Untying the knots of ethics and attribution

This is a story about a story, and if they both seem somewhat underwhelming, that's the point. Journalistic ethics are usually cited when major leaks or plagiarism meet partisan politics or national security. But the slippage often begins with far less fanfare, as in this recent dust-up between a local newspaper reporter and a national ESPN reporter.

On Nov. 6, Brent Zwerneman, who covers Texas A&M football for the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle, posted what he considered "huge news in our fair state:" A&M was no longer interested in playing the University of Texas in the regular season. He based that assumption on the implications of this quote: "We hope to play them again in a BCS or playoff game at some point." He attributed the quote thusly: "A&M senior associate athletic director Jason Cook told me this afternoon."

As Zwerneman wrote in blogs for the two newspapers (both owned by the Hearst Corporation, which also has a 20 percent interest in ESPN), that stance was a "far cry" from the Aggies' previous "Anytime, anywhere," attitude toward a game with the Longhorns, their former conference rivals in the Big 12. Zwerneman attributed this to the Aggies' recent success since moving to the Southeast Conference.

In reporting the story, Zwerneman tipped his hat to the Austin American-Statesman's Kirk Bohls, who had earlier tweeted that he was "told by a higher-up Longhorn that the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry 'perhaps' could resume."

Three hours later, Brett McMurphy, a college sports reporter for ESPN, filed a similar story with exactly the same quote. From the piece: "'We hope to play them again in a BCS bowl or playoff game at some point,' Texas A&M senior associate athletic director Jason Cook told ESPN on Wednesday."

McMurphy wrote that "Cook would not elaborate," but he came to the same conclusion as Zwerneman. McMurphy wrote: "It's pretty clear the Aggies have no intention of scheduling any future regular-season games with Texas."

Zwerneman subsequently demanded that McMurphy credit him for the initial scoop, believing that McMurphy had been pointed to Cook and the story by Zwerneman's tweets and blogs on the topic (just as Zwerneman had been pointed to it by Bohls).

There was an unfriendly Twitter and email exchange between the two reporters until McMurphy refused to discuss the matter further. At least a half-dozen local journalists sent supporting tweets to Zwerneman, which apparently led him to threaten McMurphy that he would "take it up the ladder" if the ESPN reporter didn't give proper credit.

At that point, Zwerneman contacted the ESPN ombudsman, and I'm glad he did. Although this kerfuffle might seem trivial to nonjournalists and non-Texans alike, it brings up a topic that has nagged at ESPN -- and many other media outlets -- for a long time. This is not a concern exclusive to ESPN. It was certainly an issue in my early years at The New York Times, when the paper of record seemed loath to recognize groundbreaking work by other papers.

ESPN has gotten a lot better at giving credit since it changed its sourcing policies this year and adopted more rigorous standards of attribution. And this is not the first time an ESPN ombudsman has written about the subject.

Nevertheless, the impression exists -- right or wrong -- that ESPN, among other national bigfeet, use local media as the "sources that tell me" when they rip and run with a breaking story. It's not exactly a lie -- ESPNs initial "sources" on some stories can sometimes be local blogs, tweets and newspaper reports -- but it gives the false impression that the information came out of some indispensable analyst's magic cellphone.

Zwerneman, 42, the newspaper reporter, has covered the Aggies for 17 years and written three books about the school. He believes it was "simply wrong" of ESPN's McMurphy to fail to credit him with this "breaking story" and then "stunningly" claim credit for the quote, which "means one thing: an exclusive."

McMurphy, 51, spent 22 years at The Tampa Tribune as well as short stints at CBSSports.com and AOL Fanhouse before joining ESPN in August 2012. He doesn't dispute the fact that Zwerneman's blogs alerted him to the Cook quote or the story. But he saw no reason to offer attribution -- and his TV editor at ESPN concurs -- because he independently interviewed Cook by phone "for 10 or 15 minutes" as well as other sources.

Cook gave him the same quote, McMurphy told me, and he doesn't understand why Zwerneman "went off like a 12-year-old girl." Feisty on the phone and on email, McMurphy wrote to me that "Brent -- and now you -- will have spent more time on this than Kennedy historians spent dissecting the Zapruder film."

OK, timeout. What's the big deal, guys? It's not as if either story is about Johnny Manziel -- or nails shut the possibility that the Aggies and the Longhorns will meet again in the regular season. Ethics and professionalism aside (we'll get to them later), here's why it's such a big deal around College Station.

"That quote from Jason Cook was a unique nugget," said Brian Davis, a former Dallas Morning News reporter who will soon be covering Texas football and basketball for the Austin American-Statesman. He observed the pingponging tweets between Zwerneman and McMurphy with professional interest. "It was what I call a 'little wow' that makes your readers say, 'Hey, here's something I didn't know.' Sure, a reporter wants the 'big wow,' a major scoop, but you're not getting one of those every day, so you keep going for the little wows. They build up your followers and your sources. They could lead to the big one someday."

Reporters keep score with "little wows," which are as important as playing time and stats are to the athletes they cover. In recent years, Twitter's time code has helped keep score -- you know who posted what and when. The local groundswell among other reporters for Zwerneman was a response to the Twitter feud between him and McMurphy.

"Seeing Brent stand up, I wanted to applaud," said Kelly Brown, editor of the Bryan-College Station Eagle and a 23-year veteran of newspaper journalism. "We've gotten complacent about national reporters taking our stories. We don't complain anymore. And a lot of reporters don't want to make waves; they may want to work at ESPN someday. And we see that, when the media shows up, the coaches say hello to ESPN first."

Brown, who taught journalism at Texas A&M for five years, says she understands that readers might not care about this, "but we sure do. It's about ethics."

Lack of attribution is a breach of professional ethics; it's stealing, in a sense. Of course, there are violations, misdemeanors and felonies, and what makes this case so interesting to me is how petty it seems. Then there is the surrounding gray area and the dismissive attitude of McMurphy and his manager, Chuck Salituro, senior news editor on ESPN's TV news desk. Salituro has been at ESPN for 19 years, and, before that, spent 17 years at The Milwaukee Journal, including five as sports editor.

"This is not about crediting news; it's about two reporters getting the same quote," Salituro said. "Brett didn't steal the quote. He wanted to show he did his own interview. I don't consider this story a news break. Nobody has been more diligent in crediting others than Brett because he was a 'victim' of ESPN's old policies of taking credit for a story as soon as we confirmed it."

Nevertheless, I think there's a flag on this play. I disagree with Salituro that it's only about two reporters getting the same quote. Why would McMurphy call the Aggies' Cook in the first place if he hadn't been alerted by Zwerneman's reporting? Whether Cook repeated the quote verbatim to McMurphy or merely agreed it was authentic is immaterial -- that "told ESPN" is generally interpreted as ESPN having been told exclusively, or at least first. McMurphy might have slightly advanced the story by confirming it and adding some background of his own (neither story topped 250 words), but a tip of his hat would have been ethically proper.

After reviewing more of their work, I think Zwerneman and McMurphy are both solid, productive reporters. After talking to them, I think they are both bright, proud men who care about what they do. It's not hard to see how aggressive newshounds under pressure in this multiplatform, 24-hour news cycle can get caught up in a skirmish when their professionalism is challenged. That said, give credit where it's due and go work a little harder.


Kevin Blackistone, a frequent ESPN commentator, recently found fault with the sports industry's embrace of military symbolism … and the ombud mailbag, in turn, found fault with him -- in substantial numbers.

On Nov. 6, responding to a question from host Tony Reali on "Around the Horn," Blackistone, a regular ATH panelist, said, "When you have military flyovers and the military symbolism that goes on in sports, I think you've got a problem."

At issue was Northwestern's usage of American flag and Army designs on its helmets and jerseys for an upcoming football game. Another ATH regular and fellow Northwestern graduate, J.A. Adande, also had reservations about the uniforms, but Blackistone went much further in his criticism, saying he was opposed to the sports-military connection "whether it's the singing of a war anthem to open every game, whether it's going to get a hot dog and being able to sign up for the Army at the same time, whether it's the NFL's embrace of the mythology of the Pat Tillman story."

It was the phrase "war anthem" that stirred the mailbag to call Blackistone's commentary "disrespectful" and "reprehensible." A typical, if restrained, message was from Patrick Mumford of Papillion, Neb., who wrote: "Kind of disgusted with Kevin Blackistone's statement objecting to the National Anthem being sung before sporting events because it's a 'war anthem.' I think most American's would call it a reminder of what this country has been through to become the nation it is. Or used to be anyway."

Blackistone, a former newspaper reporter and columnist, is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. He is opinionated and ready to take on the thorniest issues in a thoughtful, though often passionate, manner. When I called him, his second thoughts were typically reflective. "I wish I could have fleshed it out, but I only had a few seconds," he said. "I wouldn't retract anything, but I wouldn't have let the anthem overshadow the larger theme of the conflation of sports and militarism."

Blackistone knew the question was coming. ATH producers meet daily at 8 a.m. to plan the show, then have a one-hour conference call with the panelists at 10:30 a.m. Blackistone not only had written previously about the partnership of the military and sports events but had devoted several class sessions to it. He had recently discussed in class the appropriateness of the national anthem as a game opener. He might have been too well-prepared on the subject for such a brief sound bite.

I thought Blackistone's commentary deserved to be unpacked on ESPN, if not to classroom-hour length, at least in a column or in a few minutes on a program that could show other examples of sports and military collaboration, perhaps exploring how purported displays of patriotism might disguise service recruiting, politicking and commercialization. Is football good preparation for combat (an active officer recently said that in a discussion of the Army-Navy game)? How come so few pro athletes ever use those wondrous muscles to actually defend their country (even though, as Ombuddy Paul Gigliotti of Andover, Mass., pointed out, ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski insists on calling quarterbacks "warriors")?

I'm sure Blackistone has a lot of valuable insight on these and other matters that don't quite fit into the Horn. Of course, that might just make the mailbag come out fighting.


The tale of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin is far from over, but it has had two interesting spin-offs -- a number of fine related features and commentaries and Ombuddy messages, as well as another provocative edition of the N-word debate.

Ever since Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter first reported the curious collision of the two Miami Dolphins offensive linemen, ESPN has been ahead of the story, although, as NFL investigations into the incident began, coverage stalled. Involved individuals, the league and the team have restricted access. Sometimes, though, opinion, backgrounders and informed speculation are more than good enough.

I liked Elizabeth Merrill's sensitive yet cool profile of Incognito on ESPN.com and Matthew Berry's insightful piece on the lingering effect of his own childhood bullying. He even alluded to it as a reason for his fantasy life

Smart and funny was "Man Up," Brian Phillips' send-up of the Dolphins' "warrior culture," in Grantland. Rick Reilly's re-evaluation of his passion for football in light of current events, including the hazing/bullying story, was excellent.

And don't miss Jason Whitlock's unwrapping of the prison-yard mentality of the Dolphins' locker room as part of his "Incarceration Nation" theory on ESPN.com.

Beyond that, the mailbag was stuffed with kudos for ESPN analysts Cris Carter and Tom Jackson for thoughtful responses to locker room violence, and jeers for Mike ("Go to Fist City") Ditka and Mike Golic for seeming to defend violence and/or traditional hazing. On his radio show, for example, Golic expressed the sentiment that Martin should have punched out Incognito, taking care of the matter in a "manly" way.

The best of the mailbag was from Dennis McLaughlin of Pittsburgh, who wrote: "This morning, as details of the Richie Incognito story came out, there were countless NFL analysts (mostly former players) who came to defend the hazing practices of the NFL. Some even went so far as to say that Martin should have 'manned up' and stood up for himself. To insinuate, in any situation, that violence is an appropriate response to bullying is irresponsible at best and dangerous at worse. The results of using violence as a response to bullying can be seen from Columbine to Newtown. Like it or not, NFL players (and by proxy, ESPN analysts) have a bully pulpit. School-age children tune in to 'SportsCenter' all the time. ESPN management should pull all its on-air personalities in a room and make it clear that the appropriate response to bullying/hazing is to go to authorities. Anyone disagreeing on-air should be pulled and fired. Our kids' lives are at stake."

The Incognito-Martin story, with its illiberal use of the N-word, soon morphed into yet another look at that subject as ESPN commentators discussed who is allowed to use it and under what circumstances. Never, ever, Skip Bayless said. Only among black friends, said Michael Wilbon, who admitted to using it every day. Both made reasonable cases.

But again, Whitlock, who has been on a welcome Whitlockian tear since returning to ESPN, had a fine column that included this paragraph:

"I still use the N-word privately. I'm not proud of this fact. I would never defend my use of the word. I use it far less than I did a decade ago. I've been battling for years to eliminate it from my vocabulary. I object when anyone, regardless of color, uses the word around me. The N-word is like fast food or cigarettes. It's unhealthy. It is the foundational fertilizer at the root of the maladies plaguing black America. The word is more negatively powerful today than it was at its invention. It's a sign of the depth of our self-hatred."

A white person typically employs the word as a slur, a put-down, but the tonal variations of African-American usage include the entire love-hate spectrum. I suspect that, at ESPN, a white commentator using the N-word would be fired and a black commentator would at least have to do some serious explaining to stay on the job. I think that's about as commonsensical as we can be until the word is purged from public use.