False Reid-Gruden rumor shows truth can be casualty in information era

Jon Gruden, shown with Phillies cap after losing a bet in 2008, was falsely rumored to be joining Eagles.
Jon Gruden, shown with Phillies cap after losing a bet in 2008, was falsely rumored to be joining Eagles.
Posted: February 08, 2011

PLEASE DON'T think I am against the ever-evolving process of information dissemination.

I don't think we newspaper columnists/reporters/journalists have some exclusive authority, right or standing to deliver news.

I'm an opinion writer in a profession almost exclusively about delivering facts. I have no wiggle room to question others' right to express their opinions in whatever forum they choose.

Blogs and social networking sites undoubtedly are a growing influence in the way we exchange information. They are not going anywhere and will only continue to have more and more influence.

That's not a bad thing, but it is something we'd better come to terms with.

In the grand scheme, what happened to the Eagles organization in recent days was less than a blip on the radar. But it was an example of what seems to have become a daily occurrence affecting all areas of life.

At some point late Sunday or early yesterday morning, Philadelphia native and veteran NFL fullback Kyle Eckel, who played for the Eagles in 2008, posted on his Facebook page that he heard a rumor that Eagles coach Andy Reid would step down and be replaced by former Tampa Bay coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden.

The post went viral in the Delaware Valley.

A reporter for KOMU-TV, an NBC affiliate in Missouri, picked up the rumor/story.

A blog site reported that Gruden was in Philadelphia Sunday night, which would have been difficult to pull, since he spent most of the day in Dallas as part ESPN's Super Bowl coverage team.

ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter tweeted the Reid/Gruden story was "ridiculous" and "impossible."

He noted the rumor came from a source with no history of breaking news and wasn't plugged in to the Eagles.

Eckel was invited on "The Morning Show" on WIP Radio to talk about the "rumors" he heard.

The Eagles began receiving phone calls at the NovaCare Complex from people asking whether this was true.

News agencies, including the Daily News and ESPN, reported that Eckel's rumor was false. A front-office person with the Eagles called the Daily News after hearing that Eagles beat writer Les Bowen was writing a story about Gruden and Reid.

He was not.

At 10:36, the Eagles, who normally poke their heads in the sand like an ostrich regarding rumors, released a statement, saying: "Early this morning we received several inquiries regarding the rumors regarding Andy Reid and Jon Gruden. This was simply a rumor and there is no basis to it at all. It is simply not true."

Soon after, Eckel posted on Facebook: "Wow! A lot going on. After reading a few things allow me to clarify that I never said someone within the [Eagles] organization told me anything.

"I literally heard this from other people as a rumor. Maybe they heard from a credible source or just read online. Your guess is as good as mine . . . Fun Stuff."

Not so much fun if you are the Eagles.

Not so much fun if you are a journalist who has to track down a non-story.

Not so much fun if you are a fan who, for whatever reason, took this as something that was true and that should grab your attention.

Ultimately, Eckel, who took a media beating, acknowledged during one of his numerous radio appearances that it wasn't much fun for him once he realized how much upheaval his post had created.

I don't begrudge blogs and social networks the right to exist.

I understand that they are growing influence in communication, and they will continue to grow. People are free to get information from whatever medium they please.

But understand that traditional journalists have rules to follow, and there are penalties for breaking them.

A libel or slander suit is a powerful incentive for news organization to do their due diligence to confirm and reconfirm their facts.

But a loss of credibility with the people who trust us to deliver factual information is the greatest check and balance.

What are the rules for blogs or social networking?

What are the consequences for blatantly getting something wrong?

What is the social network's incentive to get things correct before putting it out there?

Freedom of speech does not mean you are necessarily free from the consequences of what you say, write, post or tweet.

Each day, the line gets more blurred as "facts and accuracy" lose ground to "speed, innuendo and flash."

It used to be rare that an unnamed source was considered reliable enough to run with a story.

Now the "source" who tells you what someone is thinking is as good as or better than the actual person who knows what he is thinking.

Never mind that the "person with knowledge" has no reason to say any more than what suits his agenda because he has the protection of anonymity.

What happened to the Eagles yesterday will be dismissed because it is sports, and who really got hurt?

But extrapolate this incident into the real world.

Things like this happen every day concerning government, finances, education, crime and punishment, politics, international relations.

In the real world, getting it wrong can have serious consequences that aren't "Fun Stuff."

That's what we must come to terms with in a new age of information. *

Send e-mail to smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/Smallwood.

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