Bill Simmons has made his return to Twitter in the past few days, announcing a new podcast and going on a six-tweet series calling the Los Angeles Clippers the most dysfunctional team in the NBA. The fifth of the six tweets was:
5. And I'm gonna be interested to see which reporter jeopardizes their long-term access/connections to write the story... Cuz it's coming...— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) August 25, 2015
This Tweet came a day after Barry Petchesky wrote an excellent piece about how Cris Carter's advice for NFL rookies to "get a fall guy" was kept off-the-record by an MMQB reporter at the request of the NFL
This is a very real problem for all reporters, but especially one who had been invited to a previously private event that had engendered much public curiosity. The news value of a quote or a story has to be pretty high to justify burning a source, even more so when that source is the NFL itself, and a football reporter’s career is dependent on future access. (Access journalism is a scourge, but so deeply entrenched that it’s unrealistic to pretend it’s going anywhere.) At its worst, the symbiotic relationship leads to reporters passing along false information, as in the Ballghazi case. At lesser levels you get something like Klemko’s omission: a news judgment being made by someone other than the newsmen, which ultimately renders the whole operation spiritually closer to marketing than to reporting.
Of course, it’s remarkably easy for us to—sorry—Monday-morning quarterback Klemko’s decision. We wouldn’t have to choose whether to accede to an NFL flack’s preemptive off-the-record requests because we wouldn’t be invited to an event like this in the first place. (Chicken and egg: we wouldn’t be invited because we wouldn’t accede.) It was a tough call for Klemko,
With the benefit of hindsight, it's very easy to see Klemko's decision as wrong. One of the basic rules of interviewing and news gathering is that someone doesn't get to say something is off-the-record after they say it. And a source doesn't determine whether or not something is off the record, a journalist does. I, as a reporter, decide when we go off the record, not the other way.
But the greater idea of access journalism - which Petchesky calls a scourge - is an fascinating one to consider. Criticism of it has kind of become a go-to in sports media circles, especially with the elite sports media's coverage of the Ray Rice and Deflategate stories (in fact, it's interesting that at a national level, the access journalists and critics always seem to revolve around the NFL). Deadspin has, of course, celebrated its lack of access since the day it started.
It's a tricky area for journalists. All journalism as traditionally defined is based on that "symbiotic relationship" that Petchesky discussed. Robert McChesney used that very phrase to discuss the longstanding relationship between sports and media. Media sociology research has shown for decades that news is based on the source-journalist relationship. On one hand, this makes absolute sense. The source knows things the journalist wants to know. Without that relationship, a journalist is limited in how a job can be done. "If I don't have access anymore, I don't have a job." is how Danny Concannon on West Wing put it, and it's pretty accurate for a fictional journalist.
But like Petchesky said, it's a fine line. If you rely on access too much - more accurately, if you put too much stock in your need for access - then you become a perceived extension of the league's PR office or of the teams and their stars rather than an independent journalist. You become Peter King or Chris Mortensen. You forget that you're reporting for your readers, not your sources.