The spectacular implosion of a Cory Gardner hit piece

For about 37 minutes on Wednesday night, many in the press and virtually every Democrat were certain that Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner’s Senate campaign was doomed.

On the sports-themed Gawker affiliated website Deadspin, an ostensibly thorough investigation seemed to have revealed that Gardner lied about his high school football career. In fact, it appeared that, according to this bit of investigatory journalism, Gardner never played high school football at all.

“Everybody around Yuma (pop. 3,524) knows everybody around Yuma,” Deadspin’s Dave McKenna, a former Washington Post sports reporter, wrote. He noted that 77-year-old Chuck Pfalmer, one of Gardner’s former High School teachers, would know if Gardner played for the school’s football team. Pfalmer insisted that Gardner never took the field in a Yuma uniform.

“Gardner, who graduated in 1993, never played in any of the Yuma games Pfalmer saw under the Friday night lights,” McKenna wrote. “Not at ‘fullback’ or ‘middle linebacker’ or anywhere else.”

Certainly, inflating your biography when running for office is an easy way to doom your campaign, but misrepresenting your extracurricular activities in high school does seem a trivial matter. Why the political class was certain that Gardner’s career was going to be destroyed by this revelation is anyone’s guess, but many did seem convinced Gardner was about to endure a bad news cycle.

Considering that there has been a dearth of good news for Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) in recent weeks, it makes some sense from a political perspective to elevate this supposed revelation beyond its appropriate proportion.

Even some reporters marveled at Deadspin’s scoop:

But the story began to fall apart within an hour of its publication. The first cut came from Gardner himself:

Deadspin inserted a one paragraph update at the bottom of their story which noted that Gardner’s campaign disputed the facts they printed, but it failed to include the photographic evidence which refuted the very premise of their story.

It would not be long, though, before Deadspin would have to issue clearer “update.” The Denver Post soon got ahold of the septuagenarian former high school teacher who served as Deadspin’s single most important source, Chuck Pfalmer. It turns out, the former teacher believed he was misquoted by McKenna.

“He was not a starter, but he played in those years,” Pfalmer told The Denver Post. “That’s a low blow about (Gardner).”

“I’ll tell you this: I’m proud to know him,” he continued. “He’s a very intelligent man. I don’t have nothing against him. He’s one of my best students.”

The Deadspin story quotes Pfalmer as saying: “Cory Gardner wasn’t on the football team.”
But Pfalmer, who doesn’t remember saying that, says the reporter initially asked him questions by phone, and then Pfalmer followed up by e-mailing the reporter more information.

He said he had trouble sending that e-mail, and the address appeared to be incorrect. The reporter, Dave McKenna, told The Post that he did not receive the e-mail, which Pfalmer said he sent after checking his records.

Pfalmer read from the e-mail, which said, in part: “I did find a few things that may interest you. First, Cory did play football for three years. In his third year, he had one tackle and three assists. He did not play his senior year.”

The Denver Post noted that another source cited in the Deadspin story though not by name, the editor of Yuma’s local newspaper, also disputed McKenna’s conclusions.

With Deadspin’s hit piece having been utterly neutralized, reporters began to grow perturbed with the Gawker affiliate for misleading them and refusing to issue a forthright retraction.

Finally, after several hours of agonizing embarrassment, Deadspin issued a lengthy “update” … one in which McKenna blamed his 77-year-old source for leading him astray.

Reached Wednesday night at his home, Chuck Pfalmer, longtime stats keeper for Gardner’s alma mater, Yuma High School, and a primary source for the story, told me: “Cory did play football for three years” in high school, and that his records show that Gardner spent his junior year “on varsity.” During a lengthy conversation about Yuma High football on Tuesday, Pfalmer repeatedly said Gardner had not played football at the school.

This seems a far cry from the contrite and apologetic quote McKenna gave The Denver Post. “It’s my job to get everything right,” he reportedly said. “Whatever’s not right is my fault.”

Whoever is to blame for this debacle, the story has backfired spectacularly. It made Udall’s supporters look small and desperate, and it provided an opportunity for the Gardner campaign’s rapid response operation to test their mettle. This was a textbook example of a hit piece, likely based on an unverified oppo tip, boomeranging on the publication that printed it. By not being cautious, Deadspin accomplished the opposite of what they set out to do and only advanced Gardner’s political prospects.

UPDATE: Shortly after 3 p.m. ET, Deadspin posted a thorough retraction and explained how they got this story wrong. While the contrition is welcome, it comes far too late to be seen as anything other than overwhelming push back from the journalistic community.