The Ray Rice Story Illustrated Why Mainstream Reporting Is Often Terrible

via Turf Show Times
via Turf Show Times

As Deadspin illustrated so well on Monday, reporting from NFL insiders on the Ray Rice story has been awful. In short, guys like Peter King and Chris Mortensen are all too willing to act as a mouthpiece for their league sources– in this case, first stating that the league had seen the elevator video and then happily passing along a statement from the league claiming it had not. As Deadspin pointed out: someone was lying.

It’s probably the league.

But as I’ve written here before, this is exactly what’s wrong with traditional reporting paradigms, be it in sports, politics, entertainment, whatever. The ways people consume news and the ways it’s best reported have changed quite a bit over the last 10 years, but the ways in which mainstream reporters cover it and are taught to cover it have remained largely the same. Thanks to virtually everyone in America being connected to virtually everyone else, stories – from the most nonsensical to most important – can be covered objectively, with a relative distance from the subject– something that is often for the best. There’s becoming less and less of a need for the top-down style reporting of old… less of a need for interns to be taught that the way to get a story is by going to press conferences and getting information from subjects (there’s a huge difference between interviewing-questioning subjects and using them as the source of information).

Here’s Peter King’s half-assed mea culpa (which I think has flown too far under the radar) for writing “the other videotape the NFL and some Ravens officials have seen” in July, and then writing “if league officials saw this video” on Monday:

To: Our readers.

From: Peter King, editor-in-chief, The MMQB

An addendum to the Ray Rice coverage:

Earlier this summer a source I trusted told me he assumed the NFL had seen the damaging video that was released by TMZ on Monday morning of Rice slugging his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City elevator. The source said league officials had to have seen it. This source has been impeccable, and I believed the information. So I wrote that the league had seen the tape. I should have called the NFL for a comment, a lapse in reporting on my part. The league says it has not seen the tape, and I cannot refute that with certainty. No one from the league has ever knocked down my report to me, and so I was surprised to see the claim today that league officials have not seen the tape.

I hope when this story is fully vetted, we all get the truth and nothing but the truth.

There are many things wrong with this. We can start with the hacky letter-style approach. But the problems go deeper than antiquated formatting. Earlier this summer a source I trusted told me he assumed the NFL had seen the damaging video that was released by TMZ on Monday morning of Rice slugging his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City elevator. That is some careful wording, and poor reporting. There are many tricks writers (and bloggers) use to cover their asses and obscure sources. When King, a seasoned veteran, says “other videotape…have seen,” there’s no grey area. He’s stating it as a fact, and we’re led to believe, thanks to his years of experience, that his sources are good enough for it to be true. Now, everyone makes mistakes, so it’s not worth crucifying a guy over being misled by a source (who, as it turns out, may have been right). But it is worth criticizing a guy (King) and an entire industry for the way in which reporting is done. Without being repetitive (because, again, I’ve written this sort of thing before), reporters on all subjects rely way too heavily on “official sources” to write history, yet it’s often those “official sources” who have a stake in the reported outcome. Mainstream reporters are often too chicken shit to question “official sources” since it’s those “official sources” who often directly or indirectly control access.

Sports reporting is probably the best example of this because access means going to games, getting transaction scoops, and interviewing players. Most sports reporters get in the business to do those very things. They, understandably, don’t want to ruffle feathers and lose what they worked so hard for.* Some, commendably, push the envelope. But many don’t. And often when the envelope is pushed, it’s on stuff that the team or league doesn’t mind being covered: a controversial call, a squabble between two players, a player who said something outrageous. Stuff like that usually leads to more interest in the product. The most memorable games usually have a weird, controversial sub-plot (Game 5 of 2008 World Series, for example, was marred by curious decisions regarding the weather, and yet, it was a fascinating event, both for Phillies fans and the casual viewer). Those are the sort of things teams and leagues don’t mind people focusing on, because in the end they really don’t matter and they add to the intrigue, the drama. But it’s also why, at least of late, some of the most controversial and actually damning sports stories have been broken by non-traditional outlets. TMZ broke the Donald Sterling story and changed the Ray Rice story. Both stories gave the NBA and NFL, respectively, a black eye and left their subjects out of the sport. TMZ had nothing to lose. They didn’t lose access, because, unlike King, their stories don’t come from league sources, players, coaches and agents.

*Two stories. 1) Back in 2010, when I posted pictures of Ryan Howard hanging out at Dorney Park in a walking boot, a Phillies reporter, who at the time was writing occasionally for this site, freaked out over email to me because I jeopardized his relationship with the team and other reporters. You can argue whether or not the post was relevant, but the point is: people with access often don’t want to ruffle many feathers. He was scared shitless that other reporters were talking negatively about me and the site. Group-think at its finest. 2) In 2011, a prominent CSN employee told me that if he or his Comcast-owned show asked Peter Laviolette about Dry Island, he’d probably get fired.

Being so wrapped up in the culture even skews reporters’ views of more serious situations. They focus on how an event impacts the subject instead of what it means for the reporter’s audience. Like this tone-deaf Tweet from who but Darren Rovell on Monday:

Voila_Capture 2014-09-10_04-05-23_PM

Which brings us back to King. In that short open letter, he makes 10 references to the “league,” “sources,” or “officials.” His, and many others’ existences are built of those official sources. But when real news comes along, there’s no way those reporters are getting the full story.

This post isn’t meant to criticize good sports reporting – we all want, and need, great reporting on the entertainment aspect of things – rather, it’s meant to point out the problems with it. Non-traditional media often gets criticized (often fairly!) for being reckless, but it’s N-TM that has the ability and incentive to break the most important stories.

Most of this post was written yesterday just before Rob Maadi of the AP (it doesn’t get more mainstream than that) maybe forced the eventual resignation of Goodell. So, um, yeah, there’s still a lot of good reporting that comes from mainstream folks. Rob’s one of the better ones. And so, too, is ESPN’s investigative reporter John Barr (@JohnBarrESPN), who killed it (again) last night, reporting on the legal aspects of the story. Of course, we shouldn’t need to put the word investigative in someone’s title for them to do actual reporting.

But this morning, King again wrote from the league’s perspective, citing several league and team officials. There are questions to be asked of those folks, certainly, but that’s not what King was doing. He was, yet again, allowing them to control the narrative.


34 Responses

  1. If anything the last 4 or 5 years have told me, it’s that the only people holding people with immense power accountable for their actions are good journalists.

  2. But on the flipside, it’s also the reckless reporting of sites like yours that can falsely accuse someone of something and have them tried in the public before the real facts come out. Cas in point, Deadspin and their reporting of the Manti Te’O story. Deadspin had him accused of, tried for and found guilty of being part of the hoax when really he was just a dumb kid that fell for a horrible prank. His image and life will never be the same because of it. It works both ways Kyle.

    1. True. But they also dug up the entire story, which otherwise never would’ve come out. And don’t pretend the mainstream media doesn’t falsely accuse people of stuff. NY Daily News following the Boston Bombing. You can find inaccuracies in basically every story ever reported anywhere. But I will point out that I can’t recall a time when we’ve ever reported something that was “reckless” or patently false. Posted about “reports” that turned out to be way wrong? Yeah. But never put forward something first that was wildly inaccurate. And to insinuate that “sites like mine” are the only ones to falsely accuse someone and have them tried publicly is ridiculous. Turn on any cable news station.

      1. “they also dug up the entire story, which otherwise never would’ve come out.”

        If not for Deadspin it never would come out? That’s a ridiculous assumption.

  3. The Ravens made a true statement with cutting Rice. They would’ve saved a significant amount of money if they merely suspended him indefinitely. By cutting him, they still pay him his guaranteed salary. If suspended, they could’ve even tried to recoup part of his roster bonus. By cutting ties with him regardless of salary cap implications, they’re basically saying, “We want absolutely no association with you now, or ever.”

    If this spells the end of Goodell as the commissioner, that will be a great thing for the sport. Let’s look at the debacle that has been his tenure:

    Concussion Initiative rule changes that essentially made refs throw a flag for every big hit that players were praised for earlier in the same season.
    Replacement Refs. The 18 game proposal (16 games is plenty). Also when you’re trying to sell a safety initiative, adding two more games a season doesn’t exactly sound like you care about the players health. A proposal to eliminate kickoffs. A proposal (which flopped) to move extra points back to the 20. Thursday night games, every week. I love football, but when you get teams coming off of a Sunday game, playing just 4 later, with an off day Monday, the product suffers. Thursday night games are usually some of the sloppiest games you’ll watch all year. It’s too much. Again, greed. More add revenue. Then there’s this bullshit about putting a team in London. Players bitch about traveling to the coast for a game, what are they going to think about flying abroad? How the fuck are you going to pay the players from a London team? The exchange rate and cost of living are so different…It’s a stupid idea. Let them keep their one game a year and be done.

    Could bitch about Roger all day. Hopefully his days are numbered.

  4. Kyle, a lot of people rip the shit out of you on here (and sometimes rightfully), but this is solid commentary. I dig reading your work when you go after traditional media, be it the Flyers beat reporters or Comcast becoming our new media overlords. You’re at your best when you’re writing about this kind of shit.

  5. there is little, or no, incentive for reporters to get their stories 100% accurate but there are millions of incentives to protect the nfl, mlb, nba and the ncaa.

  6. “a Phillies reporter, who at the time was writing occasionally for this site, …”

    Does anyone know who the reporter was who use to write here?

  7. Heard ray rice was playing that song “rude” in the background when he asked his father in law for permission to marry his daughter

  8. I think the intelligent news consumer has adjusted. They realize there’s a rush to get things out there and that regardless of how the new technology delivers news (which I would describe as staccato). The time required for a story to be reported on completely is still the same because people lie, cover up etc… always will. In other words, post more tits and ass Kyle.

    1. agree with you in that most people are intelligent enough to recognize that much of today’s journalism world is erroneous and/or influenced by outside forces. however, it still begs the question……where are we to get our news then? it’s very frustrating when much of the mainstream media lacks journalistic integrity and as a result we have to sift through piles and piles of bullshit just to unearth little tidbits of credible information.

  9. The only way that Roger can get out of this mess now is to go on The Oprah Show and cry till she forgives him. What?…Oprah’s not on anymore? What about the Joan Rivers Show?

  10. This is a bullshit article. Why? Because we all get it that there’s a fundamental tension between reporters at places with some level of corporate ownership/interest and independent sports blogs. There’s no story there.

    Peter King, Chris Mortensen and the like are old school journalists in that they cultivate sources, often on the inside, who pass information to them along in exchange for a little feather-nesting of the league to soften the blow of the news. This has happened from the dawn of time.

    Today, with blogs and so much more inside info available, we get stories from multiple angles from all sorts of sources with less at stake than the sources that Peter King has. Why should the Revel’s elevator operator care about the NFL’s brand and what Ray Rice does in one of the elevators when he’s being offered $10k by TMZ? But you know that the head of security for the NFL does give a shit about the NFL’s brand because that’s the person that Peter King calls.

    The most tiresome thing about reading blogs that break stories is that it is always accompanied with parallel stories about the old model of reporting doesn’t work, doesn’t reveal the true facts and is too protective of the sources.

    And here’s a tip for all journalists – the readers don’t care much about your perspective on your profession. If there’s anything that journalists like to write about, it is themselves and the role they play in reporting stories. We know you reject traditional media and mock them. And we know how they feel about you. So bag all that – no one cares. It isn’t about you, it is about the reader.

    1. I agree on the last point. But it’s the readers who lose out when mainstream stops reporting and becomes an extension of PR. It’s worth calling out, and explaining when it happens to the casual observer.

      1. I agree that the mainstream reporting is less provocative than blogs but I don’t agree that people like Peter King are really just extensions of the league’s PR apparatus. I don’t think the league is particularly happy with Peter King or Mort today, or anyone. I love the peek-behind-the-curtain stuff as much as anyone but mainstream media cannot be as far out there as blogs can be. Doesn’t mean that they are parroting what the league is selling them. All of that being said, it is correct to call this stuff out because not everyone parses this information the level that we seem to.

    2. Fully agree. The reporter/inside-source conflict dynamic has been true since the dawn of time, yaaaawn. Kyle is omitting the other half of the issue that doesn’t fit his rant’s narrative: CONVENIENCE. Many reporters go to those same sources because they’re LAZY, SLOPPY or on DEADLINE, or too often, all three. It takes real work to get the whole story and reporters these days just don’t like to do that.

      The internet changed reporting because it gave the ABILITY to research and develop a balanced article to so many more people. That’s where Slate and Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone now flourish. You can bet those outlets have their eye on a far more definitive accounting of the Ray Rice debacle, so fuck Peter King. You can bitch about old-timers writing from the perspective of their sources all day, but that’s “no duh” material. It’s like White House reporters towing the line on WMD in ’03; of course that’s their perspective, it’s the insular world they live in. Give this story more than a few days to breathe – God forbid a few weeks – and you’ll see the real reporting begin to be published. That shit takes time and effort.

      And no, always basing your most thoughtful pieces on the slamming of mainstream reporters will never get you to the Rolling Stone level.

  11. The only real journalist left in this town wass Glen Macnow, and look what The NFL did to him! Glen criticized Thursday Night football and now he’s only on the air on Weekends. On weekdays he hides in the hills of Conshocken brewing overpriced beer in his still. They call him Crazy Glen now

  12. If we believe Peters apology, we now know that he misrepresented the information his source provided. His source told him that the league MUST have seen the video, but he reported that the league HAD seen the video. I don’t mind traditional journalists using vetted sources who end up being wrong. But Peter clearly misreported what the source told him. He should be fired on the spot.

  13. Someone in POWER wants Goodell out of that seat. the FBI takes its orders from the Dept of Justice.
    Kyle does a great and thorough job; and he’s professional.
    The Sandusky scandal was wrapped up nicely by Louis Freeh (ex FBI).
    look for the same scenario in the Ray Rice/NFL scandal.

    Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.
    – George Orwell

  14. Kyle Scott and Sean Brace giving journalism and morality lessons on this issue is laughable.

  15. Even though this piece is too intelligent for 95% of the readers / commenters, I love this article. It puts into words my dislike for 99% of ESPN-programing and a majority of former athletes being put into “journalist” roles. Well done!

  16. “calls have been coming for Goodell’s resignation, or at least an investigation. Last night Goodell acceded to those calls and hired former FBI director Robert Mueller to head up an independent investigation, which will be led by NFL owners John Mara and Art Rooney II. Results of the investigation will be released publicly upon completion”

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