By David Scott
Boston Sports Media Watch

While we slowly and skeptically get past the tongue-in-cheek feel of the Boston Herald’s “Sorry, Pats” headline from Wednesday and as we wait for the Friday-promised explanation from ‘Comments-off’ writer John Tomase, let’s take a little look at some of the factors that have brought us to this peculiar spot in the history of Boston sports journalism.

[First, though, check out Herald editor, Kevin R. Convey's, belated mea culpa from Thursday's paper and posted at the paper's website just before 1 a.m. You can also check out Tony Massarotti's take as well - very interesting perspective he brings to the table.]

From Kevin R. Convey, Herald Editor:

“A newspaper’s bond with its readers rests on credibility and accountability. When a mistake is made in reporting a story, that bond can remain intact, but only if the mistake is acknowledged, and acknowledged boldly, clearly and unequivocally.

“The Herald did just that yesterday with its unprecedented front-page apology to the New England Patriots [team stats]. We thought our story was solid. It wasn’t. And we owned up to it.

“Nevertheless, I continue to stand behind the work of the Herald sports department and John Tomase, a talented journalist who has dealt with this difficult matter professionally while continuing to do his job under intense pressure.

“In the end, as editor in chief of the Herald, I take full responsibility for the publication of this story, and I offer my own apology to our readers and our staff.

“In tomorrow’s Herald, you’ll hear from John Tomase directly. And I hope that you’ll see, as our coverage of this story and others goes forward, that our dedication to accuracy remains unchanged, and that our first priority will always be maintaining that bond of trust with our readers.”

• On with Shots’ own analysis:

1. Tomase screwed up. Plain and simple. He either had a bad source, more than one bad sources, or no source at all (unlikely). He may have mis-heard something. Or misunderstood.

Whether or not editors pressured him into running the story is beside the point (although worth discovering). Tomase had to be comfortable with what he was reporting, comfortable with his source(s) and comfortable in the validity of all of the above. It’s his name on the story not Hank Herald’s, not a desk editor and not that of the Herald’s publisher, Patrick Purcell, whose skeletal staff gets exposed more and more by the day.

“What (Tomase) did was make a bad verb choice,” said ESPN 890′s afternoon host, Comcast SportsNet evening host and Herald contributor, Mike Felger. “If he had said the ‘Patriots had monitored the Rams’ walk through’ instead of ‘taped’ it, he would have been fine. Everything he reported was essentially true. He got the verb wrong.”

And what a verb to get wrong in a story so entwined in the act of someone(s) doing something – in this guess gaining an unfair advantage.

“Hey, I’m not one to be pointing out other people’s screw-ups. I’ve had enough of my own,” said Felger, who recalled a 2000 incident where, after Felger had skewered the very skewerable Jeremy Jacobs, the Herald was forced to print an apology for Felger’s libelous statement.

“But not as large and not on the front page,” Felger said. “We’ve all had screw-ups.”

But very few have had them with a story as far-reaching and genre-crossing as Spygate, which has somehow transcended into pop culture with a “South Park” take-off and reference.

2. The pressure on these beats is enormous – and that’s not just a New York thing (although it’s probably most magnified there). That pressure to get scoops and be ahead of stories is also something the average reader probably has very little comprehension of.

The pressure gets more intense and more concentrated when “your” team is in the biggest game of the year, chasing immortality and dynastical achivements. Even at the scrappy, underdog, Herald (indeed, maybe moreso there), writers want to bash the brains out of their competitors, especially the in-town ones and the so-called “National Guys.” Careers can be made off of one great scoop. Unfortunately, they can also be ruined with one poor, error in judgment.

“The pressures on the beats are self-inflicted,” said Felger. “I’ll tell you this, I’d rather have a guy like John who goes after stories then some of these guys who just skate in their lanes and take what the PR people give them.”

Felger’s point is well-taken. A number of the elders in Old Media have ceased to be relevant, yet somehow they still hang on and provide passable, but unspectacular efforts in print, on-line or through other mediums. Tomase – no matter your feelings on this – has proven to be resourceful, well-sourced and more than competent on two of the hardest beast there are: the Red Sox and the Pats. (Yes, there was the Manny madness, and yes, that is coming back to bite him a bit, but there was no funny business there, just a poorly-timed piece with some weak arguments.)

Still, there’s no getting past the fact that Tomase chose the wrong story, at the wrong time, in the wrong city to roll the dice on. He made his own bed on this one and Friday we’ll get to inspect the hospital corners.

• Know this too, Tomase, a Mansfield native and 1995 graduate of Tufts, didn’t wake up on the morning of February 2 and say, “You know what? I’m going to go make shit up today and really cause a ruckus.”

He just didn’t. No one would because of the conflagration that can ensue – as it is now for Tomase.

He thought he had an explosive story – one that he sensed could go to another writer at another paper or website – and he decided to run with it, thinking his sources were strong enough.

He got burned and he seems to know it as this Wednesday afternoon at 5:24 ‘Be Patient’-post line indicates: “In Friday’s Herald,” Tomase promised, “I will explain as clearly as I can where that story went wrong and begin the journey of restoring your trust in my reporting.”

• That brings us to this matter of trust with our media members. It’s a word that’s coming up a lot and one that should probably be examined a bit more thoroughly. Tomase’s case doesn’t solely create a distrust issue for him, but also for his employer and his co-workers as well.

The athletes in town who pay attention to such things – and granted, that number may be few – will soon have reason to look differently upon the Herald’s writers.

“Oh, you’re with that paper where they play it loose, right? Yeah I’m not going to talk to you today.”

Overdone? Probably. Many athletes have no clue which entity the people in front of them represent. But the Tomase matter will further the gap between the trashy tabloid and the stately broadsheet.

In the long run, this perturbing portion of Spygate will affect John Tomase a heck of a lot more than it will Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft. Tomase woke up Thursday wondering if his job and his future in the business were secure. Belichick and KRaft woke up the same millionaires they were the day before.

So don’t let any of the WEEIdiots (on-air and callers alike) try and convince you that Tomase “had it out” for the Pats. He had it out for his competition and his own self-inflicted pressure, as Fleger termed it, led him into some murky waters. Let’s see how well he purifies that water on Friday – and let’s also be sure to look for the Herald’s lawyer’s fingerprints all over the missive when we do.

• Just a background paragraph on Tomase from a prior Shots post:

Tomase is a graduate of Mansfield (Mass.) High School (‘91), who earned a degree in English from Tufts (’95). He began his professional career with the Herald on the high school desk and also held a part-time gig in the fertile newsroom of the MetroWest Daily news (formerly the Middlesex News), where he was hired full-time in 1996. Three years later, he slid over to the EagTrib, getting the Patriots beat at first and then switching to the Sox in the Spring of 2000.

• As for the full front page splash of “Sorry, Pats,” let’s be honest, it was the Herald trying to be as smarmy and bold as the New York Daily News or the New York Post. It failed because the Herald seldom goes that far and is even less likely to do it from the back page, where the sports headlines are timid, tame and totally un-New York.

It was a fine time for the Herald to get snarky.

If the Herald were really to apologize in earnest, they would have used the headline (in 6-point, I guess), “Sorry, Pats; Sorry, Readers/Subscribers; Sorry, Advertisers; Sorry, Journalism as a Whole; Sorry, Sports Fans in General.”

But “Sorry, Pats” with a picture of the trophy the team couldn’t secure? That’s not an apology. It’s a cheap attempt to get people to buy the Herald and then feed them a disjointed, uneven and slightly confusing “apology” buried on the inside-back page.

The Herald comes off just awful in the whole episode. Even with Convey’s day-late editor’s letter and what will be Tomase’s two days late explanation, the paper still comes off looking silly. The apology (and lack of cover shots on the website) was lame and the spin was (mis)-handled by a Marketing and Promotions woman (Gwen Gage), who probably is as stunned as we are that she was the one answering such serious questions on the matter.

In fact, when Gage was contacted on Wednesday by Shots for a follow-up question on the discrepancy between “a source” and “sources,” she politley refused saying the paper had no further comment and that the apology would serve as its explanation. (At that point in the early afternoon, it’s quite likely that even the company spokeswoman wasn’t aware of Tomase’s intention to spill his side on Friday.) When asked if there were anyone else who might be able to comment, Gage sighed, “I’m it.”

• Bob Kraft was happy with the Herald’s apology. Now maybe he can offer one up to the loyal fans who now have to face the fact that the Pats have been cheating for the entire Belichick regime.

• Let’s hope the Herald is smart enough to post the full Tomase explanation on its website when it customarily posts all its next-day material – after midnight on the day of publication. To withhold any or all of the story would be to force readers to buy the paper and would be a slap in the face to all those who are willing to hear Tomase’s explanation.

This isn’t the time to be trying to sell a few more issues. This is the time to be saving the integrity of your sports department, your paper and your future.

• Comcast SportsNet confirmed it has made overtures to have Tomase on-air but as of Wednesday afternoon, it has not been successful in luring its regular contributor. ESPN 890′s Felger show has also extended an invitation to Tomase and Felger said he will have no problem using Tomase in the future as he has in the past on the stagnant Felgie Drive Time show.

• Felger admitted that he was “a little aggressive” in his “Two Minutes of Trey (Wingo)” appearnce on ESPN on Tuesday. (See video below.) But Mr. Underwood was very right in begging off the Wingo lead-in that made it seem as if Felger was speaking on behalf of the paper. “I’m not even on staff over there,” he said to Shots on Wednesday. “It was a classic ‘Not my place’ moment. It wasn’t my place to comment on what John had done. I’m not running from the fact that I work for the Herald and have for (almost 20) years, but it wasn’t my place.”

What Felger did do was try to move the story (and questioning) forward by pointing out the fact that Roger Goodell neglected to mention in his presser that Walsh shared information with Brian Daboll. Always steady Wingo – who, along with Felger, was clearly put in a bad position by an over-zealous, pushy producer – tried one more time to draw out a Felger response to the paper’s position, but that led to Felger’s zinger where he asked if Wingo would want to stand behind everything ESPN has done in the past year.

“I was a little aggressive, but I wasn’t going to speak to that,” said Felger on Wednesday, adding, “I have no problem with Trey and if they want me on again, I’m happy to do it.”

Both sides probably owe it to each other to mend the fences – they are kind of in the same family (although 890 is not an 0&Oed) and both guys were just caught in an awkward situation.

. . . Felger said he did the phone interview live with Wingo at about 1:15 on Tuesday as Felger drove to Comcast in Burlington. He also said he did a later, more civil hit with Rich Eisen at the NFL Network (along with Adam Schefter and Bryan Burwell). At that time, Felger said, “It’s not a great day for the Herald.” (Featured video is called, “Where’s the Rams tape?” at NFL network site.)

• In case you were wondering, Marshall Faulk had one kickoff return and zero punt returns in the Super Bowl game. He totaled one yard on his kickoff return.

Specter said on Wednesday, “One of my staffers did the research and found that Marshall Faulk had only returned one kick in his entire career.” Faulk would go one to return another regular season kick in 2004 for zero yards. It’s not clear whether Faulk ever had any other playoff kick/punt returns, but I bet a few hours of research by Specter’s staffer could figure it out. Tax money well spent, right Arl?

• Commenting overload at Boston.com. The Herald too, of course, but they have far less rigid posting rules which accounts for the 500 responses.

David Scott writes from a seaside shanty on the shores of Hull, Mass. and can be reached at shotsATbostonsportsmediaDOTcom.

Scott’s first book, with Memphis Coach John Calipari, is scheduled for release in the Fall of 2009.