On Sunday, a Toronto sports website called BlueToro.ca published a report — since deleted, but cached here — that Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke "could soon be" fired by Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment "because of an extracurricular incident, implicating other MLSE employees."
Essentially, the blog published innuendo that had been passed around the Toronto hockey and media fraternities for the last several weeks with the frequency of children trading sports cards. As Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons wrote in his dismissal of the news on Tuesday night: "The number of those who have heard the stories and believe Burke will be pushed out is many."
Simmons wrote his piece in reaction to this report by TSN's Bob McKenzie, who became the first mainstream journalist to address the Burke rumors, though without specifying their origins or context:
"A couple of rumors that are out there in a big way. Rumor No. 1 is that at some point after the draft, Brian Burke is going to step down and take a leave of absence as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. There's not a chance in the world Brian Burke is leaving his job with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The other rumor that's out there, and it's spreading like wildfire, is that Brian Burke may be fired by Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment either in the next 48 hours or after the draft. Our best information from MLSE is that there's absolutely no appetite to make a general manager change at this time."
Simmons later targeted the nature of the rumors while debunking them.
This much we know, even though it isn't our business. Burke is apparently having marital problems. That doesn't in any way make him unique. Half my neighbourhood is having marital issues of one kind or another. It also isn't our business what's happening in his home. It only becomes our business if it affects how he performs on the job.
Many within the Maple Leafs hockey hierarchy have been asked about Burke's status over the past few months and they claim to know nothing of it. There was a story going around that Burke had already taken a leave of absence. He didn't. There was a story going around that he was about to be fired. It hasn't happened -- and isn't about to happen.
Like so many rumours, that one was particularly ludicrous.
Simmons explained that no changes "of this magnitude" would be made while the Leafs sale to Rogers and Bell is ongoing. "As for Burke's personal life, it's none of our business," he wrote.
Who is to blame for these scurrilous accusations? BLOGS! From Simmons:
So what has happened here? The worst of the modern world of journalism and the blogosphere is at play here. A story gets whispered about and talked about so often that it becomes truth simply by being spread regularly -- and in this case by people who should know better. From word of mouth it makes its way to Twitter or a blog or somewhere where the principles of journalism are not exhibited. The regular rules of attribution and sourcing don't exist in non-traditional media outlets such as blogs.
Keep in mind Simmons refuted the original reporting in a column that lacks a single on-the-record source, other than to say that Burke offered a "no comment." And that his column spells out Burke's marital problems more directly than the original report did.
Here's what Blue Toro did: It took a rumor that was spreading through the hockey world like bird flu and dragged into the realm of public discourse. Simmons heard the scuttlebutt before the story hit; half of Toronto had heard it; hell, even I had heard foreboding Burke tales here in D.C., and I'm as connected as an arena usher as a hockey insider.
Now McKenzie and Simmons are on this story, putting the speculation to rest. Which begs the question: As irresponsible as it may have been to publish conjecture, isn't it just as irresponsible to allow the rumors to take root until they "become truth simply by being spread regularly"? Or does gossip only became character assassination when it's available online outside of Toronto?