In the final days of a too-close-to call Senate race, almost any revelation about a candidate can move the needle. That’s why, when the sports-focused website Deadspin.com on Wednesday published a story claiming to show Colorado Senate candidate Rep. Corey Gardner (R-CO) had blatantly lied about playing football in high school, it seemed like a potential political deathblow.
It was an exquisitely timed attack on Gardner’s trustworthiness -- and to be honest, his manliness in the homestretch of his effort to unseat Mt. Everest-climbing outdoorsman Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO).
Trouble was, the story was utterly false – and by Thursday morning, both conservative pundits and mainstream news outlets were proclaiming Gardner’s vindication to far broader audiences than the Deadspin piece had reached to begin with.
Deadspin reporter Dave McKenna, jumping off a Washington Post article in which Gardner was quoted discussing his time playing fullback and middle linebacker for his high school football team in the small town of Yuma, CO, reached out to a former teacher at Yuma High School. That individual insisted that Gardner “was never on the football team.”
To be fair, the source, Chuck Pfalmer, apparently kept statistics for the Yuma Indians for nearly 40 years and appeared reliable. Deadspin, though, doesn’t seem to have looked for a second source to back up his claims.
The Gardner campaign, according to Deadspin, didn’t return requests for comment on the story. But not long after it went live Wednesday night at 6 p.m., Gardner himself was ready with a couple of pictures of himself in football gear that he posted on his Twitter account.
Gardner, as it turns out, wasn’t a football star. He wasn’t even a starter at his tiny high school. But he was a football player, and in his interview with The Post’s Karen Tumulty, he never suggested anything beyond that.
Within hours of the story’s publication, Pfalmer claimed that he had been misquoted and said that his records showed that Gardner had played football at Yuma, though without particular distinction.
On Thursday, Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs posted a blunt and apologetic explanation with the headline “How Deadspin Fucked Up the Corey Gardner Story.”
Though Craggs did accept responsibility, he didn’t really explain how Deadspin had decided to launch what might have been a hugely consequential story based on a single source and a cursory check of Lexis-Nexis and Gardner’s campaign bio.
Considering how much speculation the site allowed into the story, the simple claim that “the main source we'd relied on reversed himself on a key point” doesn’t really cut it as an explanation.
Though there was some weasel-worded effort at deniability written into the story, of the “if the two-way career is indeed fictional” variety, the overall message was clear from the first sentence: “Breaking news: Politician makes shit up!”
Having established to its satisfaction that Gardner was a liar, Deadspin moved on to the bigger question: Why?
“[W]hy would somebody as accomplished as Gardner make up such a whopper?” McKenna wrote. “Perhaps he got caught up in the setting: Gardner let The Post tail him as he mingled with tailgaters before a football game at the Air Force Academy.
“Or perhaps the candidate is intimidated by the jockey branches on the incumbent's family tree,” the article continued. “Mark Udall's dad, former Rep. Mo Udall (D-Ariz.), was a pro basketball player and member of the original Denver Nuggets before getting into politics.”
To its credit, both moral and political, the Udall campaign appears to have stayed away from commenting on the story.
At this point, whether the Deadspin story is an example of a political hit piece gone wrong, a sportswriter being fed opposition research by a political campaign and failing to check it out or simply a poorly reported story is unclear.
What is clear is that whatever its intent, Deadspin’s disastrous exposé of Gardner appears to have helped him more than it hurt him.
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