How well did just-fired Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan perform his duties? It depends on the source.
As Post sports writers Mike Jones and Liz Clarke explained in a Wednesday piece predicting McCloughan’s then-imminent firing: “It was widely known around the league that McCloughan had never stopped drinking even after joining the Redskins. However, several peers, when asked, all agreed they didn’t believe McCloughan’s drinking ever hindered his job.”
On Thursday evening, The Post reported on McCloughan’s firing and included part of Redskins President Bruce Allen’s statement on the situation. In the next paragraph, The Post cited input from someone who cared not to place a name behind the following allegations. Again, consider the source:
An official with direct knowledge of the situation attributed the decision to McCloughan’s ongoing problems with alcohol, which also led to his firing from front-office positions with the San Francisco 49ers in 2010 and Seattle Seahawks in 2014.“He’s had multiple relapses due to alcohol,” said the official, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on personnel matters. “He showed up in the locker room drunk on multiple occasions. … This has been a disaster for 18 months.”
More unnamed slams followed later in the piece: “He’s been drunk at work,” the team official said. “He’s been drunk at games.”
As this blog has reported, mainstream media organizations have promulgated internal guidance discouraging the use of unnamed sources to criticize people. “We should not publish ad hominem quotations from unnamed sources,” reads The Post’s version. “Sources who want to take a shot at someone in our columns should do so in their own names.” BuzzFeed: “Avoid using anonymous sources for negative quotes.” NPR: “No attacks. In our coverage, anonymous or unnamed sources generally cannot make pejorative comments about the character, reputation, or personal qualities of another individual, or derogatory statements about an institution.”
Why did The Post indulge an anonymous Redskins official to riff about the alleged alcohol-fueled misdeeds of the team’s general manager? Matt Vita, the newspaper’s sports editor, told the Erik Wemple Blog, “We gave those quotes very careful consideration and I am confident that they reflect the point of view of the Redskins team leadership.”
This blog, too, is confident that the quotes reflect the point of view of the Redskins team leadership. That’s the problem here.
As Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky points out: “Would anyone put it past [Redskins owner Daniel] Snyder to put this stuff out there just to make it easier to justify firing him for cause, and escape the remaining two years on McCloughan’s contract?”
The other problem with this use of anonymity is its lack of rigor. At their very best, anonymous sources are marshaled to substantiate specific events and circumstances — such as The Post’s use of nine anonymous sources to bolster a news-breaking story about another prominent, fired Washington figure. In the case of McCloughan, The Post cited one anonymous source to allege, in effect, that a team official went about his duties in an alcoholic haze.
What does McCloughan say about those anonymous quotes? Did The Post ensure that the former GM knew what was coming? “I’m confident that Scot was aware of that,” said Vita. “We’ve been trying for several days if not weeks to talk to Scot. Multiple reporters have made overtures.”
To its credit, The Post was careful to document the counter-story: “Of a half-dozen Redskins players reached Thursday afternoon, none said they had ever seen McCloughan drink in the locker room. All but one said they never saw him act as if he weren’t composed and in control. They added that they never felt he wasn’t able to do his job, and they seemed surprised the question was being raised.” Also receiving emphasis was the “strained relationship between Allen and McCloughan that grew more pronounced as the season unfolded, highlighted by disagreements on personnel decisions, what appeared to be professional jealousy and at least one profane rebuke.”
That’s important context for anyone wishing to evaluate the provenance of the anonymous criticisms.
Paul Woody of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who has been covering sports for decades, used his own experience on the beat to tilt at the issue: “Given Scot McCloughan’s history, you wondered,” wrote Woody. “When he arrived at training camp practices, his face red, and not the kind of red that occurs from being in the sun too long, you wondered. When you talked to him coming off the field after a summer practice and got a whiff of what smelled like alcohol on his breath, you wondered.”
We asked Vita whether his sports reporters could have provided a similar account. He declined to comment on that matter.
Somewhere in the corridors of Redskins Park lies the truth about McCloughan’s tenure with the team. Somehow, we just don’t trust an unnamed Redskins official to elucidate it. We do, however, trust an unnamed Redskins official to be mean and reprehensible. Let that official use Snyder’s own media platforms for that stuff.