A Polite Response: What of Those Dwight Howard Sources?

Ethan Sherwood StraussNBA Lead WriterMarch 16, 2012

ORLANDO, FL - FEBRUARY 24:  A detail of an adidas banner advertisement featuring Dwight Howard #12 of the Orlando Magic hung on the exterior during the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge part of the 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend at Amway Center on February 24, 2012 in Orlando, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The smoke has cleared, and we have a Dwight Howard outcome that is at odds with the scenario "sources" envisioned.

In part because these sources had Howard going to the Nets, Dwight is denigrated as a "flip-flopper," despite having never publicly pledged his services to New Jersey. He was certainly back-and forth on the matter, by his own admission.

He also requested a trade, by his own admission.

But prior reports did not allow Howard room to ruminate on options. Certain "sources" were damned certain of one end game (the Nets) and one end game only. In the aftermath, Howard takes heat for going back on his breathlessly reported "true" intentions, though Dwight himself never publicly espoused them.  

I am not so idealistic as to envision a world free of anonymous attribution. Anonymity also often gets us closer to what the principles are truly thinking in a secrecy-replete sports sphere. 

Still, the NBA reporting game has become so rife with public secrets as to appear farcical at times. It has become common practice for basketball journos to tweet anonymously-sourced confirmations of their colleagues' anonymously-sourced confirmations (As in: "Source confirms Reporter X's story").

I'm also reminded of Jason Whitlock and Adrian Wojnarowski, battling over what invisible people told their respective laptops

Speaking of Adrian Wojnarowski, let me review his March 13th piece, titled, "Dwight Howard: He's determined to leave the Magic for the Nets, either now or later." I'm doing so while noting that Adrian is as plugged-in a reporter as there is, that I could never do what he does, and that people in his line of work are subject to a unique set of pressures. I also enjoy his writing, but that is immaterial to this conversation. 


Anyway, the piece starts off quite confident of the Magic center's secret intentions:

"For everything Dwight Howard has told the Orlando Magic management about bringing him a stronger supporting cast, about the possibility that he could still sign an extension, it has turned into a complete ruse – a misdirection play on his eventual signing with the Brooklyn-bound New Jersey Nets, league sources told Yahoo! Sports."

It continues with psychological reasons for Dwight's particular brand of power play, followed by another cocksure source: 

"With the combination of Howard’s disdain for confrontation, desire to be liked and a pragmatic belief that a trade is no longer in his best long-term interests, Howard has created an illusion with the Magic that there are factors that could cause him to sign an extension with the team.

'Dwight’s gone, and [Magic CEO] Alex Martins is the only person who doesn’t believe that,' a league source with knowledge of Howard’s intentions told Yahoo! Sports."

Well then, credit to Alex Martins for keeping the faith I suppose. History went a different direction from the sources, as it did when LeBron chose Miami. Dwight's final choice was revealed when Jarrod Rudolph of Real GM actually got Howard on the record.

Woj breaks a lot of stories and nobody's perfect. It's also possible that Howard gave every behind-the-scenes indication of a different route. But I find it discomfiting that Wojnarowski: A) did not acknowledge that his sources had perhaps faltered, B) did not apologize for the hasty prediction and C) continued to give us anonymous, pejorative tidbits about Dwight's mental state. From his column titled, "Dwight Howard staying with Magic"

“Dwight doesn’t want to be the bad guy,” one source involved in the process said of Howard’s past 24 hours. “He doesn’t want to be unpopular. He flaked out.

Did Howard "flake out" or did these sources ultimately prove flaky? It does not bother me that this anonymous information occasionally misses; it bothers me that there is no social memory when this happens.

Writers rarely apologize for false predictions, perhaps because other writers won't dare call them out. Many sports journos, especially those in my bloggy lot, wish to become among the sourced, which leads them to fear burning bridges in a highly competitive profession. This can lead to a certain apathy or denialism on the topic.

I think that astute Upton Sinclair quote is applicable, here: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

But without this check on the system, without a culture of criticism, "sources" can say and do as they please. 

There is a moral hazard here.

Journalists grab page views with juicy ghost quotes, but lose no cred from being wrong. When the latter happens, it's as though it never happened. It's a system that urges one to sacrifice the truth for entertainment.

I'm certainly not accusing Wojnarowski, or anyone else for that matter.

I'm just saying there is little to compel writers against going the Jayson Blair route. The permissive attitude on sourcing makes, "Both teams are in trade talks," the safest lie in all of journalism. Seriously, what's the downside? "Losing credibility" is a false trope, because the real credibility is the ability to get readership.

Perhaps you don't care if sports writing is accurate so long as it entertains (And yes, I am aware that B/R has had issues in this department). I certainly understand that take, but can we at least consider ditching anonymously-sourced insults, per ethical concerns? I've cited the Dwight slights, but here's another example.

Ken Berger (who, it should be noted, is also a fine reporter and writer) wrote an infamous story on Lakers dysfunction.

The piece mocked a scout by the name of Charles Osborne ("Chaz") amid various jabs at LA's current operation. Berger's anonymous source sarcastically praised Osbourne as a "Great bartender," indicating that "Chaz" doesn't exactly deserve his job. This was an insult to which Osbourne can peg no name, which is flat out wrong in my estimation. A person should at least know who the hell's insulting him in a public venue.

Journalists should grant secrecy per important information, not the petty diss. This brand of anonymity frees people to cowardly rip enemies while shrouded, and permits no direct recourse from the ripped. 

So, this is merely an observation, followed by a request for some industry standards. I would love to simply ignore this enormous aspect of basketball journalism, it would be fantastic for my career to simply shrug at it. But the anonymity problem is one that keeps shouting at me.