The latest big story out of the Washington Football Team emails the NFL obtained via investigation (but still has not fully released) is around ESPN “NFL insider” Adam Schefter. As Sam Farmer and Nathan Fenno of The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday night, past emails from Schefter to then-Washington GM Bruce Allen in 2011 around a story on a CBA dispute showed Schefter sending Allen an entire story draft, with the comments of “Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked. Thanks, Mr. Editor, for that and the trust.” That’s far from a usual journalism practice, and it drew a lot of criticism Wednesday. And that led to Schefter eventually putting out this statement admitting wrongdoing through ESPN PR:
Statement from Adam Schefter pic.twitter.com/rBjBl9Km6b
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) October 13, 2021
A lot of that statement isn’t that important, but what really stands out is Schefter’s admission that “It was a step too far and, looking back, I shouldn’t have done it.” That takes this from external criticism of ESPN into internal admission of a mistake. And that may be an issue for them going forwards.
Yes, per his own comments at least, Schefter didn’t cede editorial control or hand over final say on a story to a source. So this isn’t necessarily “Bruce Allen got his comments printed in exactly the context he wanted by a seemingly-independent ESPN reporter,” which would be a larger problem. But Schefter’s decision to send this entire story to Allen ahead of publication is significantly beyond more-usual journalistic practices, such as confirming a source’s quotes or confirming that a particular paraphrase of the source is accurate. And Schefter seems to now (after a day of criticism) realize that that probably wasn’t a good idea for him, especially with the “Mr. Editor” remarks to someone he was supposed to be reporting on.
The big takeaway here may be that beyond the specifics of this story, this is an interesting window into how Schefter interacted with a NFL GM 10 years ago. Perhaps his reporting approach has changed since then, and perhaps he’s now less concerned about what an individual GM might think of his reporting. He’s certainly more established in the NFL world now, and criticisms from one particular GM probably wouldn’t do much to him these days. But this is notable information in terms of just how Schefter was interacting with one of his sources in 2011.
The other possibly-notable element here is that Schefter is doing two different jobs at the same time, and those jobs come with significantly different expectations of the reporting he presents. ESPN presents Schefter as a “NFL Insider,” which seems to include both reporting transaction news and reporting on deeper league issues. But those are very different things.
Most transaction news is of incredibly small long-term value. It makes some sense for a company like ESPN to employ someone like Schefter for transactions so they can put those moves on their ticker and website without citing an outside source, and so they can maybe get those moves a few minutes ahead of competitors and the team’s own release, but most of those transactions are not really a big deal. And if this email to Allen had come up in the context of reporting transaction news, many fewer people would have cared. There isn’t a wide expectation that Adam Schefter has high levels of journalistic integrity in reporting transactions.
When this comes to more serious NFL news, though, there’s a larger discussion to be had. And this particular piece was a more serious one, one covering a NFL position relative to the NFLPA in collective bargaining. And these emails certainly seem to indicate some bias there, and they seem to further the idea that Schefter tends to support league interests: there’s no evidence that Schefter ever extended anywhere near this level of pre-approval to the NFLPA, seemingly an equal party that he was also reporting on.
It should be kept in mind that many people previously didn’t trust Schefter on serious issue reporting. And it’s worth pointing out that Schefter has faced ethics questions before, from investing in a gambling company alongside New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to putting out false information about the NFL/NFLPA revenue split. So this isn’t necessarily going to change a lot; those who were previously distrustful of Schefter have more ammunition there, but it’s unclear if this will actually get anyone else in the Schefter-distrusting camp (especially with ESPN’s continued backing of him amidst these serious accusations). But it is interesting to have Schefter’s admission of “Looking back, I shouldn’t have done it” on the record. And this is all well worth keeping in mind for future viewing of any stories from Schefter, whether transactional or on deeper issues. It’s worth thinking about if he’s sent anything else to “Mr. Editor” team or league execs outside of ESPN before releasing it to the public.
[ESPN PR on Twitter]