In the past 24 hours, two different men have been hired to coach the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to contradictory media reports based on unidentified “sources.â€ At 2 p.m. Saturday, Michael Silver of Sports Illustrated posted a story on the magazine’s website reporting that Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin had been chosen as the Steelers’ new head coach, and that an official announcement would come “in the next two days.â€ Silver cited a “source familiar with the coaching searchâ€ as the basis for this report.Two hours later, Chris Mortensen of ESPN reported that he’d spoken to Tomlin, who denied being offered the job. But a few hours after that, Mortensen amended his report to say that he’d “confirmedâ€ Tomlin’s hiring, although no source for that confirmation was identified.
The plot thickened late last night when the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, citing a “source in Pittsburghâ€â€”I don’t know if they mean the Steelers or the city itselfâ€”said that Russ Grimm, the Steelers’ current assistant head coach, had been offered and accepted the head coach’s position. The story also cited an “NFL sourceâ€ who backed up Tomlin’s earlier on-the-record denial to ESPN.
This morning, the Steelers issued a statement saying that the team had not “concluded a contract with a new head coach, nor do we expect to do so today.â€ On ESPN television, Mortensen stuck by his Tomlin hiring story, which was challenged by fellow NFL writer John Clayton, who believed the Steelers’ statement. And within the past hour, Sports Illustrated has started to back off Michael Silver’s story, though there has been no outright retraction.
We’ll know soon enough which story was right. But this is a useful case study in how the media’s often-exclusive reliance on unidentified sources can mislead consumers. Since Watergate, it has been considered an absolute virtue in the professional media to conceal one’s sources from the public and construct entire stories without any attribution. If it brought down a president, it must be good journalism, the media elite maintains.
Yet it’s rarely acknowledged that unidentified sources deprive readers of the ability to assess a source and story’s credibility. The media’s rebuttal is that readers simply have to trust the writer and the news organization, and that a reputation for trustworthiness makes up for the day-to-day deception of concealing sources.
In most professions, such deception is a vice. Academics who don’t properly cite sources in their writings are subject to criticism by journal editors. Businesses that conceal product information are subject to regulation and, in many cases, civil and criminal liability. Indeed, while the media invokes the First Amendment to protect its right to deceive the public, the segregation of “commercialâ€ and “non-commercialâ€ speech by the courts has made deception an absolute vice when practiced by anyone but the state or its approved courtiers in the media.
For example, the FTC regularly prosecutes companies for making “deceptiveâ€ claims about their products. The FTC need not prove fraud. It’s not even necessary to prove there were any victims of the deception. Instead, the FTC need only establish a claim has the potential to mislead consumers, and consequently, future speech is restrained unless the company can demonstrate the truthfulness of its claims. The truth, of course, means whatever the FTC or another government agency says it is. If the FTC says a claim requires “scientificâ€ evidence, it means “science as defined by the Food and Drug Administration.â€ In this manner, regulation forces all speech to exist through state filters.
If the media were held to the same standards as “commercialâ€ speakers, every instance of anonymous-source reporting would create a cause of action where any reader could receive damages based on “deception.â€ It would make all reporting illegal except for those statements approved by state agencies.
What’s interesting is that few media members understand the contradiction. The same writers who praise their colleagues for going to jail to protect sources will scream for more and more regulation of “commercialâ€ speakers in the name of protecting the public from deception. It shows just how close the mainstream media’s ethics coincides with the state’s.