Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reporting rumors, trial balloons and ‘back channel’ agendas --- Jackson-Bulls report is another

I had to be in the car very early this morning to go downtown to a TV interview promoting ‘Moment of Glory.’ I promise this isn’t going to be another rant on the quality of sports talk radio although I continued to be amazed by the hourly rate of commercials, sponsor-drop-ins and self-promos that go on in four letter land.

What got my attention was a ‘story,’ that Phil Jackson has been contacted—indirectly of course—by the Chicago Bulls about perhaps going back there to coach and bringing LeBron James along with him to try to rekindle the glory years of the 90s in Chicago.

Oh please.

Look, all of us in the news business know there are times when people are using us to get a message of some kind out. Most leaks are extremely intentional which is why they are often referred to as trial balloons. You throw an idea up in the air and see if it is allowed to float or if someone sticks a pin in it.

I frequently get phone calls from people which start with the words, “I hear.” My next question is usually, “who did you hear this from?” If I think a source is credible I will try to get him on the record—as in putting his name to the story—rather than allow him to hide behind the ‘I hear,’ anonymity.

Of course there are times when a reporter has to grant a source anonymity. The most important news story ever broken was Watergate and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had to rely on anonymous sources because you just don’t go on the record and say, ‘The President is a crook,’ especially if you are still on that president’s payroll (okay, technically the government’s payroll).

Nowadays though, anonymous sources have become the norm. In fact, in the blogosphere, people will pretty much throw out any rumor they hear and see if anything happens to stick. It’s a different world than the one in which Woodward and Bernstein never wrote anything unless at least two sources had separately confirmed the information they had.

The so-called Jackson, ‘report,’ is a perfect example of what would loosely be called journalism in 2010. Everyone knows Jackson’s contract is up at the end of this season. Everyone knows he wants to stay with the Lakers but wants to be paid in the style--$12 million a year—to which he has become accustomed. Apparently, even though Jackson has been romantically involved with Jeanie Buss, daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, for a number of years, Buss is balking at the $12 million price tag.

So Jackson is floating stories he might go elsewhere. Maybe he’ll go back to his roots in New York and coach the Knicks—forgetting the fact that the Knicks currently have a coach. Maybe he’ll got Cleveland and convince LeBron to stay. And now the Chicago rumor. If you were to lend credence to any of the ‘stories,’ being floated Jackson could wind up coaching about six teams next season.

So what do you do if you’re a reporter and someone anonymously whispers in your ear that someone from the Bulls has contacted Jackson through the infamous ‘back channels.’ What if that someone happens to be Jackson or someone really close to Jackson? Unfortunately, in today’s world, you go with it because if you don’t, someone else will. Plus, if it turns out to be wrong—as this almost surely will be—you just shrug and say, ‘well I had a source tell me it was true.’ Which no doubt you did.

Last week I had a source—one that I might have thought was in position to know—tell me that a prominent college basketball coach was about to retire. I grilled the guy, demanding to know what kind of evidence he had and he insisted that someone close to the coach had told him this was about to happen. When I asked how soon he said, “Forty-eight to a week—maximum.”

Trust me this would have been a big story. I could easily have put it out there and said I had a credible source who said it was about to happen. Fortunately, I know the coach pretty well so I picked up a phone and called him. To say that he denied the story would be a vast understatement. “Why don’t you tell this guy to show up the first day of practice and see if I’m there,” he said finally. “How does stuff like this get started?”

It usually gets started because someone has an agenda. Let’s look at Jackson for a moment. What’s his agenda? That’s pretty easy: He wants Buss to believe there are other teams willing to pay him the $12 million if Buss balks. No doubt there are teams willing to do that, especially if any of them believe that hiring him might entice James to sign on the dotted line.

Here’s the thing: Jackson isn’t going to spend a winter in Chicago, Cleveland or New York. He has enough difficulty getting his battered 65-year-old body on and off of airplanes and living in a cold weather environment isn’t going to make him feel any better. He’s got Kobe Bryant in LA; he’s got Jeanie Buss in LA and he’s got warm weather in LA. If he’s coaching next year—which he almost certainly will be—he’ll be coaching in LA.

That’s why all the talk this morning in response to the ‘report,’ that Chicago might be interested in him was such an incredible waste of time. It ranked right up there with actually reporting that the Cavaliers were ‘studying,’ Mike Brown’s coaching record the last two weeks. Here is what mattered about Brown’s coaching record: He didn’t win the NBA title the last two seasons. Period. He was getting fired unless James said he didn’t want him fired—which he wasn’t going to say.

I realize a lot of what we do these days is fill time and space but the Jackson ‘report,’ this morning was kind of a low water mark. But Jackson got what he wanted: word out in public someone else might want him and people—allegedly credible people—discussing it. Somewhere Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein must cringe on a regular basis.

Then again, they’re both too smart to pay much attention to any of this.


John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

To listen to 'The Bob and Tom Show' interview about 'Moment of Glory', please click the play button below:


Tim said...

Good topic - I always get a chuckled at the stories these days when reporters write a story, and write it where they are reporting the source says xxx and stand by their reporting regardless of how it turns out. Of course they are - they are only saying that the source told them that, very rarely do journalists point to the confidence of the level of truth the source may have.

Its such a cop-out these days. I guess there is such a rush for eyeballs, especially on websites, that if a story is being shopped around and its going to be pointed to and re-hashed from somewhere, it easy for media entities and reporters to say it might as well be me.

JeffW said...

There are multiple reasons I stopped listening to the four letter network years ago. The two guys, I thought, were very good the first two years they started their morning show. Then it became garbage. I have not listened to them in over five years. What am I missing?

Mark said...

John, I just listened to your radio commentary on your new book (which I have purchased - I thought it was very good). I have a question:

Do you pronounce your last name -

FEIN - S-T-I-N-E or

As for Jackson going to Chicago, among other things, Jerry Reinsdorf hates Phil Jackson.

Anonymous said...

Why is Reinsdorf willing to pay Jackson now and not 11-12 years ago when looking at one more shot at the Championship?

On the general topic - I have a question for other readers....how do you filter out the noise to pay attention to what is relevant? Even journalists play the rumor game now, muddling what is important or not. Reading twitter feeds some of the 'greats' in journalism now even makes me question their sanity.

Dana King said...

What seems to be left out of the conversation today is the fact that it's okay for the source to remain anonymous to the public; the reporter should know who it is. Just going with someone that begins, "I hear..." isn't journalism; it's gossip.