"When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me, said Felix Unger of The Odd Couple fame. The aphorism has been repeated so often it sounds hackneyed, but it sometimes seems the media, particularly those unaccountable gentlefolk known as columnists, have never heard it.
Neal Travis, the New York Post's well-read gossip columnist, is the latest to ignore Unger's sage advice. On May 20, he began his blurb with an excerpt of a Details magazine interview with New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine, in which he said - "out of the blue, in Travis' words - that baseball is ready to accept an openly gay player.
He went on to opine that Valentine was laying the groundwork for the "coming out of one of his star players. This player, said Travis, was rumored to have recently purchased a Westchester home with a TV personality known to be a homosexual. The column ran despite noting that attempts to substantiate the latter failed.
While not named directly, it was clear Travis was talking about Mike Piazza. By the next day, the "story was so well known that the All-Star catcher felt compelled to hold a news conference to claim he wasn't gay.
The non-story then got big play in Wednesday's Post, well ahead of a lot of real news.
On Tuesday evening, Post sports writer Wallace Matthews wrote a column that savaged his employer. He said Travis' "out of the blue assertion was totally inaccurate, as Valentine was responding to a direct question about homosexuality and pro baseball. He called the article "abhorrent" because it was clearly based on unsubstantiated information.
The Post refused to run Matthews' column until he toned it down. He did, the Post didn't. Matthews quit, posted his original column online, and the Post issued a release claiming it had fired Matthews for "insubordination. Matthews did the rounds on local TV and radio stations, telling his side of the story.
Not for the first time, we had a brilliant example of the media being the news. That's fine for the people involved: Travis gets publicity, the Post gets publicity (and has done well out of such black eyes before), and so does Matthews - who should quickly secure a new job. But what about the rest of us?
Granted, the Post is hardly The New York Times, but it is the main source of news for many inhabitants in the media capital of the world. Every time something like this happens, the validity of the media is undermined in the eyes of even the least cynical of readers - and the key medium for more important messages becomes a little less credible.
Perhaps the saddest part of all this, however, is what it says to the gay and lesbian community. Every person in this episode went out of their way to note or intimate that this was not a sexual-orientation issue.
Unfortunately, Piazza's quick denial suggests otherwise. The fact that Travis could produce such a buzz by claiming a superstar player was gay suggests otherwise. The fact that Valentine was even asked the question that started this whole circus suggests otherwise.
Perhaps it's time for GLAAD to out a few gays in major sports - it certainly seems that attitudes still need changing. And perhaps we should also update Unger's mantra, as it's clearly not sufficiently attention-grabbing for this sound bite-driven, shock-value-based media. One of the leads in Brit flick Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels said, "Assumption is the mother of all f***ups. That should do it.