The Boston Herald's extraordinary front page apology yesterday to the New England Patriots appeared to defuse the threat of a potentially damaging lawsuit by the team over the paper's erroneous report that a Patriots employee videotaped their opponent's practice before the 2002 Super Bowl.
Stacey James, team spokesman, said a lawsuit against the Herald "has been discussed" by unnamed team officials, but added, "I don't think we're pursuing that at this time."
Approached by a Globe reporter last night on their way into a fund-raising gala in downtown Boston, neither the Patriots' chairman and chief executive, Robert Kraft, nor his son, Jonathan Kraft, the team's president, would discuss the Herald's apology. In an appearance on CNBC's "Squawk Box" early yesterday morning, however, Robert Kraft made it clear he felt vindicated by the apology.
"I felt very good seeing this paper, because we've worked very hard over the last decade and a half to establish a strong bond with our fans," Kraft said on CNBC. "This story coming out the day before the Super Bowl . . . was very damaging and put a cloud over us for the last 3 1/2 months. I'm glad it's finally come to an end."
When asked about the effect the story has had on the team's reputation, Kraft pulled out a copy of the Herald and held it up.
"Well, I just hope that they see this and understand," Kraft said, pointing to the paper. " 'Our Mistake' - that it was the Boston Herald. This set a furor."
Yesterday's Herald cover, which typically features a single splashy tabloid headline, depicted the hands of a Patriots player raising the silver Vince Lombardi trophy into the air. Below the headline - "SORRY, PATS" - was the Patriots logo. "We own up to error on walkthrough story," it said below.
On the back page the paper published the headline, "Our mistake." It all pointed to an unsigned, three-paragraph mea culpa on Page 79 titled "Apology."
In the apology, the newspaper said it had "neither possessed nor viewed a tape" of the St. Louis Rams' practice before publishing the story on Feb. 2, nor did the paper speak to anyone who had seen such a tape. "We should not have published the allegation in the absence of firmer verification," the apology said.
"We now know that this report was false, and that no tape of the walkthrough ever existed," the paper added.
It was an especially prominent retraction on a story that had captured national attention. Several longtime media observers said they could not remember such a prominent public apology. The acknowledgement of the error also struck a nerve in a community that the Herald has sought to cultivate mightily as it competes for readers with the Globe: sports fans.
"This is the worst possible place in the paper for them to make this kind of mistake," said Lou Ureneck, chairman of the department of journalism at Boston University. "It's their franchise. It's what gives them a hold in the market."
John Tomase, the Patriots beat writer for the Herald who wrote the Feb. 2 story, posted a note late yesterday afternoon on the Herald's website, saying he planned in Friday's Herald to "explain as clearly as I can where that story went wrong and begin the journey of restoring your trust in my reporting."
"I know I screwed up on the Rams taping story, and I don't intend to hide behind today's apology or an editor's note," he wrote.
The Feb. 2 Herald story quoted an anonymous source as saying that a Patriots staff member had illegally filmed a walkthrough practice by the St. Louis Rams before New England played them in Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002.
The story made national news and became a dominant storyline for this year's Super Bowl, but on Tuesday, the National Football League's commissioner, Roger Goodell, said he had found no evidence that the team had filmed the walkthrough.
The Herald's editor in chief, Kevin R. Convey, declined to discuss the apology or whether any employees would be disciplined.
"We haven't finished talking to our readers," he said in an interview, without elaborating. "Once we do, we'll have a statement."
One question arising from the Herald's apology was the issue of sources. The Feb. 2 story by Tomase cited a single anonymous source. The apology yesterday, however, said the paper based the story on "sources that it believed to be credible." Convey declined to discuss why the correction made reference to more than one source.
Patrick J. Purcell, the paper's publisher, and Hank Hryniewicz, sports editor, declined to comment through a Herald spokeswoman.
"It's a good lesson in the use of anonymous sources and what can go wrong when a source is not identified," said Liz Matson, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a former online news producer for the Herald. "It's a mistake that they never even saw anything. Going on one person's word, they took a big risk, and it blew up on them."
Matson, who has studied the impact of sports journalism, said it is laudable that sports sections are doing more investigative reporting. But, she said, sports sections need to adhere to the same standards as news sections, with no blurring of the lines between reporting and opinion.
Media analysts also said yesterday that the Herald's apology left some questions unanswered.
"Were they lied to, or was this someone who gave them information that he or she thought was accurate?" said Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "It seems to me you do not owe confidentiality to a source that lied to you. That's a question that begs to be answered."
Jones called the Herald's apology "welcome and appropriate," but said it "would have been more welcome the day after they made the mistake of publishing this without any legitimate confirmation whatsoever."
Like many newspapers, including the Globe and other dailies across the country, the Herald has been struggling with a dwindling circulation and a shrinking staff. The paper last year had to write a $3.41 million check to Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy, the result of a 2005 libel suit.
On the Herald's website yesterday, more than 400 people posted messages, many of them issuing denunciations of the newspaper for running the story on Feb. 2, one day before the Super Bowl.
"You are a disgrace pure and simple," wrote one reader.
Some blamed the paper for the Patriots' loss in this year's Super Bowl, while others called for boycotting the paper.