Peter Gammons to Boston Globe: Burn Your Sources!

Peter Gammons wrote for the Boston Globe for over 30 years, from 1969 to 2000. In that time, he became the most prominent beat writer on the Boston Red Sox and one of the lead baseball analysts on ESPN, and that body of work elevated him to the Baseball Hall of Fame, when he received the 2004 J.G. Taylor Spink Award for sportswriters. But the Globe may be more disappointed than proud of Gammons at the moment.

On a sports talk radio show, Gammons criticized Globe reporter Bob Hohler, who last October famously broke the “chicken and beer” story of vast dissension within the Red Sox clubhouse down their disastrous stretch run in 2011. The images from that story, gleaned from anonymous sources, dominated the coverage of the team as manager Terry Francona was fired and general manager Theo Epstein decamped to Chicago: Francona’s alleged painkiller addictions and troubled marriage; Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Jon Lester’s lax approach to conditioning and training; and Jacoby Ellsbury’s isolation from the rest of the clubhouse.

A week ago, Gammons said that Hohler should reveal his anonymous sources. This week, he amended that to say that he wished Hohler would reveal his sources, even though he understands that Hohler is unable to do so. Gammons clarified that he was concerned about the damage the allegations had done to Francona’s further managerial chances:

The 2012 season has begun… It caused [Francona] so much harm – including essentially eliminating him from any chance at the Cardinals job – I wonder why those who spoke anonymously cannot step forward and say they were among the sources.

In a column today, Globe sportswriter Chad Finn struck back fiercely. (The Gammons quote above came from an email response to Finn’s query.) Finn wrote:

The perception that Peter Gammons’s journalistic compass can go on the fritz when it comes to matters of the Red Sox is not a new one.
What happened to cause a team that roared to an 83-52 record to go 7-20 in September is a question that demanded an answer. Of course the story was necessary.

As a journalist, I have a knee-jerk horror to Gammons’s suggestion that the Globe should burn its anonymous sources. Journalists go to jail to protect their sources. In many countries with authoritarian regimes, the protection of source anonymity is literally a matter of life and death. Finn’s column demonstrates that the Boston Globe feels a sense of betrayal that one of their own, one of their greatest, has called on them to violate journalism’s most sacred vow.

Of course, Gammons made his point on talk radio, a medium famously devoid of nuance, so his meaning needs to be more carefully parsed. Even if Gammons was speaking more as a fan (and as an employee of MLB and of the Red Sox) than as a journalist, he has forgotten more about baseball writing than I will ever know, so I will try to make the best possible defense of his comments.

First of all, the Hohler article is troubling in its execution, though it is certainly true that anonymous sourcing is an essential tool of reporting, particularly sportswriting. Unlike Capitol Hill reporters, baseball beat writers have no recourse to the Freedom of Information Act. Major League Baseball is a monopoly corporation with an antitrust exemption, with both the means and the incentive to clamp down on the flow of information. Without anonymous leaks, very often there would be no stories. However, those leaks are often self-serving and even semi-official, as various stakeholders simply use the media as a conduit for negotiations by other means.

Anonymity also creates a serious moral hazard problem. Most people who speak anonymously are doing so because they fear retribution, but that is partly because many anonymous quotes are vicious attacks. Sometimes the attacks are true. But they are almost always slanted to suit the speaker’s motives. As a result, news stylebooks typically have strict guidelines delineating when anonymous sources may be used, though these guidelines are not always followed. (Ironically, these standards often are not publicly available, except when quoted or leaked by media columnists.) For example, as of 2011, the Associated Press had the following standard:

Under AP’s rules, material from anonymous sources may be used only if:
1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the news report.
2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have accurate information.
We must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it’s relevant, we must describe the source’s motive for disclosing the information.

Hohler’s story fails on this basis. Nowhere in the story does Hohler explain what information came from where, beyond a blanket statement near the top: “This article is based on a series of interviews the Globe conducted with individuals familiar with the Sox operation at all levels. Most requested anonymity out of concern for their jobs or potential damage to their relationships in the organization.” The story pointedly does not describe the sources’ motives for disclosing the information. As a result, of course, the offseason was also colored by speculation as to who the sources may have been and why they made those statements.

Moreover, it is unclear what additional reporting the Globe conducted to verify the specific statements about Francona, particularly those about his painkiller usage. It is very possible that the article harmed Francona’s job prospects. If the allegations in the article were true, then that harm may well have been justified for journalistic reasons. But the article presents them as a he-said he-said: numerous anonymous sources said that Francona was affected by painkillers, Francona denied it, and then the article moved to something else. Hohler notes that Francona’s doctor could not be reached for comment: no other independent corroboration is mentioned in the story.

This is extremely troubling, and Gammons is right to be troubled. But Gammons’s proposed suggestion is utterly, entirely wrong. The onus is on Hohler, the reporter, to do the reporting to verify the claim. It is not on the anonymous sources to out themselves, or on Hohler to burn his sources.

I pretty much grew up watching Peter Gammons on Baseball Tonight. I bet a lot of us did. As Finn writes, “Part of Gammons’s charm is his genuine love for the game, which shines through in his writing, still, to generations of admirers.” I’ll always remember something Gammons wrote came when Ted Williams died in 2002: “In snapshots, he could be one of the warmest men on the planet, as he was the first time I met him doing a sidebar at a Senators-Red Sox game in 1970 as a young reporter. After an hour in his office, he said, ‘Kid, you’re OK. You like this game.'”

That’s Peter Gammons in a nutshell: for him, baseball was about sports heroes behaving like heroes, and sportswriting as about connecting to players through shared love of the game. And it has produced some great writing. But that approach is not, in itself, journalism. The 2011 Red Sox suffered perhaps the worst October collapse in baseball history, and the story of that collapse had to be told. Bob Hohler wrote a story that had to be written. And because it hurt a man he liked, Peter Gammons forgot what journalism is.

We hoped you liked reading Peter Gammons to Boston Globe: Burn Your Sources! by Alex Remington!

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.

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Nowadays, I wonder how often journalists would wager their life on the information they report.

John Roberts
John Roberts