Out-of-State Poseurs Peddling Fake News Part of Bigger Problem for Sam Pittman

Sam Pittman, Arkansas football, Arkansas vs Vanderbilt, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

I may not always agree with Mike Irwin, but I do respect him. For many years, the longtime Razorback broadcaster was too curmudgeonly for me. Now, as I approach 50, I may be as grumpy as him (this column may be an example) and I do appreciate him a little bit more now. Still, I disagree with his Arkansas sports takes a portion of the time.

Irwin has been a media fixture in Northwest Arkansas since the 1970s. I met him when I came to the state in 1998. Since that time, he’s had more freedom and an even larger platform to express his opinions thanks to social media, radio talk shows and segments on the Pig Trail Nation TV program that are geared specifically to be editorial in nature – well beyond reading off a teleprompter as sportscasters primarily did for many years.

He had a good take this week in the wake of Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman’s rough season which has prompted speculation regarding his future leading the Hogs football program. Irwin said he has never called for an Arkansas coach to be fired in his nearly 50 years on The Hill, but he has pointed out deficiencies in coaches.

Calling the facts as you see them without telling athletic directors how to do their job has always been my philosophy, too. It’s called “good journalism.” Unfortunately, with each passing year, the line between reporting and over-the-top editorializing gets more blurred. It’s muddy because many of those generating online sports content aren’t classically trained journalists. They were never taught about principles or integrity. How to source stories and break news. There are guidelines and procedures.

Unfortunately, the reader these days can’t discern between credible and shoddy news sources. So, when a podcaster or blogger who has not seen one practice this season or attended a press conference proclaims that they know that Pittman will be fired on a Sunday afternoon – that influencer believes it and not only that, they spread that story or link like wildfire. That is exactly what that site or person is hoping for. Clicks and more notoriety. 

Fake News with Arkansas Football

Such rumor-mongering created a real problem for Pittman on Sunday. A few so-called “reporters” were broadcasting he may be fired without credible sourcing. Consider an article in Saturday Blitz about Razorback head coach candidates which begins: “Reports out of Fayetteville are stating that Arkansas football will be moving on from Sam Pittman with an announcement coming at some point soon.”

Which reports, you may ask? The author, Connor Muldowny, links to a post by a self-proclaimed “Hawg Insider,” something that may or may not be a joke Twitter account considering this self-description:

It initially claimed Pittman had already been fired and an announcement was imminent. Muldowny, a Spartan fan who graduated from Michigan State according to his bio, should have known better than to claim such a post as “reports” considering he got a journalism degree.

After these kinds of articles and posts, recruits and their parents became restless. At least one high-profile, in-state recruit’s father angrily took to social to media to discredit a social media post Sunday.

What is a fantasy and uncorroborated conjecture for these posters is real life for these players and coaches. There are a bunch of 18-year-old kids who have banked their futures on Sam Pittman and his staff, and they are very concerned. They do not need to be alarmed falsely. 

“We can’t do anything about what people write,” Pittman told the “real media” on Monday. “I just wish they’d write truth. Not opinion. If you’re saying a man is fired, then he should be fired. We can’t deal with [untrue] things, and that’s probably the most difficult thing, because the kids believe, and the parents believe it. But look, we put ourselves in this situation, and we’ve got to fight our way out of it.”

Well, coach, you don’t have to worry about too many of the professionals who were assembled in that room. Many have adhered to the principles that this site has and will not list replacements or post a candidates hot board until a firing is official. That’s the fair and journalistic way, although I have been a bit disappointed by some mainstream media and their willingness to discuss/write about how this staff has reached its end point and Pittman should retire, etc. Certainly, some Stephen A. Smith hot-takery has crept in.

The Old Days of Sports Media

For those who are over 40, they were raised in an era where there were three TV stations and a daily newspaper(s), and the information provided was vetted to be portrayed as objective “truth.” Oh, there was some editorializing, but it wasn’t blended in with the news. It was clear that it was the author’s or the media organization’s opinion. And, as much as possible, rumor or innuendo wasn’t present.

You wouldn’t read the phrase “Coach X may be fired today. Stay tuned.” But, those from that generation are used to trusted sources, so now when they click on a link that has been shared on Facebook, they take it for Gospel. They don’t understand that the author has no real knowledge or credibility, but thanks to the digital age, does have his/her own website, social media channel or podcast. Consumers aren’t careful. They are also duped further when the author’s channel is called ‘Insider’ or ‘Network.’ Those are terms of credibility for those of a certain age.

Fans definitely have a right to their opinion and social media provides that as depressing as that can be following losses. However, expressing your opinion doesn’t make you a media member. You didn’t become a journeyman electrician or CPA without years of training. I can’t just show up at a job site and wire a new home (I’d kill myself and my wife is laughing loudly at this now), and I wouldn’t have any idea how to balance a company’s books. There’s a reason I’ve had the same CPA for 15 years.

Journalism is the same thing. You don’t just pound on a keyboard or open a mic. That is the trend these days, and some sites like Saturday Blitz and FanSided perpetuate that by offering college football fans who often don’t have Arkansas connections and are just looking at opportunities to create a splash online a chance to feel like they are professionals by getting the benefit of a large platform. However, those that generate that content need to know there are great consequences for not reporting the truth, and such consequences could affect day jobs and personal lives.

Consumers, meanwhile, need to understand that all news sources are not created equal and not everyone on the internet has the credibility and experience of the professionals that filled the conference room Monday and many days throughout the year. Take the reports that don’t come from them with a grain of salt. Also understand that even some of those folks have reported wrong information. Coaching searches are made for misinformation. Sometimes information that is given by a source is correct for no more than 15 or 20 minutes. These situations are fluid.

Sam Pittman’s Future with Arkansas Football

As for my stance on Pittman, it is similar to Irwin’s. I wrote several weeks ago that Pittman has earned the right to return. He inherited a dumpster fire, and he righted the ship. However, since I wrote that, the Hogs turned in miserable home performances against Mississippi State and Auburn. The Auburn game felt eerily similar to a Chad Morris era game where Arkansas football fans knew the team was doomed as soon as they took the field.

That feeling had gone away since Pittman took over, but has alarmingly creeped into this season. He knows that, too. He knows a season like this is unacceptable, and he thinks he can turn it around. That’s a chance he deserves after taking the job when few wanted it and winning two bowl games. Pittman also knows a loss to mediocre mid-major FIU Saturday would most likely erase any second chance. And rightfully so.

But as long as he is the head coach, he should be treated fairly by the media. The pros already know that. And if you read something regarding his future, you should be skeptical. Long, long gone are the days of consumers having only a handful of credible outlets as choices.

More than ever, discretion is needed.


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