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What You Can Learn From Doug Gottlieb’s Missteps

Reporting is a trade, a profession, and while the premise of the job is simply to tell the truth, we all know how complicated the very idea of the truth has become.

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Doug Gottlieb

Doug Gottlieb deserves credit for admitting his error.

I want to make that very clear up front because I’m going to spend a good chunk of this column being fairly critical of something Gottlieb did. It’s something that Gottlieb has already taken a good deal of flak for, and I’m not writing about this column to pile on, but because there’s a bigger point to be made here not about Gottlieb specifically but about sports media in general.

There’s a whole lot of people who are using the language of news reporting without knowing what actually goes into the practice of reporting the news or understanding the implications of reporting the news. And if you start talking like a reporter without having the chops of a reporter, it leaves you vulnerable to getting pantsed in public like Gottlieb just did. Personally, I thought it was funny, but to be very candid that’s because I’m petty and I don’t personally care for Gottlieb’s perspective or his work. That’s my personal opinion, though, and I’m focused on the professional aspect here because there’s a larger point to be made. But to do that, we need to backtrack to June just after Freddie Freeman returned to Atlanta with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Buster Olney of ESPN reported about the emotional fallout from Freeman’s free-agent departure from Atlanta. Olney reported Freeman had fired Excel Sports Management, the agency that handled the negotiations first with the Braves and later with the Dodgers.

Enter Gottlieb. After Olney’s report, Gottlieb tweeted a more specific allegation about a specific agent at Excel: “Casey Close never told Freddie Freeman about the Braves final offer, that is why Freeman fired him. He found out in Atlanta this weekend. It isn’t that rare to have happen in MLB, but it happened – Close knew Freddie would have taken the ATL deal.”

This is not presented as Gottlieb’s opinion, but rather stated as a fact. It is essentially an allegation of professional malpractice, an agent failing to provide his client with all the information necessary for an informed decision. In this case, Gottlieb stated that Freeman was prevented from acting on an offer he would have accepted because his agent didn’t tell him.

Let’s pause the story right here before we get to Close’s reaction to the report. Gottlieb has every right to report hard news. There’s no class you must pass to become verified as a reporter, no certificate you must earn. You don’t even need to have studied journalism in college to practice the profession. But there are expectations that this language creates for those who read it. He is stating not what he thought happened or what he’s heard might have happened. Gottlieb stated this is what happened, and a good reporter must not only know this is exactly what happened but be able to demonstrate why he knows this is exactly what happened for reasons we’re about to see.

Close contested Gottlieb’s account. Then Close sued Gottlieb for libel in a New York district court, releasing the following statement: “Although we gave Mr. Gottlieb an opportunity to retract his false statement, he failed to do so. The Complaint sets the record straight as to what occurred during the negotiations with the Atlanta Braves.”

I considered writing a column on this after Close filed the suit because I wanted to explore the risks that a host runs when they go from offering opinions – which is what most of us do – to reporting news. I even sought sources with expertise in defamation law, and heard back from Nicholas Creel, an assistant professor in business law at Georgia College and State University, and David Reischer, a New York attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com. Both agreed that the main issue probably was not money.

Creel: “For Close, the value of this lawsuit isn’t necessarily in winning at trial. As an agent, he’s got a reputation to defend, filing this lawsuit and showing that he’s willing to fight a damning accusation likely helps him mitigate that reputational hit he’s suffered.”

Reischer: “Such a lawsuit would be expensive and likely lead to limited monetary damages, unless the Twitter post was gross and reckless in regards to the truth. More likely the plaintiff would need to settle for injunctive relief merely to get the offending online review removed.”

Now at the risk of boring you, I need to get wonky with some legalese that’s important in defamation cases starting with vocabulary. Libel is a defamatory statement that is written or published as opposed to slander, which is a defamatory statement that is said out loud. Because the issue here was a Tweet, it was a libel claim. In both instances, the defamatory statement must be shown to be demonstrably false. Truth is an absolute defense against any claim of libel or slander. It can’t be legally considered defamatory unless it’s false.

Second, there is a different legal standard for public figures when it comes to defamation as opposed to private individuals. A public figure must prove “actual malice” – meaning the person who made the defamatory statement wanted to harm the complainant. A private person must prove only that the person making the defamatory story was negligent and that a reasonable person would have or should have known the defamatory statement was false. As for what constitutes a public figure, well, lawyers make an awful lot of money arguing that one out in court, but the basic premise is that a public figure is a household name while a private person is someone who has not sought the public spotlight nor had it shined on them involuntarily.

This differentiation is important because Close filed his case as a private individual however Gottlieb could have disputed that if the case had gone to court.

Creel: “One thing to keep in mind that definitely cuts against the chances Close will be held to be a private individual is that the law recognizes that people can be public figures for a ‘limited purpose.’ Given that MLB is a major national pastime and the politics of players negotiating has an entire media ecosystem built on it, it’s pretty likely that they court will be accepting of the idea that Close fits at least this narrow category of public figure.”

That would have had huge implications for the case.

Reischer: “It makes sense that Close is coming out of the gate contending he isn’t a public figure, as he’s hoping to preemptively rebut the inevitable contention that he is one. If the court does find him to be a public figure, his case will be near unwinnable.”

I came away believing that Gottlieb had pretty limited vulnerability in the case. It might be uncomfortable to hear Close call him a liar in court, but proving Gottlieb not only lied, but did so with the intent of harming Close, is hard to imagine. I was surprised last week when Gottlieb released a statement retracting his report. He deleted the Tweet from June.

“I prematurely reported on these events and simply got it wrong. Upon further vetting of my sources, a review of the lawsuit filed against me in this matter, a direct conversation with Casey himself, I have learned that the conduct I alleged did not occur and there is no credible basis for stating that it did.”

A cynical characterization is the apology was made only at the point of a knife, but I want to take Gottlieb at his word. He’s being accountable and stating unequivocally he was wrong. That’s honorable.

What’s left unsaid is how Gottlieb came to make what he now characterizes as a mistake, though. The implication is that he received inaccurate information from his “sources” but that’s about all the insight we get into his reporting process. Did he contact Close or Freeman before publishing his tweet? That’s standard practice for a reporter especially in a case like this where Close and Freeman are the only two people certain to have direct knowledge of whether Freeman was informed of Atlanta’s final offer. In fact, Gottlieb’s initial tweet didn’t reference any source.

Reporting is a trade, a profession, and while the premise of the job is simply to tell the truth, we all know how complicated the very idea of the truth has become. The practices that reporters are taught to follow do not solve this challenge, but they do provide some safeguards aimed to prevent a reporter from putting too much stock in any one person with a specific agenda or limited knowledge of the situation.

It’s why attribution is important and the use of anonymous sources is generally discouraged. When it’s deemed necessary to use an anonymous source, the newspapers I’ve worked for required the reporter to disclose the source to his or her editor.

If you’re not going to follow basic standards like this or don’t deign to reach out to people with direct knowledge of a situation you’re reporting on, I would advise you not frame your work as a news report. In fact, there’s an easy fix: Start your statement with, “I think …” If Gottlieb had done that in his initial Tweet there would have been no problem. The issue was that he presented it as a fact, something he knew definitively. Turns out he was wrong about that.

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After KNBR Exit, Paul McCaffrey Looks Forward to Sports Talk Return

“I don’t think that I really had a clear understanding in terms of how far the reach of the show could stretch because I heard from hundreds and hundreds of people literally, and they did help.”

Derek Futterman

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Paul McCaffrey

It was just another morning at KNBR in San Francisco with riveting and entertaining sports discussion surrounding the local teams. The Golden State Warriors lost a game by one point the night before against the Sacramento Kings, and there was speculation surrounding the San Francisco Giants’ offseason plans. Brian Murphy and Paul McCaffrey, encompassing the local duo of Murph and Mac that had been on the air for 18 years, were talking about these topics and welcomed several special guests for interviews, including San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Nick Bosa. As the 49ers were gearing up to make a Super Bowl run though, the congenial sound that had become a familiar presence suddenly, without warning, ceased to exist.

There were ostensible warning signs that McCaffrey detected during the latter years of hosting the morning drive program. Cumulus Media, which owns KNBR and a cluster of stations in the San Francisco Bay Area, introduced new management in 2021 that presumably caused a change in culture. McCaffrey perceived an overall lack of connection with the executive team, underscored by a dearth of conversations surrounding promotions and public broadcasts. After years of being visible and in the community, the show became somewhat confined to the studio and purportedly more restrained in its freedom.

“It wasn’t quite as much fun as we had in the past, and the management group that came in were certainly less involved with us, meaning the Murph and Mac show, than previous management groups had been, and this gave us pause,” McCaffrey explained. “We were scratching our heads a little saying, ‘Huh? We’re suddenly kind of feeling like we’re radioactive here, and I’m not sure why’ because we had a lot of success, so the feeling wasn’t a positive one for me.”

On top of that, the program director role exhibited instability over the preceding years with several departures and new hires. Kevin Graham left the station last August for health reasons, which came two years after Jeremiah Crowe stepped aside and moved to Las Vegas. Cumulus Media had granted afternoon host Adam Copeland the program director responsibilities in November, marking the third person to hold the role in a four-year span. Mere weeks after Copeland started the role, KNBR made sweeping alterations to its lineup that affected the livelihoods of several employees and stunned dedicated listeners.

Following the late-November edition of the show, an intern informed Murphy and McCaffrey that they had been called by management for separate meetings. McCaffrey met with executives at the station, including its general manager, where he learned that his time at KNBR would be coming to an end effective immediately.

“I always equated it to like a life in the mafia, because if you’re in the mafia, there are two likely endings,” McCaffrey said. “One of them is you’re going to be jailed, and the other one is you’ll be whacked, and in radio, you don’t get jailed, but I’ve [seen] guys get whacked. I saw Gary Radnich get whacked [and] Ralph Barbieri get whacked, so it’s a long way of saying I was not surprised, and I knew that would be the most likely outcome at some point, so when it came, I wasn’t shocked.”

While McCaffrey and several other KNBR employees were laid off, Murphy was retained in morning drive and paired with Markus Boucher as his new co-host, debuting as the Murph and Markus program almost immediately thereafter. Although the layoffs did not change the dynamic between Murphy and McCaffrey, the situation represented an undesired outcome over which they had no control.

“We were basically forced into a divorce that we did not want,” McCaffrey said, “and it was unfortunate because here’s a situation where you’ve got two guys, partners for 18 years that genuinely like and respect each other that were forced into a separation that we really didn’t want.”

McCaffrey seldom listens to the KNBR morning show at this point because it feels weird to him, comparing it to seeing an ex-girlfriend in public with her new significant other. Nonetheless, he tries not to feel resentment towards KNBR about the situation and focuses on other aspects of his life without bitter sentiment.

“The truth of the matter is I don’t want to give them that much of my energy because the people that are involved with what happened and what led to the breakup of the Murph and Mac show, these are people that had had no impact on the history of that show,” McCaffrey said. “They basically just got here just a couple of years ago, and we had already built our brand. We had already hit our success prior to their arrival, [and it] had nothing to do with them.”

The authenticity demonstrated by Murphy and McCaffrey, combined with the sports talk and compelling conversation, yielded an on-air product that appealed to many local listeners. Neither of them ever had personas specific to their show, he felt, and were instead able to showcase their genuine dispositions to the audience and display that when hosting on location. Concurrently speaking, they understood what their audience wanted to hear and delivered on a consistent basis.

“I always felt like people don’t necessarily want or need a lecture at that hour in the morning on sports and on the right play calls and stuff, and so I try to do a lot of comedy,” McCaffrey said. “I’m a huge fan of comedy; I’m a student of comedy. I’ve studied it really for decades since I was a college student watching standup films of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and guys like that. I was always very interested in making people laugh, and I tried to do that on the show.”

The amusing levity of McCaffrey and journalistic credibility of Murphy established a sound that attracted and retained scores of listeners. McCaffrey took a pragmatic approach with the show, recognizing that countering Murphy’s background would ultimately prove beneficial.

“I think a lot of other sports talk guys might not have been cool with that – the guys that want to talk serious spots – but Murph always let me be myself, God bless him,” McCaffrey said, “and by doing that, I think my personality is allowed to come to the surface [and] complement his, and the show really worked that way, but he deserves a lot of credit for allowing those things to happen.”

Although the program experienced levels of success in its early years, the show took off when the San Francisco Giants began to regularly contend for World Series championships. As the flagship home of the Giants, KNBR broadcast the games and covered the team during its dynasty of three championships in six seasons. After the team’s night games, the Murph and Mac show was one of the first local entities to broadcast reaction and analysis the following morning.

“When the Giants started to just blast up into the stratosphere, Murph and I just kind of saddled up, got on the rocket and took the ride with them, and we became synonymous with the Giants during those years because there was such a fever for the Giants and the players were such a part of the community,” McCaffrey said. “It was a really special time. I think that happens sometimes in sports when the right team and the right group of guys can capture the interest of a city, and that’s exactly what happened in those years.”

Several years later, listeners continue to remember the essence of Murph and Mac, many of whom communicated their best wishes and support to McCaffrey following his being laid off. Over the ensuing time following the announcement, he would see his phone flooded with messages of goodwill as he tried to acclimate to his new lifestyle. No longer did McCaffrey need to wake up at 4 a.m. and run out the door to the radio station; however, he did not view it as a burden and enjoyed hosting with Murphy on KNBR.

“I don’t think that I really had a clear understanding in terms of how far the reach of the show could stretch because I heard from hundreds and hundreds of people literally, and they did help,” Murphy said. “They made me realize, ‘Hey man, people dug that show. We did a good job. People enjoyed us in the morning,’ and hearing that every day from so many people during that time, it did lift my spirits.”

There has been turmoil at KNBR of late with declining ratings and public controversy involving Copeland, who stepped down from the program director position last month. As KNBR looks to fill the vacancy, McCaffrey is not interested in returning to the station in that role, deeming the hypothetical scenario to be a “disaster of epic proportions.” Even so, he does not miss the office politics and tension surrounding KNBR, some of which involved prognosticating the future of the show. At the same time, he is disappointed to see the situation surrounding the company and feels the outlet needs to rethink things.

“Right now, there’s nobody at the wheel,” McCaffrey said of KNBR. “They’re going to have to get somebody to get their hands on that wheel and start to steer this thing a little bit because you can’t be directionless out on the open sea, right? You’ve got to chart a course and you’ve got to follow that for better or worse, so to me, if any kind of forward progress is going to be made with that station, I think the most obvious think that they need to do is find the right person to sit in that program director chair and get this thing back on the tracks.”

Over the last several months, McCaffrey has been traveling and cherishing the downtime while evaluating the media landscape and thinking about his future. Since he is no longer tied to the morning program, he has had more time to explore innovations in digital media. In fact, he is beginning to question the traditional radio model itself, specifically the need for four-hour shows five days a week. The entire experience has been illuminating, and while it marks a paradigmatic shift, it is one he is compelled to try and embrace. McCaffrey has a group of investors and is working on launching a new sports-focused show with a destination to be determined and looks forward to the freedom therein.

“Sometimes you may love the guys [at the radio station] – you may love their ideas – and there are other times you’re not going to really see eye to eye on things, so the idea that putting a show together and not being holden to anyone else’s thoughts or visions, that to me is really exciting because that represents creative freedom,” McCaffrey said, “and I am one of those guys who thinks that the more ideas you can bring to the table, the better off the product is going to be.”

McCaffrey believes that creativity can be stunted by those who do not have the prudence or vision to actualize future endeavors. None of that will apply with his new project, which will capitalize on ideas they feel are salient or noteworthy, an enticing proposition to construct the product. McCaffrey hopes to bring the audience he helped develop on KNBR to his new program, and would love to work with Murphy again down the road in the right situation. For now though, he is focused on forging his path ahead and returning to the sports talk landscape.

“I just kind of want to get back into doing shows, get back into a rhythm, start to have some fun again [and] do a show in my own vision,” McCaffrey said, “and if I can just get some people to come along and maybe they can spread the word, I do have confidence that it’ll grow, so just knowing that I have an audience out there, even if it’s a small one at first, would be satisfying to me.”

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NBC Sports is the Big Loser in Caitlin Clark Olympics Snub

It’s hard to fathom just how many extra pennies Caitlin Clark’s inclusion on the women’s team might have meant, both now and down the road.

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Logo for the Paris Olympics and a photo of Caitlin Clark

Before this year, I’m not sure too many folks were putting extra effort into unraveling the mysteries of USA Basketball’s selection process for the women’s Olympic team. When you’ve won seven gold medals in a row and have a 72-3 composite record, it’s hard to stir too much controversy over, say, the 12th player.

But that’s where we are today, since Caitlin Clark wound up on the outside looking in. And although Team USA’s first Olympic tipoff is still seven weeks off, we can go ahead and tally up some early winners and losers.

Winner: Sports talk. Seldom have so many babbled so often on a topic about which they know so little. Again, that’s the Clark effect in full bloom. Her stunning rise in popularity during her college years not only riveted fans, but made her name one that sports yakkers could throw out there fearlessly, as if to say, Sure, I follow women’s hoops. (No, you don’t.)

Loser: Olympics watchers. The U.S. women are 54-0 at the Games since 1996, so there’s not a ton of drama attached here. But watching Clark rain down some ludicrous threes on the Paris stage, even if she were limited to 12 or 15 minutes a game, would’ve been fun.

Winner: Caitlin Clark. She’s pretty good. And even if her exclusion from the Oly squad is fully justified by the number of players who are better, Clark receives another popularity bump in a weird, martyred way that I’m sure she wouldn’t seek. She really doesn’t need to be outraged, since people are outraged on her behalf. (Clark could still be added to the roster if injuries or other unforeseen circumstances occur.)

Loser: Women’s basketball. This topic really has been pounded into the ground. But Christine Brennan summed it up best in this piece for USA Today: It’s an airball for the women’s sport not to include its one current, bona fide, no-questions-asked sensation as it takes the world stage. Sensation does not mean best in class. Sensation means sensation. Clark is compulsively watchable right now.

Which brings us to…

Loser: NBC Sports. Wow. Huge. Bigly.

It’s hard to calculate what the NBC Olympics broadcast could have had if Caitlin Clark were selected to the women’s team. It’s hard because we’re trying to add up what didn’t happen, and that’s always a bit of a puzzle.

But here’s what an NBC spokesperson told Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy back in April about Clark’s potential ratings effect, should she make the team:

“Caitlin’s impact on viewership is undeniable and historic,” the spokesperson said. “Her presence on Team USA in Paris would only add to the growing anticipation and excitement for the Summer Games starting in just over 100 days.”

Undeniable and historic. Brennan was on the mark when she suggested that three of the dominant American storylines in Paris likely would have been Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and Clark. NBC still gets two out of three, but amazing ratings for gymnastics and swimming are almost always guaranteed. The network was already banking on that.

Women’s hoops, while certainly popular, is still ripe for ratings growth. Clark’s presence not only would’ve spiked those ratings, it would have introduced a basketball-watching world to a number of other great players, American and international.

We can’t put an exact dollar figure on what that kind of focus would be worth, but here’s one way to think about it: The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics were the lowest-rated on record, with about 11.4 million viewers tuning in during prime time. The 2021 pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games were at 15.6 million. This year’s women’s NCAA basketball title game between Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes and South Carolina drew 18.9 million viewers – the biggest TV audience for a basketball game since 2019, according to Nielsen.

That is men’s or women’s games, college or pro. None higher. That’s absurd. And without diminishing any of the great storylines that ran through that NCAA tournament, including coach Dawn Staley’s South Carolina team completing a perfect 38-0 season, you have to know that the engine of the historic viewership was the sensation of Clark.

As for the Olympics, NBC isn’t exactly suffering. In April, parent company Comcast said the network had already sold $1.2 billion worth of advertising for the Paris Games, including $350 million from first-time buyers.

Still, NBC is in the midst of a $7.65 billion deal to hold Olympics broadcast rights through 2032. In that respect, I guess, every penny counts – and it’s hard to fathom just how many extra pennies Caitlin Clark’s inclusion on the women’s team might have meant, both now and down the road.

Again, it’s hard to total up what you could’ve had. All NBC knows for sure is that it didn’t get the opportunity.

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Do Sports Radio Hosts Still Reflect The Attitude of Their Audiences?

There seems to be a disconnect between the vitriol spit out by sports radio hosts and the feelings from the normal, average, run-of-the-mill fan.

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AM Radio
Courtesy: Deposit Photos

As Championship Season comes to a close and more and more teams drop out of the postseason hunt, sports radio is oftentimes at its best. The annual autopsy dissecting what went right and what went wrong for the teams that didn’t bring home gold trophies is often pretty good radio.

But does the oftentimes overboard nature of those autopsies still reflect that attitude of the average sports radio listener?

Because if you turn on a station after their local pro sports team is eliminated from the playoffs — or in some cases didn’t make the playoffs at all — you’ll hear hyperbolic statements, vitriol at certain players, coaches, or front office members, and questions about the future.

If you look at the reactions from average fans, however, it’s very rarely that. Depending on the situation, you’ll see “Thanks for the memories!” or “What a great year!” posts from fans, more than you’ll see “(Player X) needs to GO!” or “(Insert Coach Here) better be run out of town on a railroad tie by tomorrow morning!,” that often emulates the talk of sports radio.

Now, I recognize that you could argue that the response from fans who share their appreciation for teams that don’t win it all aren’t representative of sports radio listeners. And you’re probably right. It makes completely logical sense that the most diehard fans — the ones who are willing to tweet out a coach’s address, for instance — are the most likely P1s.

But I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had too many listeners.

I’m not arguing for Sunshine and Rainbow Sports Radio. As one of the world’s foremost fans of Don La Greca rants, I can’t pretend as if I don’t like Scream and Yell Radio. Be harsh when the situation calls for it.

But what I don’t enjoy is “Our Team Lost and I Think The Listeners Expect Me to Host a Three or Four Hour Bitch Session Today, So That’s What They’re Gonna Get” Radio.

I’ve made no bones about how much I admire hosts who are willing to zag when the audience expects them to zig. 92.3 The Fan’s Ken Carman several times a year say “I’m not doing ‘Fire the Coach Radio’ today,” during the Cleveland Browns season.

And I can’t tell you how much faith that instills in me that this medium isn’t simply kowtowing to what fans expect. Because anyone, literally anyone, can sit down in front of a microphone and shout nonsense about how someone should lose their job the first moment something goes wrong.

But it’s much harder to be entertaining, interesting, and informative when you’re challenging the stance of your audience. When you have the cajones to say “You’re being ridiculous and I’ll tell you why.”

In this instance, when seasons are ending and questions abound about the future of a team, it feels like the shoe is on the other foot, though. And I find that situation fascinating.

I don’t know the answer to the question of whether or not sports radio hosts still reflect the attitude of their audiences. And I don’t know if it even particularly matters in the grand scheme of things. But I think it’s a quick way to lose an audience when you think they want something they don’t.

You need to keep your finger on the pulse. If you don’t, you might end up hearing that long, drawn-out, high pitched squeal every medical drama in history has used for dramatic effect.

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