Young women are (still) the best internet bait and 5 other lessons from ESPN’s blogger scandal

Sports media was in a lather this week over Sarah Phillips, a 22-year-old ESPN writer who blogged, tweeted and scammed her way to online infamy.

The episode offers some intriguing lessons about digital journalism and social media. We offer some observations below, but first here is a quick recap of the story itself:

This week, sports site Deadspin began raising questions about whether a fetching young woman who writes ESPN’s “Junk Mail” column was pulling a series of internet scams.

Deadspin reported how Phillips, who got her start posing as a gambling addict for betting site, has left a trail of sketchy behavior like:

  • Using her ESPN position to persuade a 19-year-old college student to hand over the password for his website, and then stealing the site
  • Posting fake photos of herself for biography pictures, including one that appears on a site called “Hot Chicks with Douchebags
  • Defrauding a reader and then extorting more money from him, and then threatening him with a beating at the hands of the LAPD

This week, ESPN fired Phillips while Deadspin uncovered a steady drip-drip of new details about her scams, lies and rise to minor internet sports personality:

  • People who knew Phillips say she knew or cared little about sports or betting; the posts that vaulted her to prominence appear to have been written – or at least informed by – a puppet master named Nilesh Prasad
  • Phillips and Prasad have reportedly been pulling scams for years — including on their one-time employer T-Mobile
  • Phillips used fake Twitter accounts and other tools to exaggerate her following and influence
The week ended with ESPN backing far, far away while Phillips has issued a conniving, self-serving Twitter explanation.
The episode could provide grist for a whole semester of media, ethics and gender study courses. But in the meantime, here’s some quick takeaways:
1. Young women are gold for an internet scam.
Forget Nigerian princes. A young woman’s photo will always be the best bait to launch an internet scam. In this case, puppet-master Prasad used Phillips to create the persona of a beautiful, sports-loving girl with a gambling wild side — a male fantasy in other words. She became a variation of the mysterious women on Facebook who befriend CEO’s in order to siphon their personal profiles or whose faces are used for a Twitter bot. (This is no reflection on women themselves but rather on the vanity and stupidity of men.)
2. Deadspin hit it out of the park
Deadspin is best known as another blog in Nick Denton’s Gawker empire. Its reporting on this story was as thorough and satisfying as a New Yorker or Vanity Fair feature.
3. The intern economy is corroding  journalism
The Huffington Post and others are panting over whether ESPN should have been more diligent in screening Phillips. Yes, probably. But there is also the problem of media outlets relying evermore on interns and freelancers for cheap copy without providing guidance and mentoring in return. There can be bad apples at any outlet (hey there, New York Times and New Republic) but there are bound to be more of them in this environment.
4. Social media is giving rise to new forms of media fraud
In the past, you could only plagiarize or embellish a resume. Now, you can fabricate legions of friends and fans too. Digital Trends has a good account of how Phillips used tools to juice her Twitter account and increase her apparent influence.
5. Women occupy an uncomfortable place in sports journalism
While women are now part of the mainstream in every area of journalism, this is not true in sports. Both media companies and the public have unresolved baggage about how women fit into sports media. This won’t help.
6. Something is rotten at ESPN
ESPN’s response to the story has been underwhelming so far. After ESPN initially brushed the episode aside, VP and executive editor John Walsh addressed it in a live chat. Unfortunately, the answer appears to have come in response to a planted question. The sports network doesn’t have to be a paragon of media ethics. But barely two months after “Chink in the Armor,” it needs to do better than this.