The Ottawa Sun may not be "anti-Spezza", but they are pro-controversy

A couple of days ago, Ottawa Sun sports editor Tim Baines wrote a blog post defending his paper and his sports writers for their handling of the Jason Spezza trade-request rumours. Because, in the end, they were only rumours--backed by vague hints from Bryan Murray and a whole whack of speculation. Baines actually typed up two posts on the subject, "Since when are we anti-Spezza?" and "I repeat … we are not anti-Spezza".

Personally, I don't think the Ottawa Sun is anti-Spezza. I think they are pro-controversy, though, because controversy sells papers.  When a minor issue comes up and it can be magnified to look like a major issue that the Sun's writers broke, then the Sun benefits from doing so. Of course, it's detrimental to fans and players, but that doesn't seem to be an issue to the Sun's writers.

One of the articles Baines mentioned was Don Brennan's column, entitled "Time to deal Spezza is now". And, to be honest, I didn't really have a problem with that column--because it was a column. Brennan was giving his opinion, and he couched his statements with enough caution and made valid arguments pointing back to the Heatley fiasco. It didn't help that the headline was subtly changed in print to dramatically alter its tone--the copy editor added an exclamation mark, making it "Time to deal Spezza is now!"--but the fact of the matter is that this was openly the opinion of one of the Sun's writers.

Of course, Brennan's article did have a little nugget of unfounded speculation. About two-thirds of the way through, Brennan makes the suggestion that maybe it's not Spezza who's upset with the booing; maybe it's "someone close to Spezza" telling him it's unfair treatment. Without any actual reason for thinking so, Brennan is speculating that Spezza's new wife is planting the unhappiness bug in Spezza's ear, a suggestion so close to libel that it just rang libel's doorbell to ask if she had any extra sugar. Really, it's a ridiculous and baseless accusation that has no place being printed--but it was, because it's controversy, and the Sun loves that.

Most of the criticism I place at the feet of the Sun, though, lies in their actual "news" stories about the Senators, which are rarely balanced in their presentation. Take, for instance, their misleading and factually incorrect article pinning Chris Neil with $2.4M in debt--for which they neglected to contact Neil to corroborate the story, or even offer his side of it. The story was later proven false, when Neil declared that he had settled the debt Neil Bros. Construction had amassed. Or, to go back a few seasons, quoting a random individual who'd complained that Ray Emery had cut him off on the Queensway--how is that even news? It's not. It's just controversy.

Then there's the Spezza story. Obviously, when a team's star player is 'unhappy', and when the GM suggests there may be a rift, then it's worthy of coverage. But because the story is such a big one, the coverage has to be responsible. When Bruce Garrioch suggests that "There are indications Spezza may have asked for a trade during the meeting" without outlining the source--even if it were an anonymous one--of those indications, then he's not offering the full story. It's also irresponsible to frame the denial of a trade request by saying that "Murray wouldn’t confirm whether Spezza [...] asked to be dealt"--because saying he didn't confirm it is different than saying he denied it, and it makes its own implications. And the fact that Jason Spezza "wouldn't object" to a trade is a rather moot point, given that he doesn't have a no-trade clause in effect at the moment, so he really doesn't have much of a choice.

So no, the Sun didn't "fabricate" the story about Spezza's unhappiness--but they did use that unhappiness to fuel and inflate speculation about a trade demand or request, despite not having sufficient evidence to back up that claim--or at least not offering that evidence to their readers. The Sun did, as a matter of fact, sensationalize the news, and for what other reason to do so than to sell papers? Perhaps to take credit for breaking the scoop before anyone else did--without acknowledging that the story hadn't yet been broken because it was hardly a story until it was built it into one with speculation and theories.

Speaking to Baines' defence of his paper and his writers specifically, it's misleading in itself. Baines claims that "an overwhelming number of people in this city, when polled, suggested that the Senators should trade their star centre", which isn't true; he's either referring to a straw poll of a half-dozen people in a bar that the Sun conducted, or a completely irrelevant online poll of Ottawa Sun readers--which, aside from posing a self-fulfilling prophecy, is nowhere near statistically reliable.

And of course, it wouldn't be a defence of the mainstream media without going back to the tired old clichés about those disreputable bloggers, the "local hacks who live in their mothers’ basements and throw enough crap out there until some of it sticks." I'm not going to defend the writing here on Silver Seven--I think the standard we hold ourselves to speaks for itself. Instead, I'm going to point out the irony of the fact that Mr. Baines himself wrote this defence in blog form. Dismiss your critics all you want, Mr. Baines, but the fact of the matter is that your medium is changing, because of what bloggers like us at Silver Seven, the rest of SB Nation, and the blogosphere, are doing--and because readers like it.

The comments and blog posts (yes, the many, many, many blog posts) critical of the Sun may be a sign that the tone is changing in Ottawa. Readers, with so many more sources of information on their favourite team, aren't interested in reading the Sun's tired old tactics at building small stories into bigger ones in order to generate controversy. Obviously, if Baines feels it's necessary to defend his paper so publicly, it means that the criticism is getting to him. It appears he's taken it negatively, for which he may be forgiven--most of it (my own included) has been scathing, and perhaps more personal than it should be. But Baines could also choose to take it constructively, and improve the quality of the writing he publishes daily in his sports section.

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