08.03.09

No Smearing in the Press Box, II: The NYT Takes Time Out to Correct Internet Blowhard

Posted in Baseball, Internal Affairs, Sports Journalism, Sports TV at 10:49 am by

[This is what a fact-checking baseball reporter looks like.  This is not Ben Schwartz.]

Last week, I posted on The New York Times publishing the names of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz as having tested positive for steroids in 2003.  I went off on Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt for his limited reportage on this story and a similar story naming Sammy Sosa from the same 104 name list of MLB players who tested positive for steroids.

Times sports editor Tom Jolly wrote in to CSTB’s comments section, pointing out a fact that needed correcting in my story. In both my responses to the Ramirez/Ortiz and Sosa stories, I said that Schmidt based his reporting on evidence thrown out of Federal Court by Judge Susan Ilston in the Barry Bonds case.  That was my basis for saying the Times based their stories on “discredited evidence.”  I still say it’s discredited, or at least too weak to prove anything on its own.  Jolly’s correction gives me different reasons to believe this.

As Jolly points out, Judge Ilston allowed the Bonds test results to remain as evidence.   As I gleaned from this report, it’s the 104 names list she has problems with, as well as much of the evidence needed to corroborate the Bonds test results.  I misread the report and took that she wants the 104 names list tossed out, which includes the Bonds original test, later retested by the Federal Govt, allegedly showing that he took designer steroids.  It’s the retest she’s allowing as evidence.  Confusing?  Yes, but I should have gotten it right.

What was thrown out was a pile of evidence corroborating the Bonds test results needed to prove him guilty.  That is, without corroboration, the admissible Bonds tests aren’t enough.  The government case against Bonds collapsed in February.  The prosecution currently scrambles to find a new way to nail the Sultan of Surly.  The Bonds test, and anonymous lawyers quoting the players’ 2003 test result lists, are all The New York Times has on which to base the credibility of their Sosa, Ortiz, and Ramirez claims.  That’s the evidence that gets you nowhere in court on its own.  If not “discredited,” it’s at least too flimsy to mean anything by itself “ unless you’re The New York Times.  Selena Roberts’ A-Rod story for Sports Illustrated has something the NYT still doesn’t have “ a confession from the named player, vindicating the reporter’s anonymous sourcing and accusations. I imagine it’s what the Federal Gov’t wishes they had from Bonds, too.

I definitely stand corrected on the fact of what got thrown out of court and what didn’t.  My own ineptitude aside for the moment, you can decide for yourself on whether the government’s evidence looks even more discredited because Bonds’ tests are admissible and the case still collapsed “ or not.  You can also read the same flimsy, in-need-of-corroboration evidence Schmidt uses, and decide on the Times case.

Fact Correction Acknowledged.  I’m sorry Jolly didn’t address the bigger ethical problems of what the Times is doing to player reps on such evidence. It’s the reason I wrote the stories I did.  Michael S. Schmidt, in this blogger’s opinion, is still getting played by someone with a creepy agenda.  Here’s Jolly’s comments section note to me, and my response to him.

  1. Tom Jolly says:

    Ben,

    Two points about Barry Bonds™s drug tests from 2003:

    1. The 2003 test list has not been discredited. Judge Ilston threw out positive tests seized from the Balco lab because she said the government cannot authenticate them without Greg Anderson™s testimony. The judge is is permitting the government to present the results of Bonds™s 2003 tests.

    2. Unlike Ortiz, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Sosa and Segui, Bonds™s name is not on the anonymous list of those who tested positive in 2003 because he did not come up positive when MLB conducted the test. However, the sample was later seized by federal authorities, who retested it for the designer steroids that Balco used and that™s when it came up positive.

    Here are a couple links to reports on this:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/20/sports/baseball/20bonds.html

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2009/02/20/MN8M161I4R.DTL

    Best,
    Tom Jolly
    Sports editor
    The New York Times

  2. Ben Schwartz says:

    Tom,

    First, thanks for the gentlemanly level of restraint in your response, something I probably don™t deserve, but then, around here, am never expecting. Re your two points:

    1) I™m assuming you mean the judge is allowing the gov™t to present both Bonds™ players union result (negative) and then the govt™s retest (positive) “ all from the same sample. The judge™s admission of the govt retest adds up to the same thing “ it isn™t enough to nail the Sultan of Surly for something we all œknow, or assume, he did “ take steroids. That requires more evidence, something the NYT stories don™t add to the 104 names list. That seems pretty discrediting to me re the Ilston decision, in that the positive results don™t prove anything in and of themselves. So why does it matter what it says about Sosa, Ortiz, etc?

    What Schmidt™s stories argue is that Sosa, Ortiz, and Ramirez are on the 104 list. That™s it. Ok, but that list isn™t helped much by its standing in the Bonds case. Also, apparently, it tests for some steroids but not others. Do you know which steroids? I had an asthma medicine with steroid in it “ would that show up on the 2003 test? Has the NYT investigated the specific medical procedures of the test and which steroids it detects? If you want me to believe this list matters, I™d like to know some of that (more on this below).

    2) well, that™s why I included Schmidt™s background stuff on the 2003 tests in my post, to point out that Bonds was positive on the retest, not the initial test.

    Here™s some other stuff that™s come up since I posted this piece: Nomar Garciaparra™s interview, wherein he further questions the credibility of the 104 names list as false and rigged by players:

    http://www.cantstopthebleeding.com/?p=18466

    If Michael S. Schmidt is in the mood to make some calls, I hope NG is on his list. Garciaparra specifically states players from the White Sox lied and said they were positive. That™s a lead, right? A day later (the same day?) White Sox mgr. Ozzie Guillien said he wants the whole 104 list released instead of the drip-drip-drip list of names. As a Cubs fan, I definitely want to know which Sox are on the list and how many played for the 2005 WS championship team. I would forgive Schmidt everything on a purely partisan level if he publishes that list. Again, though, Nomar raises questions about the testing process “ what was it? How does a player just put himself down as œpositive? You could opt out of physical testing if you just put œpositive? Is that the list you want to damn these players with?

    Secondly, here™s a timeline that bothers me: 1) the A-Rod/steroids story broke in SI as the gov™t™s case v. Bonds crumbled and A-Rod was on a long, off-season PR binge of Madonna, money, and sex workers. 2) When Sammy Sosa announced his retirement he smarmily said he planned to wait by the phone for his call from the Hall of Fame. A week later (?) Michael S. Schmidt ran his Sosa story, handing Sosa a timely comeuppance. 3) Manny Ramirez gets busted for steroids, does a 50-game suspension, and comes back to standing ovations from LA fans and seemingly no dent in his career. Within a month, Schmidt ran the Ramirez/Ortiz story. Why the coincidence of Ramirez/Ortiz™ names doled out at once, btw? That™s as nice a built-in an angle as the Sosa take down, as both were on the Curse Breaking Red Sox team. Nice of those anonymous lawyers to provide your angles, I guess.

    Given the timing of all three stories, whose agenda is the NYT on? I realize you can™t reveal sources, but whoever leaks these stories sure has it in for smug, unapologetic players who your sources know to be on that 104 list. This is why I think Michael S. Schmidt looks like he™s being played (unless he™s calling the lawyers first in order to knock the players down a peg). After Garciaparra™s public statement, I fully expect Schmidt to get a call about him. Or, that the next player the NYT outs will have some similar recent public hubris some anonyous lawyer feels he needs to pay for. Are you at least confident that the lawyers familiar with the case aren™t all the lawyers on the same team with the same agenda? Schmidt looks like he™s taking dictation on these stories, and not asking around for information to balance anything beyond what™s given him. I mean, thanks for the press release, but does the NYT have anything to add to anonymous lawyers attacking players, or is a sensational leak really news enough? I think Schmidt™s stories serve people with a nasty, petty vendetta of some sort.

    Why are all the 2009 stories about Latinos? I ask not because I believe the NYT has a problem with Latinos “ Selena Roberts wrote her A-Rod story for œSports Illustrated, not the NYT “ but who ever doles out the names for you has offered up only Latinos.

    Finally, is Schmidt looking into which steroids these players tested positive for? So the players tested positive on this creaky list “ for what? how much? Is the test just +/- like Garciaparra says, or is there more detailed information that would give us a clear picture of abuse, severity, or possibly legitimate use of medicines prescribed by doctors (again, like my asthma medication). Players™ careers and reputations are getting permanently damaged by the NYT, so it™d at least be considerate to ask such questions or make clear some limitations on what you know “ adding context and the possibility that not all these players are dead to rights cheats because of a questionable list and shady leakers.

    All in all, if Obama had me and Michael S. Schmidt over for a beer, I might not call him names, but I™d still have some real issues with how the NYT handles these stories. Thanks for writing in “ as a freelancer myself, I doff my hat to any editor who sticks up for his writers.

    Ben

2 Responses to “No Smearing in the Press Box, II: The NYT Takes Time Out to Correct Internet Blowhard”

  1. Tom Jolly says:

    Ben,

    I’m disappointed that so many journalists assume that someone must have “leaked” this information to Mike Schmidt and Selena Roberts. What does it say about the reporting profession that so many people within it think that a leak is the only way Mike and Selena could have gotten the information?

    I can’t speak to how Selena developed the Rodriguez report, but I know that Mike developed the leads on Sosa, Ramirez and Ortiz through skillful reporting. As our articles said, he talked with many, many people in developing these reports and ultimately reaching the point where he could report the information. In fact, he not only talked to many people, he talked to many of them again and again, picking up clues and other tidbits and following them to the next piece of information.

    It surely would be a lot easier if someone were slipping clues under Mike’s doormat, but if that were happening, I’d be a lot more concerned about someone’s agenda.

    While we’ve got this dialogue going, I’ll take a stab at some other points of clarification – while gently pointing out that all of these questions can be answered via Google, or Bing if that’s your preference:

    * It would be amazing if drug testers were able to bat 1.000 in detecting banned substances – ever. The people who make these drugs are constantly developing substances that beat the tests, as Balco did. The point is that banned substances were found in the samples from Rodriguez, Sosa, Ramirez, Ortiz and David Segui. (We can’t assume, though, that the substances were steroids. There are other substances that are on the banned list, like clomid, a women’s fertility drug that is used by men to offset some of the side-affects of steroids.)

    * In the wake of the NYT report, Ortiz acknowledged that he failed the 2003 drug test, though he did so in a much more low-key way than Rodriguez did after the S.I. report.

    * As for Nomar’s observations, he understandably seems to have lost track of the story. At one point, 16 White Sox players planned to refuse the test based on the notion that they would count as positive tests and thus would help push the number positive tests beyond the 5 percent threshold required to institute penalty testing. The union told them they couldn’t do that, though, and they ultimately participated in the anonymous testing program. Here’s a link to our story about the issue:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/23/sports/around-the-majors-quiet-role-of-white-sox-in-testing-for-steroids.html

    * Sorry, but your asthma medication isn’t going to ramp up your testosterone. You’ve got to take anabolic steroids for that, which is why anabolic steroids are banned in most sports.

    Best,
    Tom Jolly
    Sports editor
    The New York Times

  2. Ben Schwartz says:

    Tom,

    I know you’re limited in what you can say about how Michael Schmidt reports his stories, but I did include the possibility that he calls people up, too. When the 104 names list is under a court seal, and testing was originally done anonymously, it’s easy to assume that someone ordered not to reveal information is “leaking” somewhere. Is a “leak” a specific term used only when a source initiates a conversation? Considering that he didn’t name a single source, it all read like leaks. If not a “leak,” what term do you prefer? Once Schmidt has something, I’m sure he does make calls — but leaks must be a major part of it.

    Still, crediting Schmidt with legwork doesn’t make me any happier when I read the result: The timeline of uppity player behavior followed by steroid-outting bothers me, as does the all-Latino list so far for 2009 (including Roberts’ A-Rod story for _SI_). If there’s no agenda from leakers as you see it, what about this pattern of revelations? Seriously, it’s the kind of thing a Frank Rich would base a column on in a second if sports interested him or this was a result of Fox News reporting. Look at how Barry Bonds was vilified while a Roger Clemens was defended by people like Bob Costas. The 2009 A-Rod/Sosa/Ramirez/Ortiz outtings make me ask — why them? And let me repeat: I do not assume the NYT or SI has a problem with people of color, it is my impression that someone leaking this information does. I also add this: the Bush Administration confiscated the 104 results outside its search warrant specifics in an era of gov’t privacy violations. Politics, Constitutional rights, race — steroids is as far-reaching a social history story as sports ever gets, so you’ll have to forgive a heightened questioning surrounding what Schmidt reports at this point in the unfolding history.

    If you’re disappointed by the reaction to sports journalism these days, well, you’ve come to the right blog. I again refer you to Murray Chass and Selena Roberts situations to add to Schmidt (or the Frank Deford NPR essay reposted on CSTB by David Roth). Even patience with the paper of record wears thin, esp when all three writers are connected past or present to it. I know you’re not responsible for all of it, but what is one supposed to think of the NYT or anyone else’s standards? I just witnessed the horrendous welcome by the Chicago media to Milton Bradley this season – as if once Obama moved to DC it was OK to act like it was 1955 again.

    As to my question about what the 2003 testing reveals, I cited Nomar, but I’d also include David Ortiz’ reaction to Schmidt’s story. He only confirmed it after calling the union to confirm that he failed. If I take Papi’s word for it, then he doesn’t know what he tested positive for and the test may reveal … who knows?

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/baseball/mlb/07/30/ortiz.steroids/index.html

    Ortiz says he doesn’t know if he took anabolic steroids or not. Uh, ok. We’ll see after the Ortiz press conference on Saturday. Apparently he filed a motion to reveal the actual tests – hopefully the public will get a chance to see them.

    Finally, as to Nomar and the White Sox story — as a Cub fan, I again urge you, Michael Schmidt, and the rest of the NYT sports department not to let the Sox go uninvestigated. A full examination of the Sox 2005 “championship” is owed the public, and again, all would be forgiven for that.

    Ben

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