Clouds of dissension have been gathering over Red Sox Nation since the team’s collapse last September. Not even the joyous occasion of Fenway Park’s 100th birthday has been able to clear the air. In fact, the return of former manager Terry Francona, who originally planned to skip the festivities, may have been the flash point. If so, what will be the match?
At the heart of the controversy swirling around the Red Sox is the manner in which the team parted company with Francona. At one point, the split seemed to be both amiable and mutual, but following the parting of the ways, a very critical article appeared in the Boston Globe. Before the publication of Bob Hohler’s expose, the conventional wisdom was Francona had lost control of a veteran clubhouse. Things like that happen in baseball, so had the story ended there, both sides could have happily gone their separate ways. However, “anonymous sources” felt the need to intervene. According to these shadowy figures, Francona was distracted by not only his ongoing marital problems, but also an overdependence on painkillers.
Someone went out of their way to make me look pretty bad. It’s a shame. I’m sure they’ll have a great event and I was part of a lot of that stuff there, but I just can’t go back there and start hugging people and stuff without feeling a little bit hypocritical.” – quoted by Dan Shaughnessy, The Boston Globe, April 11, 2012
Francona’s feeling of betrayal was justified. Even if he was affected by his divorce and had developed an addiction to pain medication, why would it have been necessary for an anonymous source to reveal those items? After all, the team was doing just fine until the September, and, according to the implication, Francona had been dealing with both distractions for the entire year. Could the “team sources” have simply been trying to deflect blame and quell backlash from the Nation? Unfortunately, Hohler didn’t seem to ask himself those questions because the story didn’t include any corroboration, or at least an acknowledgment of potential ulterior motives, even though Francona vehemently denied the allegations. Apparently, it was more important to highlight those bombshell allegations, even if it meant damaging a man’s reputation, not to mention his chances for future employment (many baseball insiders believe the timing of the allegations scuttled any chance Francona may have had of landing the St. Louis Cardinals’ job).
During his tenure as Red Sox manager, Francona befriended many people, which, considering his reputation for being a “good guy”, isn’t all that surprising. Now, as the dust from the breakup continues to settle, some of those friends have been coming to his defense. Most recently, Hall of Fame sportswriter Peter Gammons joined the fray. As not only one of the most respected baseball writers of the last 40 years, but also a passionate follower of the Red Sox, Gammons’ take on the situation carries a lot of weight. So, when the legendary scribe, who made his bones with the Boston Globe, called upon Hohler to reveal his sources, it sent a tremor throughout media circles in the Hub. On Friday, the Globe fired back.
In response to Gammons’ statements about Hohler, his former employer effectively questioned a career’s worth of integrity by casting him as a Red Sox homer. In defense of his colleague and employer, Chad Finn called into doubt Gammons’ “journalistic compass”, implying that his fondness for Francona led him down an “irresponsible direction”. As evidence of this assertion, Finn dredged through Gammons’ body of work, which revealed the use of “anonymous sources” dating back to 1979. Apparently, not only is Gammons influenced by his relationships, but he is also a hypocrite?
What Finn fails to note, however, is context. In the example he cited, Gammons used an anonymous source to reveal that Red Sox were going to sign Tony Perez. Hohler used anonymous sources to report damaging personal information about Terry Francona. Clearly, even a faulty journalist compass should be able to make a distinction between the two?
In a recent post at Fangraphs.com, Alex Remington does a good job explaining why Hohler’s use of anonymous sources failed to comply with the standards of good journalism. However, he still seems to defend the unfettered use of anonymous sources as an “essential tool of reporting, particularly sports writing.” I couldn’t disagree more.
Sports writing is not about life and death. For the most part, there aren’t many whistle blowers hiding behind anonymity because they fear retribution. Even if one adhered to the philosophy that the end justifies the means when it comes to investigative journalism, most sports stories wouldn’t meet that threshold. In this example, the reason why the Red Sox collapsed didn’t demand trashing a man’s reputation. The allegations weren’t essential to the story (i.e., everyone, even Francona, agreed he had lost the clubhouse, so all the anonymous sources did was focus the blame on the manager), so printing them was irresponsible. Sadly, the Boston Globe’s journalist compass isn’t capable of acknowledging that.
Not only did the Globe’s lax standards harm Francona and damage the newspaper’s journalistic integrity, but it also cast a pall over the entire industry. Unfortunately, the Globe is not alone in the wanton use of anonymous sources. On an almost daily basis, these clandestine quote machines are used to support various rumors and opinions, but, for the most part, the topics are usually innocuous. Is the aging short stop losing range? An anonymous scout says yes. Will the big free agent sign this weekend? An unnamed person with close knowledge of the situation thinks so. However, that’s not always the case.
When the stories rise to a more personal level, and the fallout has the potential to damage a person’s career, good journalism demands that anonymous sources be used responsibly. Otherwise, these sources and the reporters who use them will become just like the boy who cried wolf. What a shame it would be if an anonymous source used by a responsible reporter was ignored because the public finally tuned out the practice.
In a perfect world, the Red Sox would apologize to Francona for allowing a member of the organization to trash his reputation, and the Globe would offer a mea culpa to the public for irresponsible journalism and then to Gammons for tarnishing his reputation in an effort to defend its prior transgression. Unfortunately, neither is likely to happen. My guess is there are at least a few members of each organization who would like the opportunity to offer those apologies. If so, they might want to consider doing so anonymously.