Did Deadspin Hit ESPN Below the Belt?

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The recent revelation that ESPN baseball analyst (and former Mets executive) Steve Phillips carried out an extramarital affair with a young production assistant, who then allegedly stalked his family, was shocking enough — enough, in fact, to get Phillips fired over the weekend. But the nasty online spat that followed between popular sports blog Deadspin and ESPN was possibly even more troubling, roping in several seemingly innocent parties and highlighting the questionable journalistic standards of unfiltered new media.

On the day that the New York Post broke the news of Phillips' dalliances and the bizarre behavior of his 22-year-old mistress, the influential Deadspin fired a wild shot at one of the world's most powerful sports brands. Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio, feeling that an ESPN communications source had misled him about the truth of the Phillips story over a month ago (a claim that ESPN fiercely denies), took it upon himself to air alleged dirty laundry about ESPN employees. "It's probably about time to just unload the inbox of all the sordid rumors we've received over the years about various ESPN employees," he posted. "Chances are, at this point, there's some truth to them . . . So, Bristolites [ESPN is based in Bristol, Conn.], strap in — it's going to be a long day."

It was no idle threat. Under the none-too-subtle banner headline "ESPN Horndog Dossier," Daulerio posted rumors about sexual relationships and crude behavior among employees at the network, even singling out a few by name. The sports blogosphere, which had revered Deadspin for helping build its clout, quickly turned against Daulerio. One called him an "embarrassment." Another accused him of "having a vendetta against ESPN because the New York Post did his job better than him."

While Daulerio sounds somewhat humbled in a conversation with TIME about the incident, he doesn't apologize. "Was there an ax to grind?" Daulerio says. "Yeah. That was one part of it. But I also felt a little safe and justified in doing this stuff." Daulerio insists that he trusts his sources and claims that he really was trying to make a larger point about ESPN's culture — employees allegedly complain that while on-air personalities get reprimanded for inappropriate relationships, business executives enjoy more leeway.

But is printing unconfirmed rumors about the private lives of relatively anonymous ESPN workers, who in this case appear to be collateral damage to a spiteful fit, the fairest way for Deadspin, which is part of the Gawker Media conglomerate, to make this point? "No," Daulerio admits. "I'm a human being at the end of the day with this stuff. But at the same time, did I want to cause panic around Bristol? Yes. Of course I did. And I think I succeeded. I also succeeded with the fact that it was compelling blog theater to watch the entire thing go down."

Not surprisingly, ESPN is enraged. "Deadspin's self-admitted rumor-mongering is despicable behavior by any standard and shows callous disregard for its impact on people's lives," the network said in a statement. "It is not worthy of a response."

Beyond their contribution to the ongoing ESPN-Deadspin battle — in many ways Deadspin, which attracts some 150,000 visitors a day, built its brand on its incessant, sometimes controversial and often entertaining nagging of the ESPN powerhouse — Daulerio's posts bring up more important issues about the rules of Internet play. "At major blogs, you have the ability to destroy people with the click of the mouse," says Clay Travis, a former practicing lawyer and senior writer at FanHouse, a sports website. Shortly after the incident, Travis, a former Deadspin editor, wrote a smart, detailed breakdown of the legal questions that arose from the dustup. "For Web journalists, established bloggers and the 13-year-old girl sitting in the basement in her pajamas, how do we craft a legal framework that makes it understandable what's permissible and impermissible under the law?" he says.

Right now, the libel rules established under the 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan Supreme Court case essentially apply to today's digital media. "There aren't enough cases yet for anybody to tell whether there are nuances or differences to be drawn from how courts actually apply the Sullivan standard to online speech," says Sandra Baron, executive director for the Media Law Resource Center. Basically, a public figure can win a defamation claim if he proves that an individual person or media outlet published something about him with so-called actual malice — knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. This standard offers considerable protection for media outlets; actual malice is difficult to prove. A private figure has a somewhat easier case. He just has to prove that a reporter or blogger was negligent in publishing a falsehood.

These rules, however, were written in an age when print outlets had time to consult their attorneys and deliberate the legal risks, and moral ethics, of publishing controversial stories. Daulerio says a Gawker lawyer did not look at his posts before he published them. In fact, Gawker founder Nick Denton recently sent a memo to his staff imploring them to act less like traditional media. "Let's check to see whether the associated claim is true," Denton wrote. "But we should publish anyway, making clear what we know to be true and what remains up in the air ... There's no way we're going to slow our publishing schedule to that of a ponderous newspaper-style organization, where everything has to go through layers of edit and approval and checking and legal ... At some media organizations, you might get rapped for running a premature story. At Gawker Media, you'll lose way more points for being scooped on a story you had in your hands."

Denton is clearly altering the rules. "The Web has obviously changed journalistic standards," he wrote in an e-mail response to TIME. "It demands faster turnaround for news stories; exposes the stiflingly cozy relationships between many media outlets and the organizations they cover; and it also allows us to correct and expand on our stories as we go. A Web news story always is a work in progress."

ESPN won't comment on any potential legal action against Deadspin. Of course, if the claims that Deadspin published are true, there's no case. Daulerio says that although he has more sordid information on other ESPN employees, the "Horndog Dossier" is over. That's good news. But perhaps it's a little too late for those who were caught in the crossfire.