Entertaining times for the Toronto hockey fan. There have, apparently, been rumours floating around for a while that Brian Burke was about to be fired or resign or take a leave of absence from the Maple Leafs. There are further rumours as to why this might be the case. A blog that nobody’s heard of posted about it the other day and subsequently pulled down the post. Yesterday, Bob McKenzie at TSN finally broke from the pack and announced that MLSE denies that there’s any truth to the suggestion that Burke won’t be around much longer.
And then it got fun. Steve Simmons at the Sun first unloaded some details that McKenzie hadn’t and then tut-tutted about the whole thing:
The basis of the story being spread is that problems within Burke’s personal life have reached a point of embarrassment for the Leafs and that they no longer want him fronting their operation. That apparent story has appeared on at least one website, been broadcast in some places and has been part of regular conversation in the ultra-gossipy hockey world throughout the playoffs.
This much we know, even though it isn’t our business. Burke is apparently having marital problems. That doesn’t in any way make him unique. Half my neighbourhood is having marital issues of one kind or another. It also isn’t our business what’s happening in his home. It only becomes our business if it affects how he performs on the job.
So what has happened here? The worst of the modern world of journalism and the blogosphere is at play here. A story gets whispered about and talked about so often that it becomes truth simply by being spread regularly — and in this case by people who should know better. From word of mouth it makes its way to Twitter or a blog or somewhere where the principles of journalism are not exhibited. The regular rules of attribution and sourcing don’t exist in non-traditional media outlets such as blogs.
There are actually two interesting points here, which are interrelated and one opportunity to point out some hypocrisy, which we’ll come too.
The question of when the media should report this stuff is an interesting one to me. It seems that this topic has been widely discussed in NHL circles for a while. To me, that makes it news in and of itself. Watch a couple of episodes of Satellite Hotstove and look at how often they refer to what’s being discussed around the league. It’s a staple. It is, I think, entirely correct to report on what people inside the game are talking about. It almost doesn’t matter what the Maple Leafs say – for whatever reason, a bunch of people within the game have the impression that he’s on his way out. That’s news. Even if those people are wrong.
The whole “it’s only our business when it affects his performance on the job” thing is a real dodge. The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs in four years under Burke. They don’t seem to be heading the right way. How, exactly, does Simmons propose to identify the point at which Burke’s personal problems start to affect his job performance? It seems unlikely that he’ll blow off the draft because he has a meeting with a family counsellor or something. In effect, Simmons is proposing a standard whereby nothing in the personal life of someone in hockey is news.
Which, you know, seems nuts. People in hockey make big money because people are interested in hockey and interested in what they do. I follow soccer and the personal lives of those guys are reported extensively. Wayne Rooney has inept sex with a prostitute? News. Jose Mourinho smuggles a dog into the UK? News. Wayne Rooney has sex with an elderly prostitute? News. Jermaine Defoe cheats on his girlfriend with, uh, a less attractive girl? News. Outside of North America, (and possibly just outside of Canada) the standard seems to be “things that happen to a famous person are news.”
And, truthfully, that’s kind of the standard in Canada too a lot of the time. Remember when I said there would be hypocrisy? Here’s Steve Simmons on January 6, 2009:
Almost everything about Kilger and hockey is unclear these days. But there are no shortage of stories going around. There are Internet trails that link Kilger to a former female massage therapist, who no longer works for the Maple Leafs. Last season, Kilger left the Maple Leafs for “personal reasons.”
Others will tell you that Kilger needed to leave the NHL in order to keep his family together. The choice was hockey or family: He chose family.
Others now say that Kilger has ballooned to more than 250 pounds and is living in his hometown of Cornwall.
To be clear: Steve Simmons thinks that a story that everyone in hockey is apparently talking about is beneath him. If there are “Internet trails” though…well, holy cow, Kilger totally had a thing with a female massage therapist and (he says this twice in twelve words) she’s no longer a massage therapist!
I have no idea how you can reconcile that with snide comments about the lack of sourcing on the internet. He is literally repeating an internet rumour. The Burke stuff is all people inside the game which, solid or not, is still a step above people on HF Boards. Moreover, Kilger had left the NHL. He couldn’t have been having his performance affected by this because he chose not to perform. If Burke were to resign, do his marital problems then become fair game? It’s an impossible line that Simmons has drawn and one that he doesn’t necessarily respect himself.
A cynic might suggest that Brian Burke is still in the game and someone who’s likely to be powerful in hockey for years to come while Chad Kilger wasn’t. That might be one way of reconciling the different ways in which Simmons has treated them.
Of course, no ridiculous Toronto hockey story would be complete without Damien Cox chiming in, as he did last night, from atop his high horse:
@damospin: Indeed puzzling why if rumours are completely unfounded they would nonetheless be written about. For some, there are no boundaries.
Stong, principled, moral position. Can you imagine being one of those people with no boundaries? The horror.
Damien Cox on April 15, 2012:
Don’t listen to the rumours that Brian Burke, subjected to an avalanche of public scorn in recent weeks, is planning to take a six-month leave to get his personal and professional house in order while leaving right-hand man Dave Nonis in charge.
I mean, honestly. At least the Simmons Moment of Hypocrisy was three years ago and, I dunno maybe he’s changed his ways. Cox is alluding to these rumours six weeks ago and then being shocked, SHOCKED that people would write about rumours that are unfounded now. I don’t know how someone can live with that much cognitive dissonance in their head.
While I’m not a practitioner of the dark art, I suspect that the morality of journalism’s a lot easier if you confine yourself to asking “Can I write this without exposing myself to a defamation action?” or are prepared to acknowledge to yourself that you pull your punches based on how useful the guy you might be writing about can be to you in the future. This comes with a cost – you probably don’t get that addictive rush of self-righteousness on the days when you’re complying with your professed moral code – but it comes with the considerable benefit of not making you look ridiculous and unprincipled on those days when you aren’t.