On Sunday, ESPN had a big Trouble-in-Landover report that was actually two stories rolled into one. The juicier one, a claim that a locker-room outburst was proof that Robert Griffin III had "alienated" his teammates, was quickly disputed by a whole bunch of reporters who were in the room. Now the second story is coming in for further review, and Adam Schefter's defense is less than full-throated.
Back to the first report for a second. ESPN's Britt McHenry cited an instance of about 15 teammates shouting during an RGIII interview, forcing him and reporters to step outside. Within the day, beat writers unanimously declared that McHenry had misread the situation, that the players were upset by new media policies and trying to make reporters' lives more difficult, not Griffin's.
McHenry stood behind her report in an interview with SI.com. Her key defense relied on a careful parsing of the text—one I'd argue is too much to ask from most readers. Here's the relevant section from the ESPN.com story (which was not written by McHenry but rather by "ESPN.com news services"):
Griffin's support with players, however, is not as strong as it is with the highest levels of the organization, according to sources.
When Griffin began addressing the media in the locker room on Friday for the first time since dislocating his left ankle in Week 2, about 15 teammates began shouting. It was so loud and distracting, the franchise quarterback — and reporters — had to leave the locker room so Griffin could speak someplace where he could be heard. That's when the cheering got even more boisterous.
A source familiar with the incident told ESPN's Britt McHenry that Griffin has "alienated himself" from the locker room.
A normal person would infer that the statements in paragraphs Nos. 1 and 3 are related to the action sandwiched between them. Not so, says McHenry. Her report of the shouting incident was completely independent of her report that Griffin has lost his teammates. "To be clear," McHenry told SI.com, "I never said the locker room was shouting in revolt of Griffin starting on Sunday."
I still think it's more likely McHenry made an honest mistake and didn't have the context for the locker-room outburst, but "everyone read something into the report that it never explicitly said" provides at least some plausible deniability. So how then to react to today's development, Adam Schefter's near-identical defense of his contribution to the controversial report?
Again, here's the exact wording on that ESPN.com story:
Multiple members of the Washington Redskins organization told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter this week that they believe the decision to go back to quarterback Robert Griffin III and away from Colt McCoy, who had led the team to two straight wins, is an owner- and general manager-driven decision.
The first time you read it, you probably did not notice the "they believe" that changes the entire meaning of the report. Schefter never claimed Griffin started because Dan Snyder wanted it; only that some other people believed that Griffin started because Snyder wanted it.
It's not hard to blame people for misinterpreting it, especially given the headline on the ESPN.com story: "RGIII starting call came from top."
The Skins categorically denied that Snyder or Bruce Allen had anything to do with Griffin's start. So Schefter went on ESPN radio in Washington today to explain we had all been reading things wrong. As transcribed by DC Sports Bog:
"I want to be very clear about what I reported, because what I reported I know to be a fact," Schefter said. "And what I reported is this: I said that there are multiple people in that organization who believe the decision came from the top. I didn't say it did [come from the top]. I say there are people there who think that.
"That is a fact. That is not in dispute. That is not wrong, as the Redskins said. That is a fact. There are three people there who said they think it came from the top. Okay? I didn't say the decision did. The people in the building believe it did. That's a fact. That's a fact."
Schefter, like McHenry, is not technically wrong here. Nothing they reported is untrue. But the way each report was presented naturally led readers to unearned conclusions.
Where that falls on the spectrum between "honest mistake" and "desire to juice up scoops" is open to interpretation, and again, neither Schefter nor McHenry are responsible for the ESPN.com story's ambiguous wording. But it's been fascinating to see both halves of what seemed like a pretty big story fall apart under the most cursory of examination.