By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; C01
I didn't get into journalism to write about Brett Favre's private parts, and I suspect most of my colleagues would like that story ruled out of bounds.
But our ability to spike such tawdry tales ended many seasons ago. The story of whether Favre sent racy messages and pictures of what family newspapers call genitalia to a female New York Jets staffer started on the snarky sports blog Deadspin, and was soon propelled to the 50-yard line of MSM Stadium. If the sexting allegations against the veteran quarterback are true, Deadspin may have performed an admittedly distasteful public service.
Amid a deluge of angry e-mails, one reader wrote: "I used to visit your site for sports but now consider it to be on par with the National Enquirer." But it was the Enquirer that broke the Tiger Woods scandal, which involved a lot more than phone flirting and has mired the golfer's career in a sand trap.
In an era when sports figures from Kobe Bryant to Rick Pitino have had to own up to extramarital activities, private behavior has increasingly come under the media microscope. Many people feel it's none of our business, and perhaps they're right that off-the-court misbehavior is overly magnified in this TMZ era. But when charges are hurled and investigations launched, the situation becomes impossible to ignore -- as happened with Woods, and Ben Roethlisberger, and now Favre.
Deadspin went with the initial allegations involving Jenn Sterger -- who became an in-house sideline reporter for the Jets in 2008 after doing photo shoots for Playboy and Maxim -- without solid evidence. No mainstream news organization would have done that. Deadspin Editor A.J. Daulerio wrote in August that he had tried to get Sterger to go public with what she had told him privately. Sterger never quite agreed to that, although she did tell Daulerio in an e-mail that "if there is a way to expose this dude for the creepy [jerk] he is WITHOUT me being attached to it in any way that is fine." But he decided to attach her to it anyway, as well as publish their private correspondence, and that feels like a betrayal.
Daulerio says in an interview that he was "very transparent" about what happened with Sterger: "She was 100 percent on board about exposing Brett Favre in this way. She didn't want her name attached because she feared the backlash." Still, he admits he was unfair to Sterger.
The story didn't get much pickup outside the Web, and properly so. There was little to back it up. That changed on Oct. 7, when Deadspin obtained the alleged voice mails and texts sent by Favre, who was the Jets' quarterback at the time and now plays for the Minnesota Vikings.
Even in publishing what it called the "penis photos" (the headline used a much cruder term), Deadspin acknowledged that "yes, there's a possibility that the person communicating with Jenn was not actually Brett Favre, but rather someone trying very hard to appear to be him." In other words, Deadspin ran a story that might be untrue.
"There was no real hesitation about pulling the trigger, but I knew there was a remote, remote possibility this was orchestrated by someone impersonating Brett Favre," Daulerio says. Asked about criticism of his methods, he tells detractors to perform an anatomically impossible act, adding: "Some people just want to be scolds and tell us how we did the story wrong and violated journalistic ethics. But they don't feel too bad about talking about it now."
Yet it doesn't take an ivory-tower scold to object to Deadspin's checkbook journalism. Daulerio acknowledges that the site paid a third party a significant sum for the texts and pictures, more money than on the previous two occasions when he paid for stories.
"It's obviously been a worthwhile investment," Daulerio says. He sounds less than comfortable, though, conceding that "it's kind of shady. But I was very, very eager to get this story."
Little wonder, then, that Deadspin has been getting such e-mails as "i have 2 topless pictures of katie perry. . . . i am trying to sell them."
It took one day for the Favre allegation to land on the New York Post's front page. The New York Times went with it the day after that, tied to the National Football League opening an inquiry into the matter. That also put it in the ESPN zone. By Oct. 10 and 11, the story had hit all the network morning shows. USA Today backed in by reporting that "TV networks partnered with the NFL" had pounced on the controversy.
The Washington Post first took note of the Favre fiasco last Tuesday with an Associated Press wire on Page D3, reporting that he had apologized to the Vikings for causing a distraction (Favre has yet to comment directly on the matter). On Wednesday, Post columnist Michael Wilbon weighed in, saying he cared about the story only if it involved sexual harassment.
"If there were no Internet, we never would've known about it," says Christine Brennan, a USA Today sports columnist. "No newspaper, no network would have reported it. The non-traditional media are now driving these stories."
At the same time, she cautions, "we don't know how Deadspin got the information. We don't know if it is Brett Favre. And yet we've been going full throttle, not knowing exactly what we're talking about. It's very unsettling."
It is also the biggest scoop in the five-year history of Deadspin, now owned by Gawker. The blog is provocative, funny and sometimes sophomoric, featuring such items as "Do the Baltimore Ravens Hate Lesbians?" and "Byron Scott's Swastika Tie Becomes Latest Slap in the Face to Cleveland Fans."
Gawker founder Nick Denton has taunted critics of the Favre piece, tweeting that his ethics policy was "to publish the real story, the one that so-called sports journalists have spent their careers avoiding."
Sure, some sportswriters might be a bit too cozy with the athletes they cover, but there's also the question of proving the rumors that inevitably surface about stars behaving badly.
The danger, as sleazy stories ooze from the depths of the Web, is that traditional news outlets will find themselves spreading unsubstantiated garbage. But in a growing number of cases -- the Enquirer's John Edwards takedown comes to mind -- the allegations unearthed by tabloids and blogs turn out to be true. While it's clearly troubling for a publication to fork over cash for trash, the condescending media elite are often forced to play catch-up.
In the end, I don't want the New York Times devoting its resources to quarterback sexting. The paper, and others like it, should investigate campaign finance abuses, dig into city contracting, cover the war in Afghanistan -- all the heavy lifting that need not concern the Deadspins of the world. But a professional athlete hitting on a team employee is also news, regardless of who breaks it, and those of us in the so-called respectable press had better get used to it.Correction of the year
"This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men." -- Amanda Hess, TBD.com.Parting words
After 29 years, I am leaving The Post to become Washington bureau chief of the Daily Beast Web site. This does not mean, as some overheated media speculation has it, that I have soured on the future of newspapers -- far from it. They will continue to play a vital role, even as the digital world, still in its adolescence, generates more excitement and more quality reporting and writing.
I confess that I enjoyed David Carr's New York Times line about my job switch prompting the most gasps since Dylan went electric in 1965. But that ain't me, babe. While I would not have made such a leap even two years ago, it is an evolutionary move, not a revolutionary one, as we all grasp for ways to sustain and reinvent journalism.
I want to thank everyone who has followed me in these pages, or online, over the years. I've always felt a special connection to Washington Post readers, a real sense of dialogue, especially in the era of e-mail and Web chats. I am excited about my new challenge, but I leave a part of me behind.
Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."