The first report that something fishy had occurred with the footballs during the AFC Championship game came from Bob Kravitz, a reporter for Indianapolis’s WTHR. But it was Chris Mortensen’s report the next day that 11 of the 12 footballs were under inflated by two pounds that turned what had been a “huh, this is weird, I wonder went on here” story into Ballghazi, the ongoing football scandal that has pitted the league against one of its most popular franchises and players, and spawned a thousand takes.
But as it turns out, Mortensen’s report was very wrong. The Wells Report made clear that either one or zero balls were under inflated by two pounds, not 11. Mortensen reported false information that went unchallenged and uncorrected for months, that significantly affected public perception of the scandal as well as how ferociously the NFL decided to investigate and eventually mete out punishment.
After declining to go on Boston radio station WEEI to discuss his false report last week, Mortensen went on ESPN radio and talked with Dan Le Batard today. MassLive.com has a full transcript of their conversation regarding his report, but the upshot is Mortensen doesn’t really think he did anything wrong here, nor does he believe that his report in any way influenced the actions the NFL decided to take. Here are some of Mortensen’s more interesting comments:
The source of the erroneous report
You cannot touch it. The reason why you create trust with sources is you don’t even go there. And it could be very unfair to the person identified by somebody as a source. And by the way, we have sources. It’s not a single source at the time. What you do is you have to keep your distance. That’s how you keep your credibility with your sources anyway just to maintain that level of trust. You’re never going to bend in terms of identifying them.
And so therefore do I feel betrayed? No. And by the way, this whole concept of being deliberately lied to, that means somebody called me up. When anybody calls me up and volunteers significant information, I always get suspicious of motive. That’s a red flag right there.
What Mortensen feels he did wrong
What needs to be corrected has been corrected. I didn’t correct it on Twitter, which was a mistake by the way. Twitter, I’m still trying to figure it out. The bottom line is, as the Wells Report showed, there were not 11 balls that were all two PSI under the 12.5 minimum requirement.
What I didn’t do is I didn’t write a formal, something on Twitter to say, ‘OK we’re getting conflicting information. Leave it at significantly under inflated.’
I already had changed the descriptive tone. And I did with our news desk, pretty early, to ‘significantly under inflated.’ And I will never retract that. The two pounds PSI, that was obviously an error and clarified and corrected. If you want to call it a retraction...what I didn’t do was retract it on Twitter. And that was probably technically a mistake.
Why his erroneous report doesn’t really matter
But let me ask you this question: If I had simply reported, which I did include in the original report, that 11 footballs were found to be significantly under inflated, what would the reaction have been? The same, I think. Which is the descriptive narrative that I actually did change it to and correct it.
How his report didn’t change at all what the NFL decided to do
No, not at all. Nobody from the NFL ever identified Brady as being the target of an investigation in that first week we’re talking about, within three days of the game. Brady’s never mentioned. The Patriots are never mentioned. And the Wells investigation was not launched because of my reporting. There’s no evidence of that. I’ve checked on that. So therefore it’s hard to feel I was used.
Mortensen doesn’t explain the mechanics of how he was passed bad information—to do so would mean revealing his sources—but is emphatic that he wasn’t intentionally misled. He refers to the letter NFL senior V.P. David Gardi sent to the Patriots stated one football had a PSI of 10.1, which the Wells Report found wasn’t true. Mortensen’s point is that there was so much incorrect information floating around, even in the upper reaches of the league office, that it isn’t surprising that just a few days after the game he was given false information, and that it certainly wasn’t malicious.
To a point, Mortensen’s explanation is completely believable. But it ignores a whole lot of important context that should have left him a lot more skeptical: that information was flowing from the league office with all of its obvious biases, that the process by which the league measured PSI was highly suspect and closer to a second grade science project than a rigorous examination, that Roger Goodell’s NFL has shown a penchant for interpreting evidence in the harshest possible light so as to feed its zealous punishment apparatus.
And the only mea culpa Mortensen offers—that he should’ve corrected his mistake on Twitter—is incredibly weak. For starters, the false information is still in his news story about the event, not “clarified and corrected” as he maintains. While he may have changed the “descriptive tone” of his reports afterwards to “significantly under inflated,” that doesn’t unring the bell of his original report.
Mortensen told Le Batard that as a reporter he doesn’t want to be part of the story, which is certainly true, and that he doesn’t believe he is in this case, which is certainly false. Mortensen’s wrong report set the tone early on that the Patriots were big, fat, obvious cheaters, influencing thousands of subsequent reports, what fans thought of the situation, and possibly even the Wells Report. Yet after months of investigation, the strongest conclusion the Wells Report was able to come to was not that the Patriots were big, fat, obvious cheaters, but that it was “more probable than not” that they tried to cheat.
Mortensen’s essential assertion here is that journalists are background characters that solely document things, without having any affect on them. But at its best and most impactful, journalism changes the world for the better, and the flip side of that is poor or false journalism can change the world for the worse. But either way reporting has an influence on the subject of its coverage, and Mortensen can’t get away from that.