Saturday, December 1, 2007

Sensationalism Saturday, Or Why Kirk Herbstreit Should Shut His Mouth

On a day when the crazy college football season should have taken center stage, some goof named Kirk Herbstreit stole the thunder from Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, LSU and others.

And since ESPN likes to market every Saturday during the college football and basketball season with a ridiculous name, I decided I'd lend a hand to the geniuses in Bristol, Conn. and name this past Saturday for them: Sensationalism Saturday. Beacuse that's what reporting is about at the 4-letter. It's about Internet hits and clicks. It's about gossip, not actual reporting.

The latest display of ESPN's tacky journalism began early Saturday morning on College GameDay, when color commentator and college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit decided to offer his best John Clayton imitation. Herbstreit cited a "source," who may or may not be close to the situation, who had apparently told him that Les Miles would be bolting from his position at LSU to take a job at his alma mater in Ann Arbor. Shortly thereafter, ESPN had a story up on its Web site. Miles was on his way to Michigan, ESPN was reporting just hours before LSU was to meet Tennessee in the SEC title game. Meanwhile, eager Michigan bloggers began sending readers over to ESPN to read the good or bad news, depending on their perspective.

But it quickly became clear that Herbstreit's reporting was shoddy. Other reports trickled out that indictaed Miles was going to have a presser with his LSU bosses and announce his plans to stay in Louisiana. Here's the text of Miles' brief meeting with the press:

There was misinformation on ESPN and I think it’s imperative that I straighten it out. I’m the head coach at LSU, I will be the head coach at LSU, I have no interest in talking to anyone else. I have a championship game to play and I’m excited about the opportunity of my damn strong football team to play in it. And that’s really all I’d like to say. It’s unfortunate I had to address my team with this information this morning. With that being done, I think we’ll be ready to play. There will be no questions for me; I represent me in this issue, please ask me after. I’m busy. Thank you very much, and have a great day.
Miles was pissed. He had a right to be. I bolded the first line for emphasis because on at least one replay of the presser I saw on the 4-letter, the network decided to leave that intro out. But it's the end of Miles' statement that should bother Herbstreit going forward. The mark of any good journalist is to check his information. In this situation, there are any number of reasons why someone would want to leak misinformation about Miles. Perhaps someone from Michigan wanted this story out there to ruin Miles' relationship with his current employer. Who knows? Perhaps Miles leaked it through someone else as a way to pressure LSU to ante-up. We might never know. But if Herbstreit is going to pretend he's a reporter, he at least needs to learn that people have motives from time to time when they decide they want to leak information 'off the record.'

And that's exactly the reason why Herbstreit should have checked his information with an authority, like Les Miles for instance. Because of Herbstreit's arrogant reporting, Miles was forced to address his team (again, before the SEC Championship game) about his fate as coach.

My question is, couldn't this wait? I try to understand the landscape of the modern media. Videos go viral in minutes. News breaks and it's hyperlinked around the globe as quick as someone can make something up. And it's not just Herbstreit. This week, Buster Olney pulled the same crap regarding Johan Santana and the ongoing trade talks between Minnesota and Boston. Olney didn't go as far as Herbstreit, but he implied that a trade was imminent. The result? Links on Minnesota message boards to Olney's story that turned out to be bogus, or at least premature.

Herbstreit took a few moments Saturday night while he was calling the Missouri-Oklahoma game to explain the Miles incident. He didn't offer an apology. He didn't retract his reporting or offer to correct it. In fact, he implied that Miles may well still be on his way to Ann Arbor. Saying that, now with a prime time audience during a game with national title implications, Herbstreit has once again put the onus back on Miles to make another denial. And who knows? Miles could very well bolt. Stranger things have happened.

But wouldn't it all be a lot easier if Herbstreit or other ESPN hacks could wait until they have something solid to report? Here's a good ground rule: If kids' emotions are in play, say like on a day they are playing for a championship, maybe sensational, scoop-oriented reporting can wait for 12 hours until what really matters--the game--is over.

And people think they can't trust what they read on the blogs ...