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HaberGate

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Early Wednesday afternoon, WUSA-TV sports anchor created a substantial furor when he issued a report stating:

Major League Baseball will announce the new owners of the Washington Nationals as early as Friday. Sources tell [Channel] 9 Sports . . . that the Group led by Washington real estate magnate Theodore Lerner will win the bidding war and take over control of the team next month.

At this point of the report, Haber really had not advanced anything all that novel: there is ample speculation that a decision is imminent, and the frontrunner appears to be the Lerner/Stan Kasten ownership team.

However, Haber then reported something that proved to be truly provocative:

Two sources close to the decision making process tell 9 News that the Lerner Group will edge out the groups led by Washington businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients and Indianapolis radio tycoon Jeff Smulyan. Haber spoke with Smulyan this morning who confirmed that he too has heard the news of the Lerner victory, though not from Major League Baseball directly.

Actually, this is an updated report; throughout the day, the Channel 9 report diluted Smulyan's importance to this apparent scoop. Nonetheless, both the Seligulans and Smulyan responded with detectable ferocity, as can be seen at Maury Brown's business of baseball site.

The combination of the "scoop" aspect and the presence of Smulyan in the story made Haber's report a lightning rod that overshadowed---blessedly, as it turned out---the Nats' pathetic, 5-0, one-hit loss to the Cincinnati Reds.

According to Thomas Heath's article in Thursday's Post, Haber is resolute---

"We absolutely stand by the story. We appreciate baseball has their own time frame, but that doesn't negate the validity of our sources. Whether we are proven correct tomorrow or a week from tomorrow, we believe we will be proven correct."

---whereas DC Council member Jack Evans responded caustically:

"Yeah, I'm sure that Bud Selig woke up yesterday and said: 'How can I release this information? Oh, yeah, let's call Channel 9!' " Evans said sarcastically, before adding that he has not heard of any final decision.

According to WUSA's most recent report, Haber relied on two sources independent of (or at least besides) Smulyan. I'd like to dwell on that claim a bit more before concluding that Haber was full of bunk. His report certainly inspired some quick and harsh words from MLB, and certain details don't make sense, including:

1. if Bud Selig and Bob Dupuy met last night to discuss the Nats situation, would they reach a decision by 2 a.m. Eastern Time, as Haber indicated? and,
2. as noted by Evans, how on earth would Brett Haber, of all people, end up the one breaking this story?

I have no answers to these questions, but I tend to believe there is substantial truth to the report. And, with that, we reach what I believe is the crux of the matter: it depends on whether you believe Lerner/Kasten will be awarded the team. If you do, the report is believable, despite some unanswered questions corresponding to it; if you hold out hope that someone else, like Malek/Zients (or, I suppose, Smulyan), ends up with the team, or you are not convinced by recent momentum in Lerner/Kasten's favor, then there's little reason to believe the report.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that Lerner/Kasten gets the team. If so, I contend it would be impossible to prove whether Haber specifically got this story "right" or "wrong"; there is simply not enough "signal" in this story---it's largely drowned out by the "noise."

Ultimately, Haber did nothing exceptional today, with two, well, exceptions: 1) unlike your garden variety national baseball writer (e.g., Gammons, Stark, Kurkjian, Rosenthal), who claims to know what is on Selig's mind but won't commit to a specific position, Haber reported what everyone else intimates---Selig has indeed made up his mind; and 2) Haber implicated Smulyan.

Is this good journalism? Bad journalism? Does it matter?