It’s impossible to get every scoop. Even Adrian Wojnarowski loses a few to the voracious yet perplexing mind of Shams Charania. Sometimes the source you need to solidify the story doesn’t want to speak to you, or they don’t want to speak at all, or they speak to a different reporter at a more established publication. It happens. There’s still some dignity to be salvaged when your lunch is eaten, but when faced with this scenario, the current version of Deadspin pretended it was inevitable that their lunch, sitting there all perfectly prepared and served up on a silver platter, was doomed to be eaten all along.
This past Sunday, Kevin Draper of the New York Times published a story on how last summer, during the NBA bubble season, ESPN broadcaster and reporter Rachel Nichols had been recorded talking shit about her coworker Maria Taylor. (Disclosure: Draper and I worked together at a previous version of Deadspin.) Draper obtained a 20-minute recording of a conversation between Nichols and Adam Mendelsohn, an adviser for LeBron James. In one of the two published snippets, Nichols reacted to learning that Taylor would be hosting the pregame and postgame coverage for the 2020 NBA Finals. Nichols believed it was an attempt by ESPN to compensate for recurring complaints of fewer career advancement opportunities for its black employees.
It’s rare to hear ESPN talent as well as a person in LeBron’s camp speaking candidly. Mendelsohn, who helped James form the organization More Than A Vote to fight voter suppression and engage more black voters for the 2020 election, said at one point, “I don’t know. I’m exhausted. Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left,” which made Nichols laugh. This was the level of unfiltered, honest conversation we were supposed to get from The Shop. (Mendelsohn has since apologized for saying he was exhausted by worldwide movements that keep him employed by LeBron.) The key part, the portion that likely caused ESPN to replace Nichols with Malika Andrews as NBA Finals sideline reporter on Tuesday, was this:
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in July 2020. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”New York Times
Nichols was correct about ESPN’s shoddy record on diversity: That same month, Draper had published a story on the scarce executive-level opportunities for black employees at the company. The article included an anecdote about Taylor feeling dismissed on a conference call. Where Nichols drew the ire of her black colleagues, as Draper reported, was by thinking that diversity shouldn’t come at the expense of her own opportunities. She’s an ally who realizes how important these conversations are; just have them elsewhere. The possibility that Taylor, who has experience hosting pregame and postgame coverage, could have earned the job solely on merit didn’t seem to cross Nichols’s mind.
Nichols spoke with Mendelsohn while she was following COVID-19 restrictions and working out of her room at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando. The leaked video had been uploaded to ESPN’s servers through the camera she was using for her broadcasting duties. The past year flattened the distinction between work and home for many people, but in her response to the Times, Nichols chose to present these facts in a more sinister way:
“I was shaken that a fellow employee would do this, and that other employees, including some of those within the N.B.A. project, had no remorse about passing around a spy video of a female co-worker alone in her hotel room,” she said, adding, “I would in no way suggest that the way the comments came to light should grant a free pass on them being hurtful to other people.”New York Times
From the information available, this framing is cynical and dubious. Coincidentally, last summer the current version of Deadspin took a similar tack, publishing a report with the headline “ESPN Creep Used ‘The Jump’ Video Feed To Secretly Record Rachel Nichols in Her Hotel Room — Video Got Sent to Us.” The article had a four-person byline: G/O Media editorial director Jim Rich, editor-in-chief Eric Barrow, and senior writers Carron J. Phillips and Julie DiCaro. At the time, they did not publish the video that got sent to them, but they did choose to immediately trash the tipster.
The ethics of burning an anonymous source are widely debated. It’s not off the table if the source is deliberately giving false information, but that wasn’t the case here. Here’s an excerpt of the Deadspin article from July 15, 2020:
Nichols (whose face never appears on camera) and the other party to the call discuss Nichols’ career, ESPN staff, and the World Wide Leader’s decision about who will host the network’s coverage of the NBA Finals. In light of privacy concerns and our being unable to view the entirety of the conversation recorded, we have chosen not to detail the conversation or post the video of the call. Sources have told Deadspin that the entire video of Nichols’ conversation was 30 minutes long. Deadspin received about four minutes of edited footage. It is also worth noting that the videos were sent to Deadspin as an attempt to discredit Nichols’ job status within ESPN, and with the public at large, with the anonymous source texting our reporter that the videos would “expose” Nichols as a “back-stabber” and a phony ally.
Nothing in the videos Deadspin viewed show Nichols saying anything that could be construed as either a back-stabber or phony ally. Historically, casting successful women as conniving backstabbers has been a tried and true method of encouraging public condemnation of them. (See, e.g., Clinton, Hillary, and Warren, Elizabeth). You love to see the classics trotted out.
Whatever their motivations, the “ESPN Creep” turned out to be broadly correct in how they framed those clips. Whether or not the tipster worked for ESPN, they reached out hoping someone would shine a light on a fully justifiable, obviously newsworthy story, and instead got smeared for it.
At first, you could assume good faith and wonder if the four minutes of footage received by the current version of Deadspin had been different from the 20 minutes acquired by the Times. Maybe they weren’t sent the part where Nichols questioned Taylor’s capabilities. Except they fucking were! Any plausible deniability vanished on Monday when Phillips published a follow-up article with the headline “Rachel Nichols’ comments about Maria Taylor are latest example of how ESPN screws over its Black employees.” It’s unclear why this duty fell to him instead of Rich or Barrow, who as editorial leadership really should have been the ones to eat the most shit. If they weren’t going to answer for why they slapped together a story in 30 hours and showed no interest in what was originally a juicy tip, they should’ve at least prevented Phillips from admitting that he had the money quote in its entirety a year ago and did not publish it.
In this week’s post, Phillips published the four minutes of video he had received, which included the crucial portion where Nichols talked shit about Taylor. He revealed that the current version of Deadspin had done a whopping one day of reporting before they decided there was nothing to see here, aside from an “ESPN Creep.” Here’s what Phillips wrote on July 5, 2021:
That quote is from the Times story. But, it’s also part of the audio that I received. So while I had background on what I thought might be going on, I didn’t have any actual proof. But, let me be clear. Nichols names Taylor in the clip and was mad about her getting a hosting job that she wanted. In the clip, Nichols is “venting.” But while the information I was given by the “source” was some potential context to what was going on in the video, there was so much more that I didn’t have access to. I knew Nichols was being shady — I just didn’t know how shady it got, as I only had access to only a small portion of a longer conversation.
After watching the same video that Phillips had almost a year ago, I am trying and failing to determine his distinction between background and actual proof. He and his editors watched this video, listened to Rachel Nichols talk shit about Maria Taylor—not publishing at all would have been an understandable decision, but they instead chose to rush a premise that turned out to be entirely incorrect even in the original context—and then a year later pretended they had known this all along, and would perhaps follow up. They didn’t. Draper got it all.
This is not a case of getting beaten to the story by a reporter with better access. Rich and Barrow had a lead that any outlet would’ve killed for, and seemingly showed no interest in digging into it past a 24-hour window. How do they defend that? They haven’t so far, with the two editors maintaining radio silence and letting their writers twist in the wind.
DiCaro and Jane McManus attempted their own postmortem on today’s episode of their podcast The Ladies’ Room, with Phillips as a guest. And the more background they provide on the reporting process of this story, the less it helps their case. Around the 10-minute mark, DiCaro reveals how her sources reacted to the original blog:
Looking back on it, I wish that we had waited. I wish that we had maybe done a little more investigation, but I don’t know that that would have gotten us anywhere, because I chased this story. I don’t think I’ve said this publicly, but the day after that story aired, I got a bunch of phone calls from women at ESPN, and from women outside ESPN, who thought that we made Rachel Nichols look like a victim, and they disagreed that that was the case. So I tried to get people—we talk on background, we talk off the record—no one was willing to say anything. And you know, eventually you chase stories around, and at some point you have to let them go. And that was one I let go, and maybe I did that too soon.
“Were we played? Did we get Manti Teo’d?” Phillips wrote on Monday. “I don’t know.” Ideally his editors at the current version of Deadspin could help him figure out the answer, or advise him not to openly ask such an insipid question. It would be their first competent action at the site.
Disclosure: 19 editorial employees at Defector worked at a previous version of Deadspin.