Deadspin’s Daulerio on Favre: ‘I knew there was something there’

Deadspin broke the Brett Favre story. But it took the NFL to get it into traditional media outlets.
 
Newspapers and news broadcasts have been filled this week with stories about the allegation that Favre, when he was a quarterback with the New York Jets in 2008, sent naked photos of his private parts to Jenn Sterger, a young woman who worked as a “game day host” for the Jets.
 
But that was more than two months after Deadspin, an irreverent sports website that is part of Gawker Media, first published the allegation. The initial story by A.J. Daulerio, editor-in-chief of Deadspin, was based on an off-the-record conversation Daulerio said he had with Sterger about the incident. Daulerio wrote at the time that he had been unable to get Sterger to go on the record with her story or to provide him with copies of the photos.
 
But Daulerio published anyway, saying he was convinced the story was true. The story was largely ignored by the mainstream press and lambasted by a handful of sports blogs and websites who feared Daulerio and Deadspin were damaging their efforts to establish some sort of journalistic credibility for online sites. There was no response from Favre.
 
Daulerio published the allegation again last Thursday, but this time he had photos and voice mail recordings. Deadspin described the recordings as “strange messages Jenn Sterger received from someone she was led to believe was Brett Favre.”

The story said Sterger was “still reluctant” to go on the record, and that the photos and voice mail messages had been acquired from an unnamed third party. Daulerio said Deadspin paid the source for the information, but declined to say how much. Sterger, who is now the “blogstress” for The Daily Line, a sports show on Versus, has still not talked publicly about the story.

 
“This is a story that I was really, really interested in getting,” Daulerio told me. “I followed up on it, and I really pushed for it. There are things I become all-consumed with, and this was one of those things. I knew there was something there.”
 
The story finally started to get a little attention in the mainstream press. A New York Post reporter asked Favre, now the quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, about it later that day at a regular weekly news conference. Favre’s response (“I’m not getting into that”) made it into some newspapers and local newscasts.

It also drew some criticism, with a post by Michael Priebe (“an admitted Favre apologist”) on the sports website Bleacher Report declaring the report by “the bottom-feeding website Deadspin” as “The Death of Sports Journalism.”

 
But it was not until the NFL announced the next day, Friday, that it was going to look into the allegations that most traditional media outlets published the allegations. Then it was everywhere.

“The Today Show” did a lengthy report, including an interview with Daulerio. The Associated Press filed a story. Dan Patrick and Peter King discussed it, without mentioning Deadspin, during NBC’s “Football Night in America” on Sunday night. And local media in Minnesota that had previously ignored the story reported on the NFL investigation.

 
“I think once it was clear the league was looking into it, everyone got into the water,” said Gerry Ahern, assistant managing editor for Yahoo! Sports and an officer of Associated Press Sports Editors.
 
Mike Bass, sports editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, told me: “Once the NFL said it was going to investigate, it became a story for us.” Until then, Bass said, all Deadspin had was allegations that weren’t being corroborated by the person supposedly making the allegations.
 
“In that case, what are you going to report?” Bass said. “If we uncovered through reporting information that we felt was solid and sourced, would we have written something? Sure. But we didn’t have it. There was nothing to substantiate anything.”
Chris Ison, a former investigative reporter and editor for The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, is now a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota. He said the NFL’s announcement that it was going to investigate the allegations “gave it much more legitimacy” and that mainstream news outlets had an obligation at that point to report it.
 
“It’s kind of easy to wait and say the NFL decided to look into it so we decided it’s news,” Ison told me. “You’d like to be more independent than that.”
 
Despite those concerns, Ison said he understands why most newsrooms don’t take the time to pursue such stories. Ison and others cited numerous difficulties with a story such as the one about Favre — sources who are unwilling to talk, the discomfort mainstream media outlets traditionally have with stories involving sex, and questions about the relevance of the story even if it is true.
 
“Newsrooms are not as big as they used to be,” he said. “You can’t go after every allegation you hear. In some ways, this is kind of a natural progression for the news, where the tabloid that does this sort of stuff anyway actually hits on one that becomes news for the mainstream media. That may not be such a bad thing.”
 
David Brauer, the local media reporter for MinnPost.com, examined the local media’s hesitation about reporting the allegations against Favre. He sided with those outlets that chose to pass on the story after the initial report.
 
“But when it comes to Favre, my bottom line is: even potentially skeevy celebrities deserve fairness. Until the voicemails emerged, there wasn’t enough for me to add my professional voice to Deadspin’s megaphone,” Brauer wrote.
 
Timothy Franklin, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University, said he’s sure readers and viewers of mainstream media outlets are wondering why they were so slow to pick up the story, much like when the National Enquirer beat everyone on the story about presidential candidate John Edwards having an affair with a campaign aide.

(I was the political editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, when the Edwards story broke, so I can understand the challenges mainstream journalists face in dealing with the Favre story. I can also attest to feeling sick about getting beat on such an important story.)

 
But Franklin said mainstream news outlets should stick to their standards, even if that means they don’t get certain stories first.
 
“News organizations that stick to their ethical standards but who aggressively try to get to the facts of a case will ultimately be the ones who are successful,” Franklin said.
 
Malcolm Moran, a longtime sports reporter and columnist for papers such as The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and USA Today, is the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State University. He said the safety net that journalists once enjoyed — the time to fully develop stories without fear of it showing up elsewhere — is gone. He said that’s also true for the athletes they cover.
 
“It’s been clear for quite some time that any professional athlete, and many college athletes, have been put on notice that any inappropriate behavior is likely to see the light of day because there are so many more vehicles,” he told me. That means editors at mainstream outlets will have to decide if they are willing to take more risks of getting a story wrong in the effort to get the story first.
 
“How much risk is considered acceptable if your premise is that 100 percent accuracy is the goal?” he asked. “At what point are you willing to take that chance?”
 
Daulerio doesn’t have much use for all the hand-wringing in traditional media circles. He said some stories can be advanced by putting out part of the story, knowing there are holes in it, as he did with the initial report in August. He said the initial report generated additional sources and leads that he followed in putting together last week’s story.
 
“I knew the risks involved,” he said. “I was very, very confident that Jenn Sterger was telling the truth.”
 
Daulerio said the story has driven huge numbers of readers to Deadspin’s site — “probably our best day ever” — but insists that there’s more to it than just chasing Web traffic.
 
“Our goal is to get the truth out there and that’s it,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Poynter has a longtime association with Brett Favre’s cousin, Gregory Favre, who was in no way involved with this story.

Another Editor’s Note: However, Gregory Favre was involved in this story, and by the looks of it, a bunch of newspapers are going to have to run editors’ notes with their Favre stories.

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