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Is Deadspin digging its own grave?

After reading this interview with Deadspin Editor-in-Chief Tommy Craggs, libel attorneys might have their business cards ready to draw.

The interview, by Manny Radwaha of Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, was typical manic Deadspin.  Craggs seemed unable to avoid the sarcasm, particularly when talking about others.

That’s his option; it’s his reputation and image.  He can’t seem to advance a debate without interjecting an “up yours” slam, and he seems OK with it.

But when it comes to describing Deadspin’s ethical policies, Craggs certainly helped craft the next libel suit against his Web site with this statement:

“You ask if we have a policy.  There is no policy for this, or for anything, really.  The whole point of the company is that we trust our reporters to be smart and judicious without having to adopt the ethical pretense that what they are doing is anything short of professionalized rudeness.”

Sounds hip and glib enough — until your publication winds up in court and you are asked what safeguards are in place to prevent false, hurtful information from being presented.

Deadspin editors trust their reporters?  Seeing the site’s takedowns of Sarah Phillips and Lynn Hoppes, you wonder if Craggs and his staff think that they are immune from similar clowns.  That would be naivete from a group that presents itself as so hip.

The standard of actual malice states that the defendant operated with a reckless disregard for the truth.  Where the plaintiff is a private citizen, the standard is lower — a departure from the accepted standards of journalism.  Deadspin’s attitude leaves itself open to the latter standard more than the former, but way too close to both.

Disclosure: Big Deadspin fan here.  (And Disclosure #2: They did interview Jeremy Henderson and me for a piece on Finebaum about a year ago.  We expressed concern to each other about how we and the article would sound.  Jeremy sounded smart.  I got the obligatory few quotes cobbled together and tacked on toward the end, which was deserved given how I sounded.)
I don’t know if Craggs was just being self-deprecating, but he does not give himself or his site enough credit.  At times, it does seem like the journalistic equivalent of a lap dance.

But Deadspin is just one of many information sources that sports fans can consult in making up their minds about what’s B.S. and what’s not.  And the information they provide is relevant.

Critics can fret about the “80% sure” quote, but they don’t have to worry too much about the audience. Deadspin readers don’t come straight from video; they read. And they know how to read.

But Deadspin also performs an important function for sports fans and for the sports media.  If for no other reason than to put arrogant, self-important sports journalists on the alert (are you listening, Jay Mariotti?), Deadspin certainly provides a buttress against a profession that seems immune to serious reflection.

In the case of Manti Te’o, they uncovered the media’s lazy fascination with a convenient narrative that turned out to be a false story (about a player who is turning out to be as disappointing as the narrative).

I am certain that if ESPN had “broken” the story — as they claim they were about to — it would have been with such a degree of self-serving self-justification that we all would have begged for an alternative.  Deadspin provided that alternative, but a couple steps ahead of The Worldwide Leader.

So I’m hoping that Deadspin sticks around.  But unless they do the due (diligence, that is) and shore up their professional practices, and determine the measure of scurrilousness their brand will bear (to paraphrase Craggs’ comment), we might be mourning their loss in a few years — remembering a freewheeling Web site that collapsed because they trusted the wrong contributor and ended up drowning in libel judgments.

Deadspin readers might enjoy the attitude. Juries won’t.

John Carvalho, associate professor of journalism at Auburn, blogs about the sports media at johncarvalhoau.tumblr.com. Find him on Twitter at @johncarvalhoau. Read his previous columns here.


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