Recently, a news event occurred that raised questions on how the media covers a story.
No, I’m not talking about LeBron James, although his orchestration of the media, culminating with ESPN’s one-hour plus telecast of LeBron’s “Decision,” staked its claim as one of the low points in the history of sports media.
But enough about that. This is about an event that happened a week before the James saga hit full throttle, an event that happened outside the athletic arena.
I realize mixing sports and politics is usually a difficult proposition. More often than not, it’s a combustible combination.
So I’ll proceed carefully as I write this column.
There are instances when the world of politics offers lessons that can be applied inside the athletic arena.
And this is one.
The July 4 episode of CNN’s Reliable Sources, a Sunday morning news show that examines the media and its coverage of the week’s stories, featured a debate between host Howard Kurtz and veteran reporters Jamie McIntyre and Fred Francis. The topic was the rules for what is off the record (or to put in another way, not for quotation) in war reporting.
The three were engaging in this discussion because of the Michael Hastings Rolling Stone magazine story on General Stanley McChrystal, and the resulting aftermath of McChrystal relinquishing his duties as the Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.
There were questions in regards to the circumstances of how Hastings received his information. Was it obtained on the record, or off? Did McChrystal and Hastings reach an understanding of what was off the record?
As I was listening, there was only one thing I could think of about off the record reporting.
And that is...there is no such thing as being off the record.
This may be a cynical view to take, but I prefer to think of it as a realistic one. Just ask General McChrystal. He failed to make this connection, and it cost him his job.
To drive home this point, I’ll make a second reference to politics (this is really getting combustible now). In his book, Taking Heat, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer asks the question if the White House press corps is biased.
He answers yes - they’re biased in favor of conflict.
It’s no different in the realm of sports, especially in the cutthroat, competitive environment that exists in the media to get the story out first.
This is especially true in today’s world of social media and the internet, when news is breaking 24/7 by blogs, Twitter, and more often than not, from the source of the story itself (see LeBron James).
Every day athletes talk with reporters, ranging from casual conversations to pre-arranged interviews. Typically, reporters are not going to burn bridges with their sources by publishing off the record comments, but always know that there is nothing stopping reporters from doing so, or using that information to get someone else to go on the record.
So the lesson conveyed from the McChrystal story is a simple rule to follow when talking with the media.
You are always on the record.