August 12, 2010

Deadspin has grown from a scrappy startup website that was playing with the big dogs of ESPN and Sports Illustrated. It gained legitimacy almost immediately as a serious player as it dug up stories other sports sites missed or ignored.

Yet it may have crossed the line last week when Editor-in-Chief A.J. Daulerio posted a story in which he alleged that quarterback Brett Favre sent lewd photos of his genitals to a New York Jets “game day host” and burned his source at the same time.

Daulerio not only wrote about the allegations in a post last week, he also named the woman who he says confidentially told him about the photos months ago. He acknowledged their conversations were off the record and that he’s never seen the photos in question.

“I told her back then, ‘I’m not going to sit on this forever,'” Daulerio told me in an interview this week. So he wrote a post with the headline, ” ‘Brett Favre Once Sent Me Cock Shots’: Not A Love Story.”

Daulerio said he got nervous that the story would appear elsewhere, so he posted a story that describes his dealings with the woman and his efforts to get her to go on the record and turn over the photos. (Poynter has decided not to name the woman because Daulerio appears to have broken their agreement of confidentiality.)

“I didn’t have any reason to believe she was lying,” Daulerio told me. “I really do think that what she was telling me was true. In many media universes this is a good news story, especially for us.”

But the mainstream media has largely ignored the story, with a few newspapers giving it the briefest of mentions in either a blog or celebrity round-up column. The Star Tribune in Minneapolis is on full Favre alert these days, giving its readers regular coverage on whether the quarterback will return to the team or retire. But other than a brief mention in a staff-written gossip column, the newspaper has steered clear of the story.

“Deadspin has a very low threshold for news, by their own admission,” Glen Crevier, the assistant managing editor for sports at The Star Tribune, told me in an e-mail. “We won’t lend legitimacy to the story at this point.”

The story presents all sorts of legal land mines, from a potential libel claim by Favre if the story proves to be incorrect to a possible breach-of-contract claim by the woman, who has not been heard from since Daulerio posted the story. She was a sidelines reporter employed by the New York Jets when the incident supposedly occurred.

Daulerio says the story was run by a lawyer for the website’s parent company, Gawker Media, and that it was cleared for publication.

But others say they can’t imagine a mainstream media outlet publishing such a story, primarily because it wouldn’t meet their journalistic standards. And although some traditional reporters like to complain about bloggers’ ethics, even Daulerio’s colleagues in the sports blogosphere were taken aback by decision.

“This is an ethics thing. This isn’t a law thing,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provides free legal assistance for journalists.

Dalglish, an attorney, said tabloids have been publishing such stories for years, long before the Internet made it possible for anyone to create his own website or blog to share his work with the world. She noted that the laws regarding libel and defamation are no different for bloggers and tabloid journalists than they are for reporters working for the local newspaper or the evening news broadcast.

“You don’t look at this differently because of the technology being used to communicate the information,” she said in an interview.

Daulerio’s story has been picked up by a handful of other sports blogs, but many of them used it as an occasion to take shots at Daulerio and Deadspin.

“For better or worse, Deadspin is considered one of the leading sports blogs, and as such, they’re dragging the genre down the toilet once again with their story about embarrassing messages supposedly sent by Brett Favre…,” Dirk Hoag wrote in a post for “On the Forecheck,” a blog dedicated to news about pro hockey team the Nashville Predators. “It’s another damaging blow to the credibility of independent sports sites.”

A post on Barstool Sports about the Deadspin article said: “Jesus Christ. Whatever happened to blogging integrity?”

And Kevin Roberts of Bleacher Report chimed in with this: “This site not only ran a ‘story’ with little credibility or evidence during a time that was so blatantly obviously taking advantage of Favre (as he was tops in the news), but they also never even received full consent from [the woman] to go ahead with the story.”

Daulerio doesn’t care what his sports blogging colleagues have to say.

“We’re not in a union, so they can say whatever they want,” he told me. “I don’t expect them to play by the same exact rules we do. People think I’m giving a bad name to blogs. I don’t think that’s true at all.”

In the post, Daulerio wrote that the sidelines reporter first told him about the Favre photos several months ago. He described his repeated efforts to get her to agree to let Deadspin make the photos public.

“We invited her into the Gawker Media lair many times to have a nice discussion about what we could do with the photos and how they could be presented and how she wouldn’t look bad in the process if she just had fun with it” Daulerio wrote. “Alas, that didn’t happen.”

The woman also sent Daulerio an e-mail that seems to make clear that she has no interest in the photos getting out: “AND NOT A WORD OF THAT SHIT TO ANYONE,” she wrote, according to Daulerio.

But Daulerio didn’t give up — as he told me, he “needed to force her hand on this” — and sent her the following e-mail last week:

“Okay, here’s the deal:

“I’m very close to running your Favre allegations today. I’ve spoken to the Jets about this. So let me know how you want to proceed, please. I’d prefer you were on the record about this stuff, but I understand if you don’t want to be. However, I do have our email conservations we had and, frankly, that’s enough to get this started. Not trying to dick you over, but, there was no way I was going to sit on it forever, either.

“So lemme know.”

Daulerio says the woman responded with the following e-mail that noted her BlackBerry was not working: “I can … as soon as I get this thing back and running ..or you could meet me in person on my way to studio in a few hours.”

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That was the last Daulerio heard from her and, in his view, that was enough to proceed with the story. “Our rules are a little bit different,” Daulerio told me. “My rules are a little bit different. But I think this is a good story.”

CLARIFICATION: The language in this story has been changed to clarify that the woman in question was not a journalist — she was a “game day host” who worked for the Jets. The original story noted that she worked for the Jets, but it also called her a “sidelines reporter.”

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