I noted earlier this week that after Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in an epic match at Wimbledon, Los Angeles Times columnist Kurt Streeter wrote a column in which he mentioned Nadal as an athlete who will have to face scrutiny in this era of constant skepticism about performance-enhancing drugs.
The basic thrust of Streeter's column -- that we live in an era in which doubt about performance-enhancing drugs pervades sport -- is correct. But the way Streeter brought Nadal's name into the story was unfair.
The portion of Streeter's column that dealt with Nadal said this:
When the match was over, I spoke to my friend Tom, a tennis fanatic if ever one lived.I believe Streeter was wrong to write that, and the Los Angeles Times was wrong to print it.
I wanted to talk about the pressure, the tension, the glory of one of the greatest sporting events in history.
But the first thing that came out of Tom's mouth was a mention of doping. The winner, he claimed, didn't lift that golden crown naturally.
Come now. I reminded Tom that Nadal is, by all accounts, a wonderful, humble person, a credit to athletes because of his sportsmanship, skill and drive. Doping? Not a chance. Then I remembered the television broadcast and John McEnroe noting that after all that high-velocity drama, all those side-to-side scrambles and bludgeoned forehands, both players looked in the fifth set almost exactly as they did on the first point. I love tennis, love what unfolded Sunday, but doubt crept up about both of the finalists, I admit. How depressing.
How would you feel if you were Nadal and you learned that "Tom" -- whose last name and qualifications for commenting about tennis are known only to Streeter -- had been cited in the Los Angeles Times as a person who thinks you might be doing something that is against the law and against the rules of your sport? The Los Angeles Times requires the full name of a writer before it will print a letter to the editor on any issue. Why didn't it require Tom's full name before it would print his suspicions about Nadal?
I e-mailed Streeter to ask him for more information about Tom, and to ask him whether it was appropriate to cite Tom's opinion without giving his full name and explaining what qualified him to make such comments. This was Streeter's reply:
sorry, tom's last name will not be published. but he knows his stuff, i will tell you that. his opinion is something i've heard quite often in tennis circles, by the way, and this fact underscores the point of my piece: everyone is subject to skepticism these days, particularly those who put in spectacular performances. sad for fans, and for the performers.Streeter and I have a fundamental disagreement there. I understand the difference between straight news articles and columns, having written plenty of both, but in my view the reporting standards should be the same whether writing as an objective journalist or expressing an opinion.
i'm a columnist. rules that apply for a regular reporter regarding attribution do not apply to someone in my position...same for all columnists...just a little media literacy for ya.
The Los Angeles Times' code of ethics says that anonymous sources should be used only as a "last resort" to convey important information that cannot be delivered by other means. As I read it, Streeter violated the Times' code of ethics. No "information" is being conveyed by Tom in Streeter's column. Tom is only conveying opinion, and Streeter gives us no reason to believe that the opinions of Tom have any merit -- except that Tom watches a lot of tennis.
I have lots of friends who watch lots of sports, and I wouldn't write a column in which I suggested an athlete was using steroids just because one of those friends told me he suspected it. And if the opinion that Nadal might be doping is, as Streeter told me, "heard quite often in tennis circles," that's all the more reason that Streeter should have found someone to quote who would say so on the record, and not just attribute it to his friend.
Kent Zelas, the assistant readers' representative for the Los Angeles Times, confirmed for me that the standards of attribution at the paper are the same for both reporters and columnists, which seems to contradict what Streeter told me. But Zelas also said that Times sports editor Randy Harvey allowed Streeter to cite Tom because Harvey did not view Tom as a news source.
But if Streeter is going to cite something Tom told him in a column, then isn't Tom, by definition, a news source?
What Streeter's use of Tom in this column really shows is that 10 years after the summer of 1998, when the sports media looked the other way while steroids fueled the rewriting of the baseball record book, the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that columnists now think it's their responsibility to cast the steroid suspicion upon every single successful athlete.
Streeter's friend said he suspected Nadal of using steroids, and Streeter felt it was appropriate to pass that suspicion along, without putting a full name behind the suspicion, and without doing the diligence of providing the answers to relevant questions like whether Nadal ever failed a drug test, or whether Nadal has any trainers who have been tied to steroids.
If Streeter writes a column in which he addresses those questions, I'd like to read it. But I hope I've read the last column centering on Tom's hunch that Nadal might have juiced.