Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Washington Post Sports Watch: Why the Post's coverage of the Caps Isn't Comprehensive

On Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of a Twitter discussion/argument about the Washington Post's coverage of the Washington Capitals, Neil Greenberg of the Post tweeted this:
I don't get the obsession with the term "columnist." WaPo provdies comprehensive Caps coverage. Full stop.
I don't think Greenberg is correct about that. Does the Washington Post provide the closest to "comprehensive" Caps coverage of any mainstream media organzation in the DC area? Yes, no question. But do they actually provide "comprehensive Caps coverage"? No, I don't think they do--and that has a lot to do with the term that Greenberg mentions,  the word "columnist."

The foundation of a newspaper's coverage of a team is the beat writer, who covers games, practices and everything else happening on a day-to-day basis with the team. Katie Carrera does a fine job with this, and especially in the last few weeks has been writing some really strong articles analyzing the Caps' problems--this one from Friday which deals with the team's lack of defensive depth and failure to find chemistry among the forwards was a particularly good one.

Greenberg's specialty is advanced statistical analysis, and once (sometimes twice) a week he posts on the Capitals Insider blog a piece in which he uses "fancy stats" to explore some aspect of the team. His piece, for example, on Monday, built on Carrera's piece from last week in analyzing the team's possible top-two line combinations. His sobering conclusion is that the Caps don't really have the players to create two effective scoring lines--noting along the way that some combinations don't play well together, one combination that is fairly effective Coach Adam Oates dislikes because it causes Eric Fehr to play on the "wrong" wing for a right-hander, and another that seems unlikely because it involves Martin Erat--who has asked for a trade.

This was good stuff, very good reporting and analysis of the Caps. But the final piece of what I'd call "comprehensive coverage" of the Caps is missing. That's a strong columnist that can take what we've learned from the beat reporting and analysis and goes further and deeper than a beat writer and statistical analyst can--taking a stand, expressing an opinion, asking questions in print and of team players and management, giving readers, hopefully, a perspective through which to see these developments. A good columnist looks at the Carrera and Greenberg pieces and says, "So how is it that the Caps are 50 games into the season and can't even put two good forward lines together? Is this because the players aren't playing well? Is it because Adam Oates is making weird lineup decisions based too much on what hand a player shoots with? Or is it because General Manager George McPhee hasn't put together a lineup with the right parts to fit together--or even worse, just doesn't have enough good forwards on the team who can score goals besides Alex Ovechkin?"

But the Washington Post, while having five columnists (Boswell, Wise, Feinstein, Reid and Jenkins), almost never provides this last piece of comprehensive coverage when it comes to the Caps. Besides the top-two line issue, the last couple months have seen three Caps ask for trades, the prospect the Caps traded for Martin Erat get named MVP of the World Junior Championships, an awkward goaltending situation which seems to have affected Braden Holtby's confidence, and a continued mess on defense. And no columnist has asked any questions or gone in depth on any of those subjects. Those same columnists cover such subjects and ask those questions when it comes to the Redskins, or the Nats, or, to a lesser extent, the Wizards. And they make news--a column by any of those columnists taking a strong stand or finding a new perspective to view developments around those teams can often set the agenda--it is featured prominently on the Post website and talked about on sports radio, Twitter and in offices around the area all day. Not only that, but columnist can provide external pressure on the team--in addition to the much bigger metrics of ticket sales, fan satisfaction, and embarrassment over not winning, having the most important sports outlet in town offering informed, passionate criticism of a floundering team (in other words, putting team management or players on the "hot seat") plays a role--even if a small one--in encouraging change when it might  be warranted.  But when it comes to the Caps, those columnists just don't seem to be interested in doing any of this on any regular basis. That is why when it comes to the Caps, it's just not correct to say they get comprehensive coverage from the Post--they get something less.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Washington Post Sports Watch: Analyzing Sally Jenkins' Lazy, Inaccurate, Unfair RGIII Column

Just like Sally Jenkins does in her columns, I won't beat around the bush: Her column today on RGIII's alleged selfishness and entitlement is awful. It's not awful because of her opinion that Griffin's attitude is a major problem for the Redskins --she's free to hold that opinion and she may even be correct. No, her column is awful because it is so lazily written that most of the facts she uses to make her argument are either questionably sourced, inaccurate or out of context.

Jenkins starts off her column with some previously unreported information: according to people she describes only as "insiders," she writes that
"Griffin’s public campaign to have the offense altered for him was just the tip of his egotism in his second year. Behind closed doors, Griffin had fierce finger-pointing tensions with his wide receivers, and he bragged to teammates that he could procure favors from the owner and influence the franchise’s direction." 
These are pretty explosive charges that haven't, to my knowledge, been reported elsewhere, but these charges lack pretty much any context. For instance, since Jenkins didn't hear Griffin bragging about his relationship with Snyder, is she sure that he wasn't making a joke that was misunderstood by whoever reported it to her? And Tom Brady yells at his receivers, too--during the game! (Here and here.) Is he entitled and spoiled, too?

More importantly, the sourcing for these claims is the completely undescriptive "insiders." Who are these "insiders"? Are they other players? Perhaps, but probably not--if they were, a good reporter would probably try to mention that and get her source to agree to such identification because it would add credibility to the report. Are these "insiders" just people who work at Redskins Park and have heard stories about what goes on in closed meetings? If so, then they've likely heard these stories second-hand and not necessarily reliable. That leads most readers to believe that these "insiders" are former coaches, probably with the name Shanahan--which doesn't mean the reports are wrong, but considering the Shanahans have a huge axe to grind with Griffin, the charges warrant a solid dose of skepticism from the reader. And yet, Jenkins gives whoever these "insiders" are a cloak of anonymity to hide behind as they make personal attacks on Griffin. Post executive editor Martin Baron was quoted in the Post just a couple weeks ago saying that "reporters are encouraged to negotiate to identify people as much as possible and to provide honest reasons for their anonymity." Where was that here? There were no "honest reasons" for the anonymity of Jenkins' insiders provided whatsoever, and she was reporting about the locker room on a football team. This wasn't Dana Priest talking to whistleblowers about CIA black sites and waterboarding.

But after that weak sourcing, the column just gets worse. As more evidence of how much Griffin is disliked by his teammates, she notes that his linemen weren't helping him up after sacks, even though Chris Chase at USA Today thoroughly debunked that talking point weeks ago by showing that NFL quarterbacks are rarely helped up by their linemen. (His random sample found it happens 5 percent of the time. Does Jenkins get the Internet up in New York where she lives?) Then Jenkins notes Pierre Garcon's "barely contained anger," and links to a story in which Garcon is quoted as saying:

“I guess we’ve got to make mid-game adjustments,” Garcon said. “That’s the thing that we need. It sucks. We’re 2-5 and defenses are changing and I guess we’re not changing, we’re not doing something, we’re not communicating and doing what we need to be doing.”
That doesn't sound like Garcon is mad at Griffin, that sounds unmistakably like Garcon is blaming the coaching staff for not being able to counter what the defense is doing.

After that, Jenkins links to Santana Moss' "remarkable public lecture that Griffin needed to quit blaming others and take responsibility for his own failures." Calling Moss' comments "remarkable" is overdoing it, but I suppose she's correctly describing Moss' quotes. Still, Moss' "lecture about standing up and saying "me or I" was a little odd at the time, since it was a response to Griffin's explanation of an interception at the end of the Eagles game in which the quarterback did say, after noting that no receivers were open, that "I was trying to throw the ball to the back of the end zone. It didn't get to where I wanted it to go." That's not the most abject taking of responsibility I've ever read, but he's using the word "I" and taking blame.

Jenkins goes on to wonder why any coach would come to the Redskins when they can be "trumped on any decision, from play-calling to personnel, by a third-year QB?" Ah, play-calling. Finally, Jenkins gets to something where there are actually facts undergirding her criticism--there's no question that Griffin, and his father, have complained about too many read-option plays being called for Griffin and their desire for RGIII to be a drop-back quarterback. In fact, if she wanted to base the whole column on this issue, she'd be OK. But, of course, Jenkins then sullies this breakthrough by adding "personnel," apparently charging that Griffin has some say-so over the roster or the lineup--which I'm not aware of ever hearing. Furthermore, if Griffin has such unlimited influence with the Redskins, as Jenkins seems to think, why was he unable to stop being benched for the final three games of the season?

Remarkably, Jenkins then writes that "not every story about [Griffin's] ego is true," even though she's just spent her entire column telling exaggerated, not really accurate stories about his ego. And to top it off, she claims that "reports are that the Redskins are indeed pursuing Griffin's college coach, Art Briles." That's despite the fact that Briles has publicly denied he has had any contact with the Redskins or has any interest in leaving Baylor, and the only report since Briles made those statements about the Redskins and Briles comes from Jason LaCanfora on Sunday, who reported in a tweet that he continued to hear the Redskins had interest in Briles. Strangely, in his CBS Sports story, La Canfora says something significantly different, that "many believe" the Redskins "could still explore" Briles. Whichever you believe, it's hardly evidence that the Redskins "are indeed pursuing...Briles," as Jenkins lazily writes. (I'm presuming that Jenkins hasn't done reporting of her own to confirm that "fact," and since she references no "insiders," I think the answer is no.)

Sally Jenkins is an award-winning reporter and columnist. But just because she has an opinion doesn't mean she's allowed to stretch the facts and level anonymous, unsubstantiated personal attacks just to prove her point. She should be embarrassed by this column, and so should the sports editors of the Washington Post. Are there any standards for a sports columnist at the paper? And if so, were they followed in this case? I think Post readers would like to know.