Late in a Monday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 23, SportsCenter's Twitter account blasted out a seemingly innocuous tweet to its 20 million-plus followers.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 24, 2015
Though it used the inexact language of emoji, the point was relatively straightforward: The game’s five video replays were continuing to interrupt actual football, thus pushing the game past midnight. But many Patriots fans saw the tweet quite differently. To them, ESPN was -- once again -- trolling New England by obliquely referencing Spygate (represented by the five video cameras) and Deflategate (represented by the six footballs).
It didn’t help matters that the total number of emojis was 11, seen by some as a cheeky reference to the now-infamous Chris Mortensen tweet and story reporting that 11 of the 12 footballs used by New England in its 2014 AFC Championship Game rout of the Indianapolis Colts were significantly underinflated. It was that initial Mortensen report that many believe turned a minor brouhaha into something that warranted its own “gate”: Deflategate.
The response of New England fans to that SportsCenter tweet reflected the lack of faith many Patriots supporters have in ESPN a year after Deflategate. Although this is largely because of Mortensen’s original story and its continued presence on ESPN.com, it’s far from the only beef New England fans -- and some non-New England fans -- have with the network. And the hubbub over the tweet showed the level some were willing to go to find a conspiracy in ESPN’s every action.
But sometimes, paranoia is a fair reaction to seemingly inexplicable actions. And to me, Deflategate is one of those examples because this lack of trust emanates from what has been a mismanaged affair by ESPN. Beyond the legitimate questions about Mortensen’s story, there have been other Deflategate actions taken by ESPN that have looked odd from outside, largely because they were not adequately publicly explained by the network.
Inside ESPN, its Deflategate missteps are viewed as isolated incidents coming out of different departments on different platforms -- which, for the most part, is structurally accurate. Outside ESPN, these missteps are viewed by many as part of a concerted effort to assist the NFL in impugning the Patriots. The difference between the two positions is that while the network’s critics have been consistently loud and persistent, ESPN has been largely silent. This strategy, in my view, has served the network poorly.
It’s not that ESPN hasn’t produced some excellent journalism concerning Deflategate. This past September, Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham produced a deep, well-reported investigative piece chronicling the NFL’s path from Spygate to Deflategate. The highly regarded duo interviewed more than 90 league officials, owners, team executives and coaches for the piece.
The reporters gained access to previously undisclosed private notes from key meetings and even studied hours of NFL game footage in researching the piece. It suggested -- persuasively, in my view -- that the NFL’s Deflategate actions were motivated by a need to appease the NFL owners who felt commissioner Roger Goodell had gone too easy on New England in the 2007 Spygate scandal.
Some suggested Van Natta and Wickersham’s piece used too many anonymous sources, others that the story was written to provide the NFL with air cover for its Deflategate missteps. Although the subject of anonymous sources is always a contentious one, the reporters’ heavy use here was no surprise since the NFL doesn’t often speak publicly about its inner workings, much less for attribution. It’s also hard to imagine the NFL printing a copy of the story for its clip file. Neither Goodell nor the league comes off looking particularly good.
But the debate around Van Natta and Wickersham’s story is par for the course for any ESPN journalism involving the Patriots. And that all goes back to Mortensen’s scoop, which The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn has described as the “Typhoid Mary” of Deflategate.
It should be noted that Mortensen’s piece was not the first salvo fired in what became Deflategate. At 12:55 a.m. ET on Jan. 19 -- mere hours after the Patriots had completed their 45-7 dissembling of the Colts -- Bob Kravitz of Indianapolis’ WTHR tweeted the following:
Breaking: A league source tells me the NFL is investigating the possibility the Patriots deflated footballs Sunday night. More to come.
— Bob Kravitz (@bkravitz) January 19, 2015
Later that day, the league sent a note to the Patriots, informing them that it was investigating the underinflating of footballs used in the AFC title game. So the wheels were indeed turning. But the story’s momentum hit warp speed when, at 10:57 p.m. ET on Jan. 20, Mortensen tweeted this:
That was followed, in the early hours of Jan. 21, with a story published on ESPN.com. Here are the first two paragraphs:
“The NFL has found that 11 of the New England Patriots' 12 game balls were inflated significantly below the NFL's requirements, league sources involved and familiar with the investigation of Sunday's AFC Championship Game told ESPN.”
“The investigation found the footballs were inflated 2 pounds per square inch below what's required by NFL regulations during the Pats' 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, according to sources.”
This bombshell turned an intriguing AFC title game sidebar into something that led all three national television newscasts by the next evening.
Quickly, however, one issue arose: The detail about 11 of the 12 balls being underinflated by 2 PSI was not accurate, which was known relatively soon after the publication of the initial story.
Mortensen was not available for comment for this piece, as he sadly is undergoing treatment for Stage 4 throat cancer. But on Aug. 3, Mortensen appeared on ESPN’s Dan Le Batard Show, and when asked whether the story needed a retraction, said:
“I already had changed the descriptive tone. And I did with our news desk, pretty early, to 'significantly underinflated.' And I will never retract that. The 2 pounds PSI, that was obviously an error and clarified and corrected. If you want to call it a retraction ... what I didn't do was retract it on Twitter. And that was probably technically a mistake.”
But that’s only partially accurate. From that point forward, Mortensen and ESPN were indeed careful to use the phrase "significantly underinflated" and not reference the original report of the balls being underinflated by 2 PSI each. But the original tweet and story that contained that reference remained in public view, without any clarification.
One day after the Le Batard interview -- and possibly motivated by it -- Mortensen complicated matters when, without ESPN’s knowledge, he deleted the tweet. This left ESPN in an untenable position. Because if the deletion of the tweet reflected a change in ESPN’s position on the accuracy of the story, that needed to be reflected in the story. If ESPN stood by the story, then it was fair to ask why the tweet had been deleted. But instead of closing the circle, nothing happened. The tweet was gone, the story unchanged. Six months later, that incongruity still inexplicably stood, as did the inaccurate reference to the underinflation amount of 2 PSI in the ESPN.com story.
I have been pushing for some clarity on this question for weeks, and it led to some action within ESPN. As this column was being published, ESPN added a formal clarification to the original Mortensen story. It reads:
CLARIFICATION: A Jan. 21, 2015, story on ESPN.com reported, citing sources, that 11 of 12 footballs were underinflated by 2 pounds per square inch during the New England Patriots’ win over the Indianapolis Colts. Additional reporting clarified that 11 of the 12 balls were significantly underinflated, ranging up to 2 pounds per square inch.
“This story has been a continued source of conversation, and given ongoing interest in Deflategate, we decided to issue a clarification in our digital archives,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content. “Additional reporting made it clear that, while 11 of the 12 balls were significantly underinflated, as initially reported, not all were at the full 2 pounds per square inch. As this story continues, we want to ensure that anyone encountering that file in our archives is clear on that point.”
The clarification is a long-overdue move and begs the question: Why did it take so long?
“Typically, we wouldn’t revise a story more than 6 months old in our archives, but after Mort clarified his reporting and removed the tweet, for transparency reasons, we should have updated our online version,” Stiegman said. “We did thoroughly cover the deflation issue, including Seth and Don’s in-depth reporting, Mort’s on-air reports, and subsequent coverage of the Wells report -- and its detractors. But given the attention to the story, could the clarification have come sooner? Certainly.”
To those looking for a smoking gun around some kind of ESPN-NFL collaboration in impugning the Patriots, I don’t have it. But that doesn’t mean you’re crazy for wondering whether something was afoot. The sources of Mortensen’s story were inside the NFL, and the league never made any attempt to refute the incorrect reference to 2 PSI in that story. If you believe the thesis of Van Natta and Wickersham’s piece, the NFL wanted to come down hard on the Patriots for Deflategate, and there’s little question that Mortensen’s story made that easier. This is a case where it would behoove ESPN to be as transparent as possible about its Deflategate coverage precisely because of its $1.9 billion-a-year relationship with the NFL.
The clarification on Mortensen’s piece likely will not appease many critics of ESPN’s Deflategate coverage. When asked whether he felt as if the clarification would be enough for Patriots fans, Stiegman said, “We stand by our reporting, other than the full 2 pounds for every ball.”
While Mortensen -- who, over 25 years at ESPN, has earned his reputation as one of the network’s most respected and trustworthy reporters -- has borne the brunt of New England’s wrath, he was certainly done no favors by his bosses at ESPN. They should have insisted on a clarification immediately upon learning the 2 PSI detail was inaccurate. And after Mortensen deleted the related tweet, they should have publicly addressed that action and how it affected ESPN’s stance on the veracity of the story. Had some of these actions occurred, I‘m not sure I’d be writing this column.
That said, the Mortensen controversy isn’t the only Deflategate-related issue that has upset New England supporters.
On Feb. 17, 2015, Outside the Lines reporter Kelly Naqi reported that Patriots locker room attendant Jim McNally had attempted to introduce an unapproved game ball into the AFC Championship Game, which seemed to further indict the Patriots organization. But the next day, ESPN’s Adam Schefter appeared on Outside the Lines to report that an NFL official had been fired after the game for stealing game balls to sell them. Turns out it was the same official to whom McNally allegedly had handed the unapproved ball. This left open the strong possibility that it was the official who was in the wrong, not McNally.
To many in New England, Naqi’s story was another ESPN attempt to make the Patriots look complicit in Deflategate, though she was careful in her story to only connect McNally to the larger investigation, not his alleged action. And in this case, it was ESPN -- via Schefter -- that produced the story that moved the focus from McNally to the fired game official. Nonetheless, the two stories brought ESPN more criticism.
Late in the summer of 2015, SportsCenter twice inaccurately repeated a long-discredited 2008 Boston Herald report that the Patriots had illegally taped the St. Louis Rams’ walk-through before Super Bowl XXXVI. In this case, ESPN did apologize publicly to the Patriots, on an Aug. 20 SportsCenter, with anchor Steve Levy reading this statement:
“On two occasions in recent weeks, SportsCenter incorrectly cited a 2002 report regarding the New England Patriots and Super Bowl XXXVI. That story was found to be false and should not have been part of our reporting. We apologize to the Patriots organization.”
The apology was the proper move. The problem was that it aired at about 12:30 a.m. ET and was not repeated on any subsequent SportsCenter broadcasts. This led to accusations that ESPN was trying to bury the apology. The late-night edition of SportsCenter is indeed one of the network’s highest-rated programs, but the optics were bad -- essentially, “We repeated bad information twice, but we’ll correct it just once.” Why not repeat the apology on each SportsCenter edition until a full day had passed? Yes, corrections are embarrassing. But they also usually accelerate the healing process.
Then, on Sept. 9, the evening after Van Natta and Wickersham’s piece was published, Patriots reporter Mike Reiss produced a blog post with some of his reactions to the story. Nothing about the piece seemed controversial. But hours after it was published, two of the seven takeaways in the digital piece disappeared.
The first deleted item cast some doubt on the piece’s claim that Patriots employees had been known to go into the visitors locker room to pilfer play sheets.
“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 second item was even less controversial:
“When you’re at the top, everyone likes to bring you down. 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 [longtime Boston Celtics Coach] Red Auerbach.’”
The removal of these two items was not noted on the edited version of the story.
According to Mary Byrne, ESPN.com’s senior deputy editor for daily coverage, although the piece had gone through the copy desk, it had not been read by a senior editor. “Like any piece we do, I took a look at it and felt like we needed to make some edits to it,” she said. “Unfortunately, it happened after we published.”
Said Reiss: “On the last item about Auerbach, I was told it made me seem like too much of a booster. ... On the other one, what I received was feedback that it was questioning our own work, casting doubt on what another reporter was reporting, and if the roles were reversed, to consider how that might be received.”
Editing stories after publication is a frequent occurrence in online publishing. But where ESPN misstepped again was on transparency. Failing to note the edits led to another round of sharp criticism for the network.
“In hindsight, I wish we had [added a note about the later edit],” Byrne said. “It’s something I feel like we should have done."
The Outside the Lines report confusion, the late-night apology and the unacknowledged Reiss blog edit were, independently, minor issues. But because Mortensen’s original story remained live and unchanged throughout, each built on Patriots’ fans distrust of ESPN.
“I felt a lot of that,” Reiss said of the anger from New England fans. “A big part of that was my history with Patriots’ fans. The foundation of what I did was communicate with fans.”
Among those involved in Deflategate decisions, Byrne has a somewhat distinct perspective, as she joined ESPN this past May, four months after Mortensen’s original story: “I was certainly aware of many Patriots fans’ view of ESPN’s coverage. They reacted to [the Reiss blog controversy] in a very strong, visceral way. It was an eye-opener to me to understand the depth of how Patriots fans feel about ESPN.”
It should be noted that it’s not ESPN’s job to make Patriots fans -- or any other fan base -- happy. The network can and should report fairly and objectively on every team and let the chips fall where they may. But in the case of Deflategate, the lack of transparency and accountability made it much harder to judge the journalism on its merits.
Ironically, the best example of how to deal with Patriots fans came from the SportsCenter tweet referenced at the beginning of this story. When Patriots fans bombarded ESPN with accusations of trolling after the November tweet, ESPN tweeted a clarification the next afternoon.
CLARIFICATION: We were referencing the numerous replays and length of MNF. It didn't come across. That's our mistake. We'll be better.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 24, 2015
“We should have seen the potential issue and handled the topic differently,” said Glenn Jacobs, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for SportsCenter Digital, Now and next-generation content. “Emojis are imprecise, and we didn’t add any context; it's understandable that people took it differently than we intended.”
The follow-up tweet was smart. It showed Jacobs and his team were listening to their audience and understood the tweet was perceived as part of a larger narrative. Sure, not everyone believed the explanation, but many did appreciate the effort. That kind of transparency over the previous 10 months would have saved ESPN a lot of headaches.
“The bottom line is it’s been our lack of transparency and accountability with the Mortensen report that’s been our biggest mistake in the reporting of Deflategate,” said an ESPN editor involved in some of the coverage. “In my opinion, ESPN does not have an institutional bias against the Patriots. It was just editors -- in most cases well-intentioned -- making hasty decisions. Had we corrected the Mortensen report, been more up front about stating something as fact that was found to be untrue and been honest about why a reporter’s piece was mysteriously cut eight hours after it was posted, I think we’d be better off as a company when it comes to the perception in New England.”
Reiss, for one, isn’t ready to give up on the relationship between Patriots Nation and ESPN. “I think ESPN does a lot of great things and can cover things in a great way,” he said. “I’m an optimist; that’s where I come from.”
He cites the Boston Herald’s front-page apology for its inaccurate 2008 report on the Patriots’ taping of the Rams’ Super Bowl walk-through. “I think Pats fans felt like, ‘We’ll never forget, but we’ll forgive,’” he said. “So I don’t think it’s irreparable because I’ve seen it happen.”
Said Stiegman: “Our goal, as always, is to provide unbiased reporting, along with informed analysis and commentary. We thoroughly covered this story, from the initial reporting to the release of the Wells report to the reaction to that report -- indeed, there are myriad perspectives about the myriad findings and conclusions in that report, and we reported all sides. ... With the March hearing ahead, this story may or may not reach a conclusion, but either way, as with all stories, we will continue to cover it as completely and fairly as possible.”
I think it’s safe to say New England will need to be convinced.
As anyone who has ever met me, read my Twitter feed or lived within three houses of me knows, I am a rabid, lifelong Jets fan. I went to every home game from 1974 to 1985 and still watch just about every game with my equally rabid father. I also must confess that I have not yet learned to deal with the existential crisis that comes from having a guy with my last name beat my team consistently for 15 seasons.
As a result of these psychological limitations, I did tweet some snarky things about the Patriots and Deflategate before I took on the role of ESPN’s public editor. That was pure fandom speaking; I am not a student of ideal gas law.
That said, I will still root against the Patriots each and every week next season, probably mostly unsuccessfully. Because I was born in Queens, not Framingham. Don’t take it personally. I don’t.