Earlier this week, Fox Sports' Jay Glazer reported that the Cincinnati Bengals had traded Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders, ending the quarterback's season-long retirement. Amid analysis of the trade came questions about whether ESPN's NFL reporter Adam Schefter had known about the deal Monday night, but opted not to report it to avoid scuttling the trade.
The questions started, as things often do these days, with a tweet -- one seemingly out of left field. It came from John Shahidi, the CEO of iPhone app maker RockLive. This was Shahidi's Tuesday morning tweet: "Thank you @AdamSchefter for the hard work last night. Deal happened last night but he stayed silent to protect CP and the deal..."
Shahidi would soon delete that tweet, offering instead an amended one. Too late -- legendary wide receiver and ESPN analyst Jerry Rice already had retweeted the initial one, leaving tongues wagging across the sports-media world. Had Schefter sacrificed a scoop by holding off on his story at the request of people close to Palmer? Or had he been restricted by an ESPN policy directing reporters to break news on ESPN platforms before distributing it on Twitter?
Schefter and ESPN say they weren't protecting anybody, and didn't run the story initially because they hadn't confirmed it. Schefter called that near miss "one of the most frustrating and disappointing stories I've ever encountered."
Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, said that both Schefter and his fellow NFL reporter Chris Mortensen were working on the story on Monday night, but neither could confirm the trade. The reporters knew Cincinnati was talking to Oakland, and was at least considering a deal. But they also heard from "at least two pretty good sources" that the deal might not happen, Doria said.
Schefter said that at around 6 p.m. Monday, he got "an FYI" to be on the lookout for a potential Palmer trade -- a possibility that a Yahoo report had raised earlier in the day. He reached out to sources with the Bengals and Raiders, but his Bengals contact said "I doubt it" while his Raiders source described the trade as "falling apart."
Schefter brought in Mortensen, and the two kept "sniffing around" on the story that night and into Tuesday morning, over what Schefter called "an incredibly stressful 15 hours." At 9:41 a.m. Tuesday, Schefter said, he got a text message from a source with one of the teams outlining the trade and asking to be protected -- but no further word on the status of the trade. Schefter said he sent a text in reply seeking clarification, but got no reply.
If he had gotten a clarifying reply, Schefter said ruefully, he would have broken the story and "we're not having this conversation. ... Mort and I had a story written. We sensed it was coming."
Schefter called the suggestion that he'd protected Palmer "absurd and insulting."
"Why would I sit on a story that big?" he asked.
Schefter also made it clear to Poynter that he has trust issues with Palmer, the result of a previous journalistic run-in (we'll avoid the details here, other than to say it makes Schefter an unlikely candidate to do Palmer any favors).
Shahidi's role seems odd at first, but makes more sense once you know that Carson Palmer's brother Jordan is a partner in RockLive. Asked about his tweet, Shahidi told us that "I worded it wrong, nothing else. I'm sure if Adam knew about it, he would have reported it." (Asked how he felt when he saw Rice's retweet, Shahidi said he thought it "was cool that he followed me. I had no clue.")
For his part, Schefter said he's talked to Shahidi in the past, but didn't contact him for the Palmer story. Given his Palmer connections, Schefter said, "John probably thought I had the story," and added that it's possible that Shahidi "knew more than I did."
Cooperating with sources in hopes of landing a scoop is age-old journalistic practice, though it always raises eyebrows. Reporters and editors sometimes find themselves in dicey territory, with loyalty to sources and their own ambitions competing with their bedrock responsibility to readers. But in this case, the scoop was the real reward, and it's hard to imagine for what Schefter might have been holding out.
It's also true that sources and those close to them sometimes assume they know more than they do, a situation that more than one canny reporter has turned to his or her advantage. In the digital age, though, sources and bystanders can be publishers in their own right, turning private assumptions and conjecture into public water-cooler talk -- particularly when a famous athlete fans the flames. (ESPN's policy on distributing news via Twitter is an interesting topic that deserves its own post; expect more on that from us in the future.)
In retrospect, Doria said, ESPN should have advanced the story by reporting that the two teams were talking, instead of trying to lock down a confirmation of the trade. In effect, the reporters let perfect be the enemy of good.
Schefter agreed, saying that "What we should have done was reach out to our news desk and said 'Here's where we are.' ... I've relied on my judgment for 20-plus years. By and large my judgment has worked out. This was one time when I could not pin down the story."