Earlier this week, I broke down the massive implications for both the Saints and ESPN revolving around the explosive wiretapping report from Outside the Lines at Bloguin's NFL site This Given Sunday. The categoric denial from the Saints (and threat of possible legal action) has created a high stakes poker game with both sides all in. In a nutshell, if more evidence arises to support the ESPN report that Saints GM Mickey Loomis was eavesdropping on opposing coaches, it would be a damning blow to the Saints far beyond BountyGate. We're not just talking about stealing signs, there are criminal implications.
However, for ESPN, the stakes are nearly as high. Get this report right and your reputation for breaking huge stories and hard-hitting journalism receives a huge lift. Get it wrong, and you've got another Geraldo's Vault on your hands. And, as Mark Schwarz's Bernie Fine report falls apart further day by day, ESPN can't afford to get such a massive story wrong. Many voices are already criticizing their journalistic ambitions, and if the Mickey Loomis wiretapping story flops or goes nowhere, we're left with John Barr holding a very costly bag.
The problem for ESPN was Barr's explosive report being so flimsy on actual evidence. Outside the Lines had a miniscule amount of sources and only one that spoke in the story about the Superdome's rewiring to listen to opposing coaches. ESPN produced no physical evidence, but spoke of the allegations being handed over to the FBI and District Attorney's office to add credibility.
Now, another explosive report from New Orleans has identified that central source as a former Saints electrician... fired by the team in 2007 for improper billings. Ruh roh. Fox 8 in New Orleans and investigative reporter Lee Zurik identified Tim Landry as Barr's source. Zurik's sources (bear with us on the pure amount of sourcing) say Barr's report was based on Landry's word, and possibly another person that worked for Landry. Also, Zurik reports that Landry handed over no evidence to Barr besides telling him of the alleged wiretapping.
This is an enormous issue for ESPN and Barr's report. If Zurik's reporting is accurate, John Barr's report is solely based on the word of a fired Saints employee who produced no evidence of his claims. That's troubling. More troubling is the growing sentiment that Barr anchored himself in New Orleans until he found something negative to report. First from the Fox 8 report...
Sources say ESPN's investigation of the Saints started with phone calls from reporter John Barr to a number of people with current and former ties to the Saints. Former WWL radio reporter Kenny Wilkerson confirms to FOX 8 News that Barr called him, looking for information on Sean Payton. Wilkerson tells us he gave Barr phone numbers for a number of people, including Tim Landry.
And also from Deadspin...
This fits in with what we've heard about ESPN's reporting of this story. We've been told by multiple sources that Barr holed up in a New Orleans hotel room for a number of weeks, having been dispatched to dig up general dirt on the Saints—he was not specifically investigating wiretap claims. Barr's tactic, we're told, was to go down a list and call anyone who might have an axe to grind with the franchise.
And from WWL-New Orleans Legal Analyst Donald Foret...
“John Barr, the reporter on April 5 called me asking a lot of questions about the Saints. Obviously, everyone is piling on as a result of the bounty scandal. He called me on April 5 and he asked me some really crazy questions, and it was obvious to me that he was looking for dirt on the Saints. I felt terribly uncomfortable with the conversation. I reported it to the Saints.
“It’s obvious to me that John Barr had a mission, and it looks like he reported on that mission today.
If ESPN's idea of investigative reporting in New Orleans is hyenas cleaning up scraps off a wounded animal, that's discouraging. If ESPN's idea of investigative reporting in New Orleans is publicizing wild accusations from former disgruntled employess, that's not just wreckless reporting, it's dangerous.
At this point, we have to wait and see as to the veracity of not just Barr's report, but this additional reporting by Zurik. Fox 8 in New Orleans is owned by Saints head honcho Tom Benson, although Zurik's disclaimer says Benson nor the Saints had anything to do with his report. Right now there are too many conflicting sources and allegations to definitively state who may be lying and who may be telling the truth. The investigation has to play itself out before bringing a final judgment on the case.
With a federal investigation underway, we will ultimately know whether there is enough evidence to further the claims put forward by ESPN. Because Barr's initial report was so light on facts, the onus is really on somebody, be it ESPN or a federal investigation, to produce actual evidence that this wiretapping happened. That's going to be extremely difficult for allegations 8-10 years old and a listening device destroyed 7 years ago. The events of this week have now put ESPN, Outside the Lines, and John Barr's reporting under major scrutiny. One of the central parties, either the New Orleans Saints or ESPN, are not emerging from this story unscathed. With the new reports coming out of New Orleans, the likelihood that it's the latter now appear just as likely as the former.
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