The Ray Rice Story Illustrated Why Mainstream Reporting Is Often Terrible
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:
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.