Les Miles is essentially a professional entertainer - he makes an awful lot of money to put a competitive product on the field. One reason he makes this kind of money is the the near total media coverage of college, and specifically, LSU football. On the upside, he is absurdly well-compensated. On the downside, he is constantly under the microscope, even microscopes belonging to knuckleheads. Had McGraw had the same lax standards in political or financial reporting he would and should be hung out to dry - OK, maybe not if he were commenting on La. politics.. But he's talking about college football and a college football coach. Rumors, true or not, are often what drive interest. Nevertheless, the higher standards at Mr.SEC are appreciated.
As you probably know by now, rumors took off on Twitter Saturday suggesting that LSU football coach Les Miles would resign on Monday due to an inappropriate relationship with a college student. Yesterday came and went without a press conference. In fact, LSU officials let word be known as early as Saturday evening that the rumors were just that — rumors.
Ah, but sometimes rumors are more than just rumors. Sometimes they’re assassinations of someone’s character.
The rumor regarding Miles started on an Alabama messageboard. A journalism student at Western Kentucky University then tweeted the rumor:
As Twitter exploded, McGaw responded by making it clear he didn’t start the rumor… he was just passing it along via Twitter (which is akin to pouring accelerant on a flame). In an interview with Jason Kirk of SBNation yesterday, McGaw gave his WKU professors credit for helping to shape his ethics:
“The main lesson I learned out of any of this… One lesson was, I’m grateful for my broadcast professors teaching me ethics. I used the world allegedly. I used the word rumors. Making sure that, hey, I’m not just throwing this out of the blue. I’m making sure that I’m not accusing anybody of doing something. I’m just mentioning this is something people are speaking of.
But the main lesson I’ve learned, and I do this all the time, but I should’ve started out with, ‘According to some message board…’ And then give the rumor. I feel like that would’ve cleared up a lot of stuff instead of having all these people blow me up and me being able to finally tweet out, ‘Hey, this is where I got this info from.’…
And, yeah, I know you’re not supposed to report rumors, but I wasn’t even acting as a journalist when I mentioned that. I mentioned the word rumor. I wasn’t acting as a journalist.”
A few thoughts:
1. With the internet, everyone is now a journalist. You, me, the guy the down the street, everyone. Twitter is so immediate that conclusions on serious subjects are now reached 140 characters at a time. Not to sound too much like a conspiracy theorist, but it’s never been easier for people, companies, organizations, or governments to intentionally spread misinformation than it is today. And with so many people — many of them anonymous — just dying to criticize or mock others or share rumors in 140 characters or less we are also being desensitized as a society. Laugh now, but Twitter is going to be bad news in the long run for our culture and our democracy. (That said, be sure to follow us at twitter.com/mrsec!)
2. We don’t trust messageboards around here because people don’t sign their names to what they write. And people who don’t sign their names can write anything they like without consequence. That’s not a good thing. Many web-heads — like those of us here at MrSEC.com — are quick to note that there are occasionally some good scoops on messageboards. True. And occasionally you can find a needle in a haystack, too. Messageboards are entertaining forums. Period. Don’t believe me, check your favorite messageboard to see how many posts tie Jon Gruden to your school as its next head coach. If we only had a nickle. Messageboards should not be source material for reports or tweets unless it’s stated, “this hooey is coming from a messageboard.”
3. McGaw’s professors have failed him if they haven’t taught him the power of rumors. If they haven’t taught him the difference between “It’s rumored the coach has offered Recruit X” and “It’s rumored the coach is having an affair.” One is a sports-related rumor. If it’s wrong, at least no one’s being hurt by it. The other is an attack on a man’s character. It’s a malicious story that can cause pain for the target of the rumor as well as his wife and children. But then again, this society no longer worries about hurting people. Coaching-related rumors? Fine. Rumors about a coach’s private life? Out of bounds.
4. If you happened to see Twitter on Saturday, you saw hundreds of responses to McGaw’s tweet that, in general, said: “This would be so funny! The press conference would be great!” Even McGaw in his interview with SBNation said: “Did I think it was true or not? I didn’t ever think it was plausible. Anybody can say anything on the internet. So this is just a funny, interesting rumor.” Yeah. Funny. A guy’s family might be in pain, but that’s worth a laugh.
5. Let’s say McGaw is just a young kid with no ability to empathize with Miles, no concept of how things are amplified on Twitter, and no discernible journalistic ethics (though he says differently). Here’s a lesson he needs to remember: One must — must — have a named, trustworthy source to run with such a defamatory rumor. At MrSEC.com, we use anonymous sources from time to time as does everyone else in the media. That’s how stories are broken. But the sources remain anonymous only to you. They are not anonymous to us. If we run with something and credit an anonymous source, their words become our words. You must trust our credibility and history to believe those words. Some of you will, some of you won’t. When we share the claims of anonymous sources, we’re in a way vouching for the them. We either a) believe what they’re saying or b) have heard from enough solid sources to know that the story has legs, even if we ourselves don’t believe it. The idea of going to a messageboard, seeing anonymous people commenting on rumors of a coach’s affair, and then posting it online is unfathomable. We receive anonymous tips from people all the time. We don’t run with them unless we can find some form of verification. (Our rule: It takes two sources before we’ll run with something from an anonymous source. If we can’t find two sources, we’ll make that clear in whatever we write.) Even if we had verification, we still wouldn’t want to be the ones gossiping in a very public forum about what goes on behind a coach’s closed bedroom door. “But this was about a coach resigning his job,” some will say. Yes, and we’d be more than happy to let someone else break that story if it required us to speculate about some other person’s moral failings.
Reading McGaw’s words in the SBNation interview, it’s clear that he doesn’t believe he did a whole lot wrong. Here’s hoping there’s at least one or two journalism professors on the Western Kentucky campus who can convince him otherwise.
But in reality McGaw has probably put himself ahead of a lot of other student journalists in the employment line with his tweet of a false rumor taken from anonymous posters on a messageboard. In our view, that might be the saddest thing of all.