The case of the accidental tweeter
I could give you a thousand guesses. Wouldn't matter. You'd never guess what I was doing when I accidentally tweeted "moss Vikings" last Tuesday night, inadvertently breaking news that the Patriots and Vikings were discussing a Randy Moss trade. Actually, you can't call it "news." More like "hearsay." But when the trade went through 16 hours later, some believed it was all part of my master plan. Throw out a rumor "accidentally," and if it happened, I would look like a genius.
Actually, I was wearing makeup at the time. Lots of it. The lady caked it on -- it looked like a mortician had done me up. I was wearing a sport coat. I was being filmed by cameras. I was hungry because I hadn't eaten dinner yet. I was sitting between Rachel Nichols and Lisa Salters. (Still can't guess it?) That's right I was recording one of those "E:60" roundtable segments.
The back story: I taped a segment in July that will run on "E:60" at the end of October. (Don't worry, my binge of mediocre TV appearances ends that night.) Since I happened to be in Manhattan last week, Andy Tennant, the show's executive producer, asked me to crash the table. I agreed, but only if I could also appear in the opening credits (when everyone's hustling to work and trying to catch cabs) repeatedly rolling over in bed and hitting my snooze alarm. When Andy vetoed that request, I asked if I could berate Jeremy Schaap during the back-and-forths. Andy didn't just say yes, he encouraged it.
The roundtables take place in ESPN The Magazine's offices. Usually three shows are taped at a time: 12 conversations lasting eight to 10 minutes apiece (edited down later). After each one finishes, everyone breaks so the camera crew can prepare for the next one. (Hold on, we're moving to the present tense to build drama.) During one stoppage, everyone is halfheartedly looking at their BlackBerrys, and I think Schaap is either yelling at the makeup artist or upbraiding a production assistant that his coffee wasn't hot enough.
My BlackBerry vibrates.
It's a text from Someone Who Knows Things. And not to go all Bob Woodward on you, but this person is never wrong.
Moss to Vikings. Very close.
We start texting back and forth. I want details -- not as a media person but as a Patriots fan. It would be the most stunning Boston trade since Theo sent Nomar packing in 2004. As I'm gathering details and trying to determine the validity, Andy knocks me out of my text-flurrying haze.
"All right, everybody, let's roll!"
Great. We start taping again. I nod vacantly as someone pitches their next story. Pats Fan Me is wondering: "Did Moss get into a fight with Belichick? Are we giving up on the season? Do they think Brandon Tate can take over? Can we get a second-rounder? Are they just pretending to shop him to kick his butt into gear?"
Suddenly, Writer Me elbows his way into my brain. Writer Me is thinking, "Do I have a scoop here? And if I have a scoop, what the hell do I do about it?"
The first thing you need to know: I don't like breaking stories or the pressure that accompanies it. Sweating out those last few minutes before the moment of truth. Hoping you're right even though you're thinking, "I know I'm right. I have to be right. This is right. (Pause.) Am I right?" Wondering deep down, "I hope my source isn't betraying me," then rehashing every interaction you've ever had with that person. My stomach just isn't built for it. If I had Marc Stein's job, I'd be chain-smoking Lucky Strikes like Don Draper.
At the same time, I know a few Guys Who Know Things at this point. Whenever I stumble into relevant information -- it doesn't happen that often -- my first goal is always to assimilate that material into my column (as long as it's not time-sensitive). Sometimes I redirect the information to an ESPN colleague. Sometimes I keep it in my back pocket and wait for more details. It's a delicate balance. I have never totally figured out what to do.
A good example: Thirty-six hours before "The Decision," someone I trusted told me that LeBron was DEFINITELY picking Miami unless he panicked on live television, realized he was betraying Cleveland and changed his mind. I had to make my own The Decision. How could that information help me? Tweeting it made no sense -- people had already reported Miami (whether they knew for sure or not). I decided to incorporate the tip into my "Day of the Decision" column the following day. If you read it again, you'll notice I structured the column around the premise that (A) it was a cop-out for LeBron to pick Miami, and (B) I couldn't believe he was dumping Cleveland during a one-hour live special. I wanted the column to set the stage and hold up the next morning. Which is how it played out. Had I been given bad information and LeBron picked someone else? Waste of a column.
The obvious counterargument: "You work for ESPN, shouldn't you pass along all scoops to them?"
The counterargument to that obvious counterargument: "Yeah, but if I'm wrong, or if my source feels betrayed, then it's my butt and not ESPN's butt."
Complicating matters: Twitter, which exacerbates the demands of immediacy, blurs the line between reporting and postulating, and forces writers to chase too many bum steers. With every media company unabashedly playing the "We Had It First!" game, reporters' salary and credibility hinges directly on how many stories they break. That entices reporters to become enslaved to certain sources (almost always agents or general managers), push transparent agendas (almost always from those same agents or GMs) and "break" news before there's anything to officially break. It also swings the source/reporter dynamic heavily toward the source. Take care of me and I will take care of you.
Here's a fun story for you: A few weeks after the Clippers fired Mike Dunleavy last winter, someone called me out of the blue asking for help getting their vacant GM job. I had never talked to this person before in my life. I have no idea how he obtained my number. But that didn't stop him from lobbying me for the next 15 minutes as I said things like, "You don't understand, I only do things like that for Daryl Morey." (Just kidding. I did say, "Sorry, I just don't do things like that." Which is true.) Even better, this person was employed by another NBA team at the time. Now, assuming I helped him get the job -- and by the way, that's my favorite part of the story, that anyone thought the notoriously oblivious Clippers could be swayed by an online columnist -- what would I get in return? You guessed it scoops! Breaking news!
ESPN.com's Bill Simmons reports that the Clippers have traded Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and the rights to Minnesota's 2012 No. 1 pick to Denver for Carmelo Anthony.
Woohoo! I'm on the board! So glad I pimped that stranger for Clippers GM!
So that's how it works -- not all the time but occasionally, and only because of everyone's obsession to be first. On the surface, this annoys me to no end. Who cares? It's not like we have some giant scoreboard keeping track of everything. But my reporter friends all say the same thing: It's not about one scoop but the entire body of scoops (not just for the reporter, but the company that employs them). Think of Ichiro grinding out 200 hits every season. Yeah, most of them are mundane singles but they add up. For readers, that volume turns it into a "feel" thing.
I feel like that guy breaks his share of stories, hence, I trust him.
Or flipping that around
I don't trust that guy, he throws stuff out there left and right and half of it's not true.
So yeah, there's no official scoreboard for scoops. We just subconsciously keep score. As do editors. As do media companies. Some will do whatever it takes to pad their stats, whether it's pimping every decision someone makes to get repaid with information later, playing the odds by reporting something they hope is true (and if it is, they look like a stud), spinning every angle against someone who once butted heads with a favored source, whatever. The best reporters maintain relationships, avoid agendas, craft good narratives, never stop cultivating new sources and -- occasionally -- break news simply because it's an outcome of being good at their jobs. That's what should matter. And that's how they should be judged. I wish that were always the case.
The second thing you need to know: We have a rule at ESPN that all breaking news must be filtered through our news desk (not tweeted). That's why our reporters (Schefter, Stein, Bucher, whoever) tweet things like, "JUST FILED TO ESPN: Timberwolves sign Frederic Weis to $35 million deal." Even if I wanted to tweet something like the Moss scoop, technically, I couldn't do it without flagrantly violating company rules. You never want to be in the same sentence with the words "flagrantly" and "violating." A great rule of thumb.
The third thing you need to know: In the Twitter era, we see writers repeatedly toss out nuggets of information without taking full ownership. It's my least favorite thing about Twitter (because it's wishy-washy) and one of my favorite things about Twitter (because nonstop conjecture is so much fun for sports fans). We saw it happen during the LeBron saga, the baseball trade deadline, Favre's latest round of "I Might Come Back" it's just part of following sports in 2010. Call it "pseudo-reporting": telling your audience that you think something happened or that you heard something happened, and somehow that sentiment becomes actual news.
You know what jerk pulled this trick last winter? Me!
I did it with this Dec. 10 tweet: "Hearing that Tom Brady jogged off field after first Miami TD because he broke ribs (plural). Came back wearing a flak jacket."
Hearing that ?
Is that a report? (Not really.) Am I passing along a rumor? (Actually, no -- a good source gave me that one.) Was there a way I could have sounded more authoritative? (Yeah, probably but wouldn't it look weird if I wrote "Exclusive report!" or "Breaking news by me!") Did I drop the ball? (Actually, yes. Everyone ignored the information because it seemed like I threw it out there. Brady played with broken ribs for two more weeks before anyone officially reported it.) In retrospect, I should have just presented the tweet more forcefully. With our current social media rules, ESPN would want it to look like this
"JUST FILED TO ESPN: Tom Brady jogged off field after first Miami TD because he broke multiple ribs. Came back wearing a flak jacket. Confirmed by a source."
and only after I called my editor, Rob King, and told him, "I trust my source, this is accurate, I am going to tweet it, I wanted to give the desk a heads-up." If Rob tells me, "Don't tweet that, I want to talk to you first" or "You have to get a second source or no go," I would hold off. Because that's what ESPN employees are supposed to do.
The necessity of that conversation depends on the story itself. For the brewing Moss trade -- a biggie -- I planned on calling Rob before I did anything. We hadn't heard even a burp about the Vikings and Patriots discussing Moss, making it the best kind of breaking news: the kind of story that made you gasp "WHAT?????????????" It had to be played carefully.
I didn't play it carefully.
Back to me at that "E:60" table
I spend the next segment making the Pete Carroll "We Didn't Just Get a Punt Blocked, I Think I Lost My Keys" face. I nod three times and fake-laugh once. We finish a little past 7 o'clock. I text my initial source again. He's out of ammo. He's tapped. I text two follow-up sources to see if they've heard anything (without telling them what I know). Nope. I Google "Moss Vikings trade" but get every ancient Raiders/Vikings trade link from 2005. Dammit. I search "Moss Vikings Patriots" on Twitter. Nothing.
I decide to send a direct message to Adam Schefter's Twitter, because I don't have his e-mail address on my BlackBerry. The plan: Tip him off, have him chase down a second source (or confirm my information), then share the byline with him. Everyone wins. I find Adam's last DM to me, press reply, and just as I'm figuring out what to type, Andy the producer says, "All right, we're ready to go."
We start filming again. The whole time, I'm thinking about Moss and wondering if Schefter has heard anything. When we wrap a few minutes later, I quickly grab my BlackBerry and start distractedly pounding keys before realizing that, when I was holding it on my lap during the take, I had inadvertently canceled Schefter's DM page and reverted back to the main menu. Whoops. That means I had just typed "moss Vikings" into the actual tweet box.
So I stop.
But again, I am pretty frazzled. My fingers and brain are moving 90 miles an hour. I'm thinking about 12 things at once. Instead of canceling the tweet, my brain basically farts all over my BlackBerry. I press the "send" button instead of the "cancel" button. I have no idea why my fingers did this -- none -- but that's what they did.
Almost immediately, a new tweet pops up on my screen:
@sportsguy33: moss Vikings
And I'm just sitting there staring at it. It's like the scene in "Seven" when Brad Pitt finds his wife's head in the box. What did you do? What did you do?
(Important note: I tried to recreate this sequence on my BlackBerry later and it was nearly impossible. Ever been totally distracted and done something so moronic that you can't even figure out how it happened? My watershed moron moment: When I was 25, I left my car keys in the door of my car overnight in Boston. You're not going to believe this, but my car got stolen. I do stuff like this every so often. And actually, so does my wife. When we got married, my dad cracked about a thousand, "I can't wait until you call us in a panic because you drove home from a mall with the baby on top of your car and somehow the baby didn't roll off" jokes. Anyway, that's what you are dealing with here -- one of the more distracted people who has ever been gainfully employed. When I am deep in thought, all bets are off. Especially if I am wearing makeup and baking under TV lights. Just factor that in. Thanks.)
I don't know how long I stare at the tweet. Fifteen seconds? A minute? Feels like an hour. Finally, I panic and delete it, knowing full well that any follower who happened to be glancing at their feed already saw it.
Now I have two choices: Pretend the tweet never happened (impossible in 2010) or address it immediately. There's no Plan C. If the Vikings trade goes down, everyone will believe I knew about it, tweeted "moss Vikings" to get ahead of it, then deleted it, either to thumb my nose at ESPN's Twitter policy or to do the wishy-washy "I'm first, but if I'm wrong, nobody will remember" maneuver. Basically, I'm screwed.
The last thing you need to know about me: I am a big "don't make it worse, come clean" guy. I preach that message to my daughter all the time -- usually after our son is crying and she's pretending that she doesn't know what happened. Which I hate. People are only as good as their word; if you don't learn that early enough, you never will. (Like Tony Montana once said: "I only have two things in this life: my word and my balls, and I don't break them for nobody.") And the cover-up is always worse than the crime. Any good public relations guy will tell you that.
This wasn't a crime, obviously. But letting it fester would only make it worse. That's why I quickly explained myself with a second tweet: "Sorry that last tweet was supposed to be a DM. Rumors swirling about a Pats-Minny trade for Randy Moss."
(Note: "Rumors swirling" was a bad choice. Should have gone with "Caught word of discussions of" or "Just heard from someone I trust that " In my defense, I was having a heart attack at the time.)
One minute later, a third tweet: "I am a moron with twitter on BlackBerry, that's the 4th time I tried to DM someone and it came out as a tweet. Might be time for Tweet Deck."
(That was true. And as I learned over the next few days, I wasn't alone. Everyone does it. The lesson, as always: Don't twitter DM. As my friend Wildes told me later, "Lessons to be learned from Marlo, Avon and Stringer. No DMs. Just burner phones.")
One minute later, a fourth tweet: "As far as DM accidents go, that was a 3 on the Ray Allen Scale. Sorry. Hate passing along rumors, that's why I was DM-ing for info."
(Yes, even in times of professional crisis, I can still joke about NBA players who may or may not have been DM-ing for hoochie, mistakenly tweeted that DM, then claimed their Twitter account had been hacked.)
And with that, I let it go. But the Internet can be a cruel beast. As you know. Things blow up faster than the brawl in "Anchorman." Over the next 20 minutes, as we're taping more segments, I keep checking my BlackBerry and praying it won't blow up but knowing it will. Within 25 minutes, my friend Whitlock is busting my chops (with a "Whitlock in and out burger" tweet); Mike Florio is blogging about the rumor; Schaap and Nichols are glancing up from their BlackBerrys asking what I know; somebody has started a #sportsguydms hashtag; and I think Brick killed a guy. That's when I decide to tell everyone in the room what happened.
"Were we taping Bill during the breaks?" Andy jokes. "We can put it online. Live footage of Simmons blowing up the Internet!"
No thanks. At this point, I am more frazzled than Brad Childress trying to figure out the two-point conversion chart. First, I blew a quality scoop for my employer. Second, I look and feel like a total jackass. Third, if my source ends up being wrong, I will look like an even bigger jackass. Fourth, as all of this is happening, I still have to film television segments. And fifth (worst of all), I'm starting to worry that I screwed up my favorite team's trade leverage. What if they were keeping everything under wraps, but now that it's leaked out, they can't get the same pick??? What if Minnesota backs out? Did I pull a Bartman on them?
About 30 minutes later, a life raft arrives in the form of Fox's Jay Glazer, who reports that the Patriots are in "serious discussions" with Minnesota about Moss. I let out a "Woohoo!" and pump my fist before realizing that I'm celebrating a Fox scoop that ESPN should have gotten. Whoops.
That's the whole story. With witnesses.
And yes, I fully expected to take heat for what happened. Had it happened to someone else, I would have gleefully dished out some of that same heat. What I never expected was other writers wondering if the tweet was truly accidental. A good conspiracy theory always hinges on a reasonable motive, and in this case, ticking off my bosses, blowing a killer scoop and doing it 45 minutes before the premiere of our "30 for 30" about the 2004 Red Sox how was any of that reasonable?
Then again, who am I to complain about people being reasonable?
For instance, I have written (half-jokingly, but still) the following things about David Stern: He rigged the 1985 NBA lottery for the Knicks, he made Michael Jordan play baseball in 1993 as a gambling suspension, he turned Dick Bavetta into his personal Luca Brasi from 1999 to 2002, and he planted Gary Bettman in the NHL to ruin them as a competitor. All of these theories are totally outlandish. (Well, except the Bettman theory. That clearly happened.) I didn't care. They were fun to write about, they got people talking no different than what some writers did to me last week. And sure, maybe it's surreal to have something happen to you, know exactly what happened, then read takes from strangers that create a totally different (and unflattering) narrative for something only you specifically experienced. But it's part of the game. Complaining about it would make me a hypocrite.
The bigger issue that may or may not apply in this specific case (I can't decide): Over the past 25 years, being a sports fan somehow flipped from "I believe you" to "I don't believe you until you prove to me why I should believe you." We don't trust anyone any more. This happened because of steroids in baseball, blood doping in cycling, cheating in the Olympics, Roger Clemens lying to Congress, Pete Rose betting on baseball, NCAA coaches swearing that they didn't break the rules when they did you could come up with a million reasons why we landed here. But it happened. And now we're here.
Two weeks ago, I posted the following tweet: "Whoa! 54 home runs for Jose Bautista. Tied for 19th all-time. Nobody from 1962 to 1996 hit that many. I'm still buying it. Like his swing."
ESPN's Jeff MacGregor noticed that tweet and turned it into a column. I loved his angle: He was saddened that a fellow writer felt obligated to let people know that he was "buying" Bautista, like this was some sort of controversial stance. And really, it shouldn't be. Watch this video of Bautista's home runs: no suspicious opposite-field cheapies, no lazy fly balls that kept carrying, just bomb after bomb cranked to left field. He's a dead-pull hitter blessed with quick hands. He blossomed later than most. I am still buying it.
"That might be the tipping point phrase for 21st century sports right there," MacGregor wrote. "What we believe to be authentic has become the exception."
I agree with him. Especially in regard to me. An "accidental" tweet about a trade that nobody saw coming and then the trade happened??? I probably would have doubted me, too. Welcome to life in 2010.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.
ESPN.com: Help | Press | Advertise on ESPN.com | Sales Media Kit | Interest-Based Ads | Do Not Sell or Share My Personal Information | Corrections | Contact Us | Site Map | Jobs at ESPN