On Saturday, ESPN published on their website an interview with new Arsenal forward Lukas Podolski. This is not altogether strange or interesting, as they do things like that all the time (that is, interview soccer players). What is strange and interesting is the fact that several hours later, the interview had been pulled from the ESPN website and ostensibly destroyed, leaving the sports conglomerate with some egg on its face.
So, uh, what the hell happened here? So far, there are quite a few questions and not as many answers, but the sports media criticism website Awful Announcing is doing some digging.
The interview was "done" by Nick Bidwell, who's written for ESPN's Soccernet before, as well as other outlets. Here's a column/story he wrote in 2009 about Arsene Wenger. It's all very familiar-sounding, but well-written, and none of it appears to be entirely fabricated. Which is the charge that was brought by Podolski himself (or whoever he pays to manage his Facebook account).
A short time after ESPN published the interview Podolski posted the following on his Facebook page in both English and German:
Hey guys, on the ESPN website there is an interview published I never gave. It contains parts, which are completely made up. Please ignore it! Cheers, Poldi
According to Awful Announcing, up to an hour after Podolski's claim was made, the offending interview was still available on ESPN's website. In fact, fans began taking to the page's comments section with links to the denial, which may actually have been part of what led to the interview being taken down.
Yesterday Awful Announcing reported that ESPN had given them a statement on the matter:
The story was written by a freelance contributor. We removed the story as soon as we discovered sourcing questions and are looking into those.
This appears to be an admission that there's something up with the original Bidwell interview, though exactly what happened remains to be seen. Since the interview was pulled (and I haven't been able to find a cached version anywhere yet, despite my best investigative efforts), I'm not sure what was in it. It was up for a while before I heard even that it existed - honestly, I didn't know until I noticed AA tweeting about Lukas Podolski - so I have to assume he didn't say anything particularly controversial. That almost makes the situation stranger.
I studied journalism in college, if you weren't aware of that already (and why would you be?) and as you might guess, the subject of invented sources came up a few times. The basic point of the lesson was "DON'T INVENT A SOURCE FOR GOODNESS' SAKE," which was driven home with stories of journalists like Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, and Stephen Glass rising to prominence by way of fiction posed as reality, then being ruined by their own fiction.
The oddest thing in this circumstance is that it's a ploy that's obviously going to fail. When Janet Cooke wrote "Jimmy's World," a profile of an eight-year-old heroin addict, Jimmy couldn't do what Podolski did - claim to have had words falsely attributed to him - because he didn't exist. Had this happened to Park Chu-Young that would be one thing, but as far as I can tell Lukas Podolski is actually real. Did Bidwell think he wouldn't notice? Was Bidwell also a victim in some larger game? It's hard to tell. But if this was Bidwell's work, it's not outside the realm of possibility that other pieces have been faked as well.
As AA's Matt Yoder notes, this is even worse for ESPN coming after the widely-reported "Sarah Phillips May Not Be An Actual Person" fun as well as the revelation that Lynn Hoppes, editor for what used to be called Page 2 and owner of Dude Long Hair that would make Tommy Wiseau jealous, copies-and-pastes swaths of Wikipedia pages for his columns. If they don't get their act together, ESPN is going to fall into the truth chasm that's swallowed The Sun, and it's not pretty down there.