This post has been updated to take into account the fact that the information the Times presented was factually correct.
There are times when relying on anonymous sources is fruitful — as the recent Deep Throat unmasking reminded us — and other times when the end result is less satisfying, as yesterday’s jailing of Judith Miller has shown.
Aside from such high-profile cases, the fact is, as anyone in the trade knows, journalists use anonymous sources every day. More times than not, the information they provide is on the up-and-up, but there are also times when an anonymous source totally burns a reporter. That happened this morning with the Los Angeles Times. While it was no Watergate, for a vocal — yet important — minority of Americans, the piece was a shocker. The minority to which we refer, is, of course, is the oft-overlooked nation of … hockey fans.
The Times’ blockbuster: Unnamed sources claimed that the year-long labor dispute between NHL players and owners, which led to the cancellation of last season, was about to end.
The paper reported in its headline, “NHL on Its Way Back,” making, no doubt, dozens of hearts beat just a little faster. The piece relied on “sources familiar with the labor negotiations,” who claimed that the players association and the league had reached an agreement in principle, and that the agreement would be presented to the league on Monday and its board of governors for final ratification later next week.
Sadly, we soon found out that just about everything in the Times piece was untrue. Some journalists at the Associated Press decided to make some calls of their own, and discovered that not only did the league deny everything in the story, but the players association did as well. Turns out, there isn’t even a board of governors meeting scheduled next week, as the Times claimed, much less meeting to vote on a deal. Yet, as of late this afternoon, the Times had yet to publish a retraction on its Web page, although it did post the AP story — while still leaving its original story up.
Ouch. It’s too bad the Times didn’t put a little more work into checking out the claims its source (or sources) made. That would have saved many a hockey fan a little frustration. But more importantly, it would, you know, have made for some better journalism.
Editor’s Note: Paul McLeary has been walking around the office all day long in a ratty Buffalo Sabres t-shirt.
Correction, 7/15: It turns out that the Times’ anonymous source was largely correct. As a result, the Times piece stands up, while the AP reports which relied on the “official word” of league spokespeople calling the Times piece into question were the ones who got it wrong.Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.