NASCAR.com and the Theory of Plausible Deniability

NASCAR.com is sometimes thought of as little more than a house organ for the sport; that is, the site is often derided for soft-selling some stories and producing others that too often adopt a boosterish tone that is oddly similar to the sunny party line that emerges from Daytona Beach.

And while I’ve been inclined to give the site the benefit of the doubt and been generally impressed with an editorial philosophy that appears to tackle some tough issues head on, every once in a while, I’m forced to wonder how committed the site is to a "journalistic" mission.

In the wake of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s difficult Daytona 500, NASCAR.com posted a fairly direct assault on the driver, one that offered the theory that perhaps the pressure to perform was becoming too great a burden for the Intimidator’s son; that story was credited to "NASCAR.com."

It should go without saying that by producing a story over no identifiable name, NASCAR.com gets to have its cake and eat it too: It can be credited for having taken on the sport’s preeminent driver, and at the same time, it avoids the fallout that comes with taking on the sport’s preeminent driver. In other words, at California the next week, Joe Menzer or David Caraviello or anyone else who may have written that story can take refuge in plausible deniability: Don’t look at me – I didn’t write it, they can say if or when confronted by any displeased member of Hendrick Motorsports. In so doing, NASCAR.com’s beat writers protect their relationship with (and access to) the sport’s preeminent driver.

This dilemma is by no means limited to NASCAR.com in particular or stock car racing in general; it’s an issue that confronts every reporter in any field, sports or otherwise. I’ve been in the same position before and am, arguably, in the same position now. Under certain circumstances, I might even agree with NASCAR.com’s decision, given Jr.’s importance to the day-to-day game. However, ultimately, I think a person or an institution needs to embark on such a course carefully; relied on too regularly, the device can sap an organization’s credibility.

 
What, then, to make of example number two, a story posted Tuesday that wonders if Hendrick Motorsports itself shouldn’t begin to panic three races in.

I’m reasonably confident that the site and its defenders will hammer me by pointing to the fact that the examples I cite are part of a recurring feature called "Final Turn," one apparently designed to entice users to engage in a "dialogue" with the site, and one that runs with no reporter’s name attached. And while that much is obviously true, "Final Turn" seems to be little more than a carefully orchestrated attempt by NASCAR.com to be "tough," but without having to face the consequences.

 
I may be naïve, but, ultimately, I think a site and its content gains credibility, strength, and loyalty by standing behind its words, popular or not – and really, I don’t think the pressure’s getting to Jr., nor do I think Hendrick needs to panic.