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The Dreaded “Unnamed Source” Rears It’s Ugly Head Again

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Let me start by saying, this really isn’t a direct criticism of Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel or Charles Robinson. Those two are generally on the ball when it comes to reporting on and breaking news. However, this is a criticism of muckraking journalism. Their latest allegations, that Ohio State coach Jim Tressel knew about the “Buckeye Five” selling their apparel far before the story came to light is a pretty heavy accusation based squarely on the media’s crutch: the unnamed source.

I understand the importance and necessity for reporters to protect their sources. Sources after all are what feeds the family and provides the lifeblood for the profession. However, the “unnamed source” is a different animal all together.  The unnamed source can be used whenever, wherever, and by whomever in order to perpetuate any story of their choosing. I’m not saying that Tressel didn’t know what was going on, maybe he did, but unless there is hard-line proof in the form of internal memos, e-mails, or phone conversations involving Tressel or the Ohio State athletic department, them writing a story, and Yahoo running the headline “Tressel knew of gear scheme last April” is not only unjust, it has less validity than the tabloids that line supermarket aisles.

It doesn’t take an Oliver Miller-sized leap to fabricate a feasible story based on an unnamed source. Here’s an example of a made-up story that based on the circumstances could be true: A reputable source confirmed to me that in 2009 Nick Fairley was paid an undisclosed amount of money in exchange for committing to play for the Auburn football program. Here’s another: A source close to the program disclosed that he witnessed Bryce Harper inject himself with unknown substances while at the College of Southern Nevada. See how easy it is to fabricate a believable story based on a “source.”

In journalism, you are what you write. If you break a story that turns out to be false or based on conjecture you will be ridiculed, and if it happens enough, completely ostracized. Use Tim Cowlishaw as an example. Last fall, he reported from an unnamed source: “Revis and Jets announce new deal, probably Wednesday. You heard it here first. “Inside information!”” Wednesday came and went… then the next Wednesday did the same… still no deal. It must be said that Cowlishaw is a very well-respected journalist with absolutely no reason to fabricate a story; even if he actually had a source and didn’t just take a look at the calendar and venture a guess, running with a story from an unreliable source is almost the same thing.

I’m assuming, in this case, that Wetzel and Robinson actually do have a source and aren’t just trying to connect the dots without a pen. If that’s the case, and it can be proven in black and white, then yes, this is a big, potentially damning story for the Buckeyes. If not, by attaching their names to a witch hunt, their credibility will take a hit and the repercussions will follow them regardless of any and all attempts to defend their story. That being said, delivering this story is exactly what the national media wants, another chance to rip Ohio State and the Big Ten.

Now let’s examine the hypothetical situation that Wetzel and Robinson decided over a six-pack of Schlitz to submit this story and run with it. Let’s also assume that it’s 100% untrue and unfounded, but they decided that it was worth the pub to risk some credibility and take a shot. The way that America works the publisher is king. Gone are the days of innocent until proven guilty, so the story coming out is judge, jury, and executioner. I just ran a search on Twitter and saw hundreds of messages about how Ohio State is a dirty program, Tressel is the corrupt ringleader…even that they should receive the death penalty from the NCAA…and those were all from the last 10 minutes. Since Notre Dame hasn’t been a National Title contender in quite a while, Ohio State has seemingly replaced the Irish as the team everyone loves to hate. Why? I’m not certain. Maybe because Ohio State fans are everywhere, maybe because they bring 40,000 with them wherever they go, maybe just because they are great in just about every sport they participate in. Whatever the reason, the media loves to pile on.

Regardless of whether these allegations are true or not, they are out there, and since their release about 15 hours ago, some of the absolute best journalists in the country have been criticizing Ohio State for not responding yet. Look at it this way, my footprint on the sports media landscape is non-existent, but even I get e-mails from readers with nonsensical scoops. Just because I don’t write a four-page story exposing the truth from an e-mailer’s report that “Barack Obama is in the “Whoomp, There It Is” video” doesn’t mean that I have something to hide or that something obviously untrue is even worth responding to.

In this case, Ohio State will respond, and they will have “internal investigations” and probably nothing will come of it. If that ends up being the case, thanks to Wetzel, Robinson, and their “source,” the story is out there and will now follow Jim Tressel for the rest of his career… and for a man of his character, that is truly unfortunate.


One Response to “The Dreaded “Unnamed Source” Rears It’s Ugly Head Again”

  1. Awesome read. It is very unjust to Tressel. If he is guilty then punishment should come but no mattter what his image is ruined.

    Posted by Doug | March 8, 2011, 7:23 pm

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