by David Carr
THE MEDIA EQUATION
OCT. 17, 2010
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In the last week, I’ve gotten a very clear view of two things — the male physique purported to belong to Brett Favre and the inner workings of modern media. I wish I could un-see both.
First, an instant replay for nonsports fans: back in February, A. J. Daulerio, a blogger at the sports site Deadspin.com, heard from a woman who worked for the New York Jets that Favre had sent her nude pictures of himself in 2008, when Favre was with the Jets.
The woman had mentioned this in passing with no intention of going public. Mr. Daulerio, after doing some additional reporting, pressed her to go on the record. She refused, and then in August, he published her account anyway — a strange way to treat sources at any level of journalism.
At the time, the story pretty much sank like a rock, other than some tsk-tsking from mainstream media outlets about Mr. Daulerio’s version of journalism. The collective chasteness would not last.
On Oct. 7, Deadspin published photos, text messages and voice mails it said it had obtained by paying a third party it did not name. Mainstream outlets jumped on the story, including “Today,” the most public of all forums. The National Football League announced that it would investigate. And now some of Favre’s sponsors are wondering whether the gunslinging quarterback’s image has been sacked for a big loss.
Having covered a number of pro sports, I’ve seen plenty of athletes’ anatomies in locker rooms, so I initially had little interest in looking at Deadspin for some of Favre’s supposed self-portraits. But after circling the site for a few days, I had to know what all the fuss was about and finally clicked on the link.
I was not alone. By the end of the week 3.2 million had stopped in for a peek, a fivefold increase over Deadspin’s usual weekly audience of 600,000 people. I asked Mr. Daulerio whether the business deal he had cut with whoever had the photos — along with publishing the blog posts without the consent of the source — was worth it.
“I say this with some reluctance, because I don’t like to think of it as a business deal, but yes, it worked out very well for the site. I knew if everything played out right for us, there would be lots of traffic and that it would be pretty great for us in the long term as well,” he said in a phone call.
While we were not the first people to use the Internet to look at another person’s privates, something more pernicious and tawdry was under way. Newsrooms all over America have ethics policies they fuss over and debate, but all those strictures and best intentions are really beside the point once a sensational story rings the bell.
Deadspin violated a promise to a source, then paid for the photos and voice mails that it asserted were from Favre. But the “news” spread throughout other media organizations despite a lack of information about the provenance of the photos or the motivations of the source (both Favre and the woman who is said to have sent the photos have refused to comment).
The line of defense against drive-by, cash-and-carry journalism was only as stalwart as its traffic-hungry link.
(Deadspin is owned by Gawker Media, which experienced a similar tsunami of traffic after its site Gizmodo paid for the prototype of an iPhone that had been left at a bar.)
That cycle is both oddly familiar and rapidly evolving. Most news organizations stayed off the John Edwards love child story when The National Enquirer broke the news in October 2007, but the dam broke over the course of many months as the drip-drip of evidence and consequences began to accumulate. (At least The Enquirer had to chase John Edwards all over the Beverly Hilton. All Deadspin had to do was pay some loot and open a jpeg.)
There are differences between the two stories. First, the informational value of reporting that a famous married athlete may have been looking to step outside the holy bonds of matrimony does not pass the laugh test. If and when the N.F.L. decides that Favre violated the league’s code of personal conduct, it may be news, but not before.
And then there is the issue of stakes. Mr. Edwards could have become the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. Favre is now the starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. He may use his image to sell Wrangler jeans and television sets, but he is paid to hand off and throw to teammates, not run a country.
(As a longtime Vikings fan, I would like to point out that he’s also not paid to throw the ball to people on the opposing team, but that is another story.)
Mr. Daulerio said he was amused that many of the same outlets that had assailed him for pursuing the story were now breathlessly reporting its implications, including naming the woman who was the object of Favre’s attention and never agreed to be identified.
“I knew that it was something most other media outlets would not touch to begin with, but that people would be interested in reading and seeing,” he said. “I guess that’s what I think our role is at Deadspin: to do the stories that other people won’t touch.”
Until they do.