s incendiary, factually inaccurate story that 11 of 12 footballs used by the Patriots in the first half of the AFC Championship game were underinflated by at least 2 pounds per square inch is still easily found in all of its uncorrected glory.
Which is why it’s especially frustrating to watch an NFL reporter who has built his career and reputation on no-nonsense reporting, trustworthiness, and hard work — all essential ingredients of journalistic integrity — suffer the whims of ESPN’s selective editing.
Tuesday night, ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss wrote a blog post highlighting his takeaways from ESPN’s much-discussed investigative piece on Spygate — the scandal that developed after the Patriots violated an NFL rule by taping the Jets’ sideline from an unapproved spot during Week 2 of the 2007 NFL season.
The piece, written by a pair of accomplished reporters, Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham, was posted earlier that day and sewed together the narrative from Spygate to Deflategate, explaining how the former led to Goodell’s relentless pursuit of Tom Brady in the latter.
It was a compelling read if not particularly revelatory, and any suspicion that it was synchronized between ESPN and the NFL to coincide with Goodell’s appearance on the network’s “Mike and Mike” morning program is probably unjust. No one came out of the story looking worse than the commissioner.
In Reiss’s perfectly rational reaction piece, which was edited by the copy desk but was not eyeballed by a high-level editor before publishing, he cited seven items of interest. As Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio put it with appropriate snark: “At some point, two of the seven takeaways were taken away.”
In other words, after Reiss’s completely innocuous post was published, someone at ESPN decided that it wasn’t quite innocuous enough. The first item removed was in reference to a segment in Van Natta and Wickersham’s story that noted that Patriots opponents have suspected that the team has an employee scour the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium for revelatory information, such as a play sheet.
Wrote Reiss, who has covered the Patriots since 1997 (including a stint at the Globe): “Security’s extremely tight throughout Gillette Stadium. Don’t think too many people, if any, are casually walking into the visitors’ locker room. And let’s just say they are, who leaves play sheets around?”
The other part of Reiss’s story that was edited out was even more harmless. “When you’re at the top, everyone likes to bring you down,’’ wrote Reiss. “A longtime sportscaster with a deep history in Boston relayed this thought to me that resonated: ‘They used to say the same stuff [regarding gamesmanship] about Red Auerbach.’ ”
Why Reiss’s post was nitpicked while blatant months-old mistakes remain in other stories is a mystery — an ESPN spokesman told me, as one did Florio, that the piece was “given a tighter edit after the original posting” — but it certainly provides more curious evidence for the growing factions of conspiracy theorists in New England that ESPN, which pays the NFL an estimated $1.9 billion per year in television rights, is willingly, if selectively, doing the bidding of its broadcast partner.
It’s not a completely fair presumption. For every blunder by the likes of Mortensen or agenda-riddled comment from NFL analyst and former Colts general manager Bill Polian, someone such as Adam Schefter has reported on the various controversies with insight, accuracy, and fairness.
Of course, such traits have long applied to Reiss, whose foresight in using the internet and the blog format to convey information helped him become arguably the most trusted sportswriter in Boston years ago. He is respected by colleagues, competitors, and readers alike, and was recently named in the annual Channel Media and Market Research Fan Opinion poll as Boston fans’ favorite sportswriter.
He has a spotless reputation, and it’s a reputation he’s earned. So why is ESPN — which has somewhat marginalized his blog by emphasizing its new NFL Nation blogs and has further cluttered what space he does have with content from other writers and programs — holding him to a higher and yet more erratic standard than it holds reporters who have made glaring mistakes?
An ESPN spokesman reiterated that the deletions from Reiss’s piece were not censorship but a breakdown in the editorial process. Still, scrubbing innocuous and yet insightful comments cannot be justified. Reiss was not criticizing ESPN. He was explaining why play-sheet thievery, as delicious and dastardly as the concept sounds, would be foolish to attempt to execute and nearly impossible to pull off. He added what amounted to a worthwhile footnote to the story. He did not undermine it. But ESPN undermined him.
Reiss, who found himself in the middle of a similar controversy last week when ESPN attached his name to an erroneous blurb he did not write that suggested Brady apologized to the NFL for Deflategate, chose not to comment when reached by phone Thursday. But in a mailbag in February — after a different Deflategate-centric report, this one from “Outside the Lines” reporter Kelly Naqi that erroneously said a Patriots staffer tried to introduce a deflated football into the AFC title game — he offered a thoughtful answer on his approach to his job and the accountability he feels:
“If I’m a reader/Patriots follower, and passionate about the team, the natural follow-up is to search for answers. What happened? What was the process that led to the story being published, then altered, and the time lag in which it happened? I wish I was in position to provide those answers, but that’s not my job and quite honestly, I don’t know those answers. But it is my job to communicate with you and be honest and accountable. I’ve said in the past that I feel like an ombudsman would be beneficial for all involved when it comes to coverage of the Patriots/under-inflated footballs, and I include myself in that category because I’m far from perfect.”
ESPN has lacked an ombudsman since Robert Lipsyte departed in December. It could use one, though he might be the busiest person at the network right now. A few more reporters with the dignity and convictions of Mike Reiss wouldn’t hurt either.