By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Deconstructing Tomase’s deconstruction

There has been, as some media observers have noted, a question as to why the Boston Herald’s apology on Wednesday referred to John Tomase’s “sources” when his original story referred only to a “source.” Today Tomase puts that to rest. In fact, he had no sources, if by “source” you mean someone who gives you information that you can use in a story.

Look, the Herald has apologized. Editor Kevin Convey has offered a personal mea culpa. And Tomase himself writes, “Turns out I could not have been more wrong. I regret it, and that’s something I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life.” So there’s no need to unload on the guy. He says he’s going to keep covering the Patriots. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

Still, there are a few things in Tomase’s piece that are worth highlighting and questioning.

1. What stopped Tomase from tracking down a first-hand source? Tomase says he wishes he hadn’t relied on anonymous sources for such an important story. But the anonymity isn’t as troubling as his admission that he didn’t talk with a single source who had direct knowledge of the Patriots’ videotaping the Ram’s walk-through before the 2002 Super Bowl. This section screams out:

One that I trust said he had been told the walkthrough was taped. A second said he had been told the same thing, but neither had seen a tape.

So Tomase talked with two sources who said they were “told” about the incident. Well, who told them? Wouldn’t they have been the keys to the story? He says he was under some competitive pressure from the New York Times, but shouldn’t he have kept trying to get an eyewitness account — especially when his sources were suggesting that they had heard such an account?

2. No, Tomase shouldn’t violate his promise of confidentiality. A few critics, including me, have suggested that Tomase and the Herald should consider outing Tomase’s source if they conclude that the source had deliberately fed him misinformation. Tomase turns that self-righteously on its head, writing:

There has been a clamoring for me to identify the sources used in my story. This I cannot do. When a reporter promises anonymity, he can’t break that promise simply because he comes under fire. I gave my word, and the day I break that word is the day sources stop talking to me.

Given Tomase’s description of the way the story unfolded, then no, of course he shouldn’t reveal his sources, because they weren’t trying to set him up. They were passing along rumors that they apparently believed to be true — indeed, as I’ve already said, they weren’t even sources in the proper sense of the word. It was Tomase’s decision to type up those rumors before he had finished checking them out.

3. Where were the editors? Convey’s “Editor’s Note” is solid and unequivocal, but also detail-free. What if any role did he play before Tomase’s story was published? What about the sports editor, Hank Hryniewicz? Did they know how thin Tomase’s sourcing was? Did they think about hitting the brakes — or did they pour on the gasoline instead? And what steps have they taken to make sure a story this unsourced doesn’t make its way into print again?

Significantly, the Patriots saga is still playing out. Matt Walsh is flapping his gums, and Sen. Arlen Specter is flapping his arms. If Tomase is still the Patriots beat writer, how is he going to cover that?

A great journalist once told me, “Access is overrated.” I suspect that Tomase is going to be putting that maxim to the test.

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  1. mike_b1

    So as it turns out, the Herald ran what they knew would be a huge and controversial story based on ZERO evidence. The epitome of tabloid journalism. Based on Tomase’s explanation, I no longer think he was set up, or that he should out his sources. I now think he’s just a total idiot. And so are his editors.Think his j-school profs are ripping their hair out about now?

  2. Anonymous

    How can “sources” stop talking to you if they never really started? Tomase better have a deep voice, because they only place stupid enough to hire him is talk radio.

  3. jdj

    Tomase should take lessons from the Inside Track girls. They seem to have a better grasp regarding what qualifies as a “source” than he does.

  4. Paul@01852

    Three reasons Tomase cannot continue to cover the Pats:1. The “insufficient” sources that he did have will dry up. 2. Once his sources dry up he will only be able to write puff pieces and as one online comment on the Herald web site said we already have enough sports reporters in this town doing that.3. Assuming a source does talk to him with information worthy of a scoop who is going to believe him? His credibility is shot even if his scoop is accurate!

  5. Anonymous

    The comments here may be more polite and literate, but I am still saddened (and appalled) at the venom directed at Tomase. Just read the comments appended to his story at the Herald site. Reporters make mistakes. That’s why there are editors. He is not a blogger posting his opinions without review. And what’s with this malice? It’s just short of the reactions to Rushdie and the Danish cartoonists. From my point of view, the idiots are the sports fans. And there I agree with Tony M.

  6. Matthew

    Does anyone else think this sorry spectacle is a repeat of the Herald’s mistake a few years ago with the judge and the supposed ‘tell her to get over it’ comment to a 14-year-old rape victim? The judge never actually said that, of course, but it never stopped David Wedge from writing the story because someone else told him the judge said it. The editors blissfully snoozed through their jobs rather than ask the basic question: do we have proof that the newsworthy event actually happened?Same screw-up, different section of the paper. Tomase should have had iron-clad proof that the Pats did spy on other teams. Editors should have asked to see that proof. Reporting 101, at least when I was a cub reporter, was that you cannot rely on hearsay. If I’d ever pulled a stunt like Wedge or Tomase, I’d have been fired on the spot. As far as I’m concerned, everyone who touched this ridiculous taping story (and the old judge story) should be fired too. They’re not good reporters.

  7. Steve

    Why is there such a question about whether Tomase can cover the Patriots?I don’t see how he can credibly cover anything! He has revealed himself to be a gullible fool with no judgment. Why should anyone believe what he has to report on any topic whatsoever?

  8. Anonymous

    EB3 Here:I’m with you Dan. Time to lkay-off the guy. I’d trust him if i was a source. So I hope he gets new sources out of this.What stinks is that the Krafts now get play victim. Which is good because it is all about them.

  9. Peter Porcupine

    DK – as a football fan, I find this totally inadequate. Were his ‘sources’ some locker room pranksters? Players who TOLD him that they not only taped the walk-through, but could fly, too?No sourcee, no jobee. a head has to roll, so lets make it the stupid one.

  10. Ex-Reporter

    Calling the Patriots for comment at 9 the night before publication? It’s common for a paper to call at the last minute, sometimes because it took awhile to get the facts of a story but sometimes to give the subject no chance to try to derail the story or avoid looking like a fool. For the Herald especially, the latter is a tried and true tactic. The inevitable no comment leads to a second day story as the subject scrambles, giving a sometimes dubious story more (artificial) legs.Tomase has owned up to making several errors. But the pressure to rush to print is powerful, especially when a reporter thinks he is about to be scooped.All that being said, can we all move on?

  11. Not Whitey Bulger

    This idea that” he apologized, so you should leave him alone” has permeated the American spin cycle. He didn’t apologize until the very last, when he was put on the spot. He obviously knew his “sources” were bogus – they don’t rise to the level of legitimate sources to quote without identity. In REAL journalism, you are supposted to use unidentified sources to encourage others to go on the record with the same information. The entire American journalism establishment has given on that old-time standard – think Judith Miller. Next is the editor, who gives the classic “I take full responsibility, but I accept no pusishment” line. He should be a politicial – they do the same thing every day. Such is “responsibility” in our country today. I can only assume that Harry Truman is rolling over in his grave. Tomase had a rumor. He portrayed it as fact, based on our trust that his “sourcees” were legitimate. If he had told us what he now says he knew at the time, the story would have been understood as a rumor.Finally, a comment on the whole “sources” thing. Let’s be perfectly clear. This is not Woodward and Bernstein, not Watergate, and not Iran-Contra. This is entertainment reporting. This is the male version of What Britney Is Wearing Today, or What Paula Said To Simon. So please, spare us the sacred journalistic principles. When sports writers give us information from un-named sources, it’s usually someone with an axe to grind, and if we knew who it was, we wouldn’t trust them on the subject. By making the sources un-named, you just lead people further from the truth than ever. The problem here isn’t with Tomase, it’s with the editor who OK’d the story. That’s where the axe should fall. But then again, this is the Herald.

  12. Anonymous

    The tabloid imperative at the Herald comes from the very top. Ordinarily I’d join in the chorus of, “Where were the editors?” But this has the feel of something that was approved higher up. Of course, we’ll probably never know.

  13. Anonymous

    Dan,This incident reveals a long-standing misconception the public holds about newspapers. I’ve been out of journalism for a decade now, but when I worked for newspapers I came to realize that the public assumes there is a level of reporting going on that simply is not happening. Nor is it possible for it to happen.Readers see newspapers as powerful institutions with strong resources and high standards. But over the last few decades, as we all know, those resources have eroded. It was not uncommon for people to contact me as a journalist with a legitimate, important story that they wanted investigated. Usually it stemmed from some wrongdoing. Getting the facts would be time consuming and difficult. And if the story fell outside the protected realms of public forums, courthouses, etc. the process of nailing down details to libel-proof the story would be tedious.The people who brought me these stories were invariably stunned to learn that it was just me who would look into their story, with no budget, no resources and it would be done in addition to my regular workload. The degree to which newspapers have been hollowed out as institutions is evident every day. Typos and mistakes, sloppy practices, thin reportage, news releases sliding directly into print, more and more canned and cribbed stories, etc. This is the reality of newspapers today. Round after round of layoffs has wiped out generations of journalists. And younger and cheaper replacements are continuously recruited to keep the newshole filled.Meanwhile, as veterans slide away from the business, there are extremely few people left in newspapers who know how to nail down a legitimate investigative story any more. So young reporters are left with a dilemma. Either content themselves with simply trying to be the first to get the handouts from the official sources, or wing it on their own without anyone to tell them where they are going wrong.Sure, Tomase screwed up. But a guy that green and gullible should never even be in a position to screw up like this. Face it. The story isn’t how could someone make such a stupid mistake, it’s about how could anyone get a story so thin and poorly sourced into a major newspaper. And the answer to that isn’t a conspiracy. It’s the result of years of downsizing brought on by greed. Good luck solving that one. Fire Tomase, sure, if it makes people feel better. And then brace yourself for an even weaker reporter to fill his shoes.

  14. Anonymous

    Not to be thick or anything, but why didn’t tomase call walsh for a comment … ?

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