A blog is a blog is a blog…

Or is it? New web sites called “blogs” pop up every day that lend a voice to new commentators, the only requirement being a modicum of HTML skills and a few dollars to register a domain name. Increasingly they are being viewed as a challenge to the mainstream media, because of the ease in which information can be distributed, but at the same time, they also come under fire because they do not have the “credibility” that an established news organization has, or the information that they publish may not always be as carefully verified as it would be for say, a newspaper.

But what about blogs that are in fact, owned and operated by news organizations? What standards should these be held to? Are they blogs…with the leeway to publish items of questionable origins, or are they news outlets that should carefully scrutinize the items published because they do reflect upon the entire organization?

Here in Boston, we have a curious dynamic at work. Last summer, Steve Silva’s very popular Red Sox fan site BostonDirtDogs.com was acquired by Boston.com, which is the online home to the Boston Globe. Both companies are owned by the New York Times Company. In the press release announcing the deal, Silva was quoted as saying: “I am thrilled to be a part of Boston.com’s sports section. Boston Dirt Dogs struck a chord among Red Sox fans with its sometimes serious, sometimes light, sometimes like Don Rickles at a Friar’s Club roast tone.” As part of the deal, Silva was hired as a sports producer for Boston.com, and as part of that is paid by the company to update BostonDirtDogs.

Part of what makes BostonDirtDogs a popular destination is the at times controversial headlines and “scoops” that appear on the site. As noted in the press release, Silva and BostonDirtDogs are part of the Boston.com sports section. This may cause readers to automatically assume that the information being provided on the site is accurate and has been thoroughly checked out. Many people swear by the information provided on the site. The attachment to Boston.com, the Boston Globe and the NY Times company gives the site a legitimacy that most “blogs” do not have. A natural question is, is the site even a blog anymore, or just a feature of Boston.com?

A recent example calls into question exactly what is the role of BostonDirtDogs. Is it a legit news outlet, or is it just another blog?

Recently there was uproar over a report on BostonDirtDogs that stated that Nomar Garciaparra was not interested in receiving a World Series ring. According to this report, Nomar is quoted as having answered a fan during a signing session at Cubs spring training in Arizona who asked if he was excited about receiving a World Series ring from the Red Sox: “I don’t want it. They can keep it.”

This item appeared on BostonDirtDogs on February 25th, 2005, with the alleged quotes from Nomar in bold headline print, and underneath a picture of Nomar, there was, also in bold:

Breaking News: Sulking Shortstop Does Not Want Sox Series Ring

Silva took that information and went on a celebratory media tour, calling into WEEI over the weekend, and making an appearance on CN8’s Sportspulse on Monday night, during which the incident was talked about with host Ed Berliner at length. Here is a transcript of that portion of the show:

Berliner: I think you were the first on the website to have the news about Nomar Garciaparra not wanting his ring, basically that he wouldn’t take it.

Silva: I think I’m the only one who has it.

Berliner: I think you were as a matter of fact and we reported it that night simply because I thought it was interesting. What’s the take on Nomar, basically wasn’t he measured for a ring, first of all?

Silva: Oh sure, he’s gonna take the ring. He’ll accept it. He’s not going to say anything publicly if it’s going to get him in hot water. It doesn’t behoove him to tell a reporter he that he doesn’t want his ring.

Berliner: But he said that…

Silva: In a conversation, in a quiet moment when he was caught off guard. He said, “I don’t want it, they can keep it.” And that’s how he really feels. I mean, I think its no secret that Nomar, that the public Nomar vs. the private Nomar are two different people. Last year he was known to fib a little bit about his injury, even to his teammates, so in all the controversy that went on with him about what he said behind the scenes with his contract, and what he was saying publicly, and this is just one more instance of what Nomar says when he lets his guard down vs. what he says publicly. He’s gonna take the ring of course, because if he didn’t take the ring publicly there would be a media firestorm and he’ll look like an ingrate.

Berliner: Sounds like he was already an ingrate from what he was saying he didn’t want the ring…

Silva: Yeah, sure. Right.

An interesting exchange, to be sure. Silva is very definite in what took place here. He even makes the statement that this is how Nomar “really feels”. How can he be so sure?

The story was even noted over the weekend in a column by Jeff Horrigan of the Boston Herald, who indicated there was no proof of Silva’s assertions. It was reported in the Inside Track of the Boston Herald that Nomar sent his ring size to the Red Sox and accepted the World Series share his former teammates voted him. Berliner mentioned this and Silva immediately spun the story as above, further putting himself into Nomar’s head and explaining his actions.

In an unrelated development, Chicago newspapers carried stories shortly after the Dirt Dogs report that indicated Garciaparra appreciated the Red Sox and their intention to reward him with a ring for his part in their championship season.

Since Silva works for Boston.com, makes appearances on television (SportsPulse, NESN, WBZ Sports Final) and on radio, he would appear to be a real news journalist. Stories of this type from him have the trust of much of the public due to his affiliations.

So how did Silva come across this information, which is not a small item?

Silva received an anonymous email tip from a “Jessica” that gave him the above information. Without attempting to verify the source of the email…not even asking for the last name, phone number or address of the sender, the “tip” went up onto BostonDirtDogs.com, credited to “Our AZ correspondent Jessica”.

Silva related the contents of the email on the website. This was all within an hour of originally receiving the email. “Jessica” received a brief and quick reply: “Great report Jessica. Thanks. Going up now.”

Later, Silva received a warning that the information was likely not correct, he brushed it aside, claiming that he knew Jessica well and that she was credible.

BSMW has learned in the last 24 hours that the original email was a hoax, and that the warning came from the same person who sent the original email. It was done on purpose by the person to see what Silva would do with the information. Copies of all emails from the exchange (with internet headers intact) are now in my possession. (note: BSMW had nothing to do with the original emails, we learned about all this after the fact)

The fact that a third party tricked Silva is not really the issue here. The issue is what he did with the information. He put it up onto BostonDirtDogs immediately, without attempting to verify, without asking for Jessica’s phone number, address, or even last name. People who follow that website are well aware of the negative slant towards Garciaparra that has permeated the page since at least last spring. It appears that Silva was eager to have another item to slam Nomar with, and hastily published it, without verification.

In so doing, this created yet another negative wave of sentiment towards Nomar, for something he never said. That’s damaging. Also recently, a picture of Nomar’s shirtless Sports Illustrated cover from 2001 was published under the headline “Nomar Named” in connection to news that Nomar’s name had appeared in Jose Canseco’s book. The implication was clear. Later, the headline was changed to note that Nomar was not named as a steroid user, in much smaller print. The damage was done.

Link to “Nomar Named” item.

The line seems to be blurred here. Does a news outlet make an implication like that? Does a news organization take an anonymous email and run with it to publication on something as significant as this? Can a reporter link to (and thus give credence to) a message board post (on boston.com, no less) that alleges that Pedro Martinez was abusing alcohol last season and present it to a much larger audience? Silva wants to be treated as a real reporter, a real news breaker, and get the attention that comes with TV and radio appearances, yet at the same time he can hide under the “Friar’s Club Roast” he gave in his press release at the time his site was purchased.

I sent an inquiry to Boston.com editor Teresa M. Hanafin, letting her know I was looking to do an article on the situation with Nomar allegedly refusing the ring and got the following response back:

Oh, Bruce, please — spare me. It’s a blog, for God’s sake. Lighten up. Given some of the content on your website, you’re hardly in a position to be flinging mud.

The response was disappointing on many levels. I make it a point not to “fling mud” as she puts it; in fact, I think anyone would be hard pressed to find an instance where I have done that in this space. I believe she is referring to message board posts from people who frequent the boards at a separate domain. (.net as opposed to .com) However, Boston.com has dozens of message boards, and I’m no more responsible for what is posted on message boards attached to this site than Ms. Hanafin would be for the Boston.com ones.

The second and much bigger point is that she can so casually toss off the fact that Steve Silva–who has a huge following– is posting unsubstantiated rumors and outright fabrications as breaking news.

Though the Boston Globe seems to want to distance themselves from BostonDirtDogs, the fact of the matter is that Steve Silva IS a Boston.com employee, represents Boston.com, and should be held to the same standards as other reporters and columnists. Claiming that he’s “just a blogger” just doesn’t cut it.

Scott A Benson also contributed to this report.