Michael Schmidt is the New York Times’ steroids beat writer. He’s probably best remembered for taking a lot of heat last year after reporting names from the famous list of 103 ballplayers who tested positive back in 2003. The reason for the heat: the list was and remains subject to a court order sealing its contents and thus Schmidt’s source is almost certainly violating court orders in order to make the names public, which could constitute criminal contempt of court. Contrary to Don Fehr’s scaremongering, Schmidt isn’t himself subject to the court orders and thus did nothing illegal himself, but as my friend Johnny Caspar likes to say: ettickly, it’s kinda shaky.*
While still covering PEDs in baseball, Schmidt has since split time with the NYPD beat. The Big Lead interviewed him recently, and Schmidt says that the new beat has opened his eyes a bit:
Q: What’s the biggest difference between covering the NYPD
beat and covering steroids? What’s it like to cover a story about, say, a murder-suicide involving an entire family versus
breaking news that a baseball players was caught using steroids. Has it
changed your attitude towards sports journalism?
course. At times on my steroids beat, I believe I fell into the trap
that many journalists do and believed that everything that occurred on
my beat was really important. Not surprisingly, my perspective changed
when I came downtown and wrote stories about murders, the deaths of
children and hit-and-runs. As awful as it’s been to write those stories,
it has given me a much better sense of the big picture and how to
evaluate a story’s significance.
I obviously have no objection to people covering the steroids beat in baseball. I’d just like to see those who opine on the subject to get a little perspective is all. Taking steroids is a violation of the rules of the sport we love and it likely has some adverse effects on the drug user in question. But it’s not life and death, nor is it so starkly a question of wrong and right as it is so often portrayed.
Schmidt has had a chance to see that recently and I have no doubt that it will affect his reporting on the subject. One can only hope that the other folks who cover that beat gain a little perspective as well.
* To elaborate, even if I was provided with the names on the list I don’t think I would report it myself because I’m a licensed lawyer and
I think my professional ethical obligations would prevent me from doing
so unless and until the sealing order is disposed of. Neither Schmidt nor anyone else who isn’t a lawyer is subject to the same restriction.
I do think, however, that anyone who gets into the subject of the famous 103 needs to be mindful that while they may be breaking news (a) they’re getting that information from someone who is knowingly violating a court order; and (b) they’re disseminating the private medical information of people who had every expectation that it would remain private and which multiple courts have since ruled was illegally seized by government agents acting outside of the scope of the Fourth Amendment. While I disagree with Don Fehr about whether reporting that sort of thing is illegal, it certainly carries with it some non-trivial ethical considerations, none of which anyone who likes to play the who’s-doing-steroids parlor games ever seem to want to acknowledge.