Inside Baseball: The Boston Red Sox and Sports Journalism

Political reporters use anonymous sources all the time for their stories, so why can't sports reporters do the same?

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Last week, the woeful tale of the implosion of the Boston Red Sox morphed into a larger story about sports journalism and the perils of beat reporting. Suddenly, the story of the team's epic September collapse became a sidebar to the manner in which that story was being told. I'm confident that the Sox ultimately will rebound from this terrible season. But will baseball coverage ever be the same? I'm not so sure.

The Sox last month lost a nine-game lead in the American League wild-card race by playing like chumps. Millions of fans like me were furious. And hundreds of millions of dollars were at stake. Last week, dutifully, the Boston Globe published an in-depth piece by investigative reporter Bob Hohler titled " Inside The Collapse." The story was unflattering to the team's manager (who will not be back) and pretty much everyone else. And with good reason.

Here's the nut graph from Hohler's piece:

The story of Boston's lost September unfolds in part as an indictment of the three prized starters. But the epic flop of 2011 had many faces: a lame-duck manager, coping with personal issues, whose team partly tuned him out; stars who failed to lead; players who turned lackluster and self-interested; a general manager responsible for fruitless roster decisions; owners who approved unrewarding free agent spending and missed some warning signs that their $161 million club was deteriorating.

One of those "personal issues," Hohler revealed, was that (now former) manager Terry Francona is going through a divorce and has been living in a hotel all season. We also were reminded that Francona has health issues that evidently required him to take pain medication, something which reportedly concerned team officials.

Hohler, who is not a regular baseball reporter, quickly let his audience know that the piece was "based on a series of interviews the Globe conducted with individuals familiar with the Sox operation at all levels. Most requested anonymity out of concern for their jobs or potential damage to their relationships in the organization. Others refused to comment or did not respond to interview requests."

When I first read that passage I thought little about it. Many political and legal reporters build their careers reporting in such a fashion. And such anonymous sourcing also has long been a stable of sports reporting ("a team source," an "industry source," etc). Either you believe the work or you don't. I chose to believe it. And at the time I didn't particularly care who the sources were. I still don't, actually.

My main thought when I read the piece was: amen. At last someone is telling me something I didn't know about some of the reasons why my favorite team stunk when it mattered most. Even though I knew when I read it that I was not getting the whole story-- when does that ever happen in anonymous-sourced journalism?-- I thought the piece was strong and advanced the story of the collapse. I wanted to get inside that clubhouse and the story helped achieve that.

Yet Hohler's story generated an extraordinary amount of disdain within journalism circles. Some said it was a hatchet job. Others alleged that it was a propaganda message from ownership (the Globe owns a minority share in the Sox, believe it or not).Here's what Keith Olbermann said. Yikes! The origins and sources of the story became the story; a case of "inside baseball" about inside baseball!

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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