ESPN’s dubious journalism in the Janay Rice story

Hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving.

Two comments.

1) As you all know, Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension was overturned Friday by Barbara Jones, a former federal judge who served as arbitrator in this case. The case turned on whether the commissioner was justified in levying what amounted to a second suspension after the NFL drew such withering criticism for only having levied an initial two-game suspension. Commissioner Goodell claimed he was because he’d been initially misled by Rice. Goodell claimed he did not know how violent Rice’s attack on his now-wife was until a new video emerged in early September – weeks after the initial suspension was imposed – showing the cold-blooded assault.

Many expressed deep skepticism of Goodell’s claim at the time. Recall that this second video – the one inside the elevator that showed Rice punching Janay Rice – had been mailed to NFL headquarters back in April. The commissioner’s and league’s claim was that, though that video did, indeed, arrive at the NFL’s offices, no one in a position to inform the commissioner of the seriousness of what Rice had done actually viewed it. Even more implausibly, as I argued in September, was that the NFL was claiming, in effect, that even though someone in NFL offices would have to have *ordered* the video in order for it to be delivered, the commissioner and his men still tried to claim they didn’t know the video existed until its release by TMZ.

Regardless, Judge Jones ruled that Rice himself was entirely truthful about what happened inside the elevator when he met with the commissioner in June to discuss the assault. Therefore, contrary to Goodell’s claims, there was no new information in the video that TMZ released in September. Instead, Goodell was merely trying to take a second bite at the apple following the withering criticism of his inadequate initial response to Rice’s “conduct.” This, Jones ruled, was impermissible.

Lots of folks in the media are really down on Goodell right now. But it would be hard to overstate how widely praised he was from some of the folks now critical of him when he first started to make “personal conduct” his signature issue in 2007. This was a period when race hung particularly ominously over sports discourse. Michael Vick’s involvement in dog fighting, Barry Bonds widely derided assault on the all-time home run record, Pacman Jones’ undeniably out-of-control behavior and the still relatively fresh memory of the Malice in the Palace all contributed to an ugly environment in which sports commentators, en masse, believed the “inmates were running the asylum” and that something needed to be done.

Roger Goodell was, to quote Katherine Hepburn, their “knight in shining armor,” an avenging angel vowing to put all these “thugs” in their place. The racial undercurrents of this fantasy are, I trust, obvious enough not to require deep explication.

For all those folks now dissatisfied with the clown show that Goodell’s leadership has devolved into, one might say you reap what you sow.

2) ESPN has been trumpeting proudly its piece, “Janay Rice, in Her Own Words.” It’s an “as told to” essay, with Jemele Hill as the conduit for Rice’s story.

Rice, of course, has the right to tell her story as she sees fit. But ESPN should *not* be passing this off as journalism. In the introduction to the story, the editors make much of the fact that “no questions were off limits.” And Hill emphasized the same to Bob Ley on air Wednesday when discussing the piece’s impending release. But when Ley asked Hill what the “parameters” were, Hill acknowledged that there could be no audio or video taken of the interview and also said that Rice would have final say over the published contents (the editors slipped in this critical fact at the end of their introductory note).

No serious journalist would accept such “parameters.” Yes, you can reasonably ask a source to confirm the accuracy of what you’re quoting. But if you give the source full and final authority over everything you publish, you’re just doing PR for them. This is not me talking, by the way. This is the perspective of veteran journalists I’ve consulted about the terms of the Rice/Hill piece.

I was frankly astonished when Hill said to Ley “that’s all,” after recounting these parameters, as if she hadn’t already conceded that she’d given away the store in terms of journalistic independence. And my journalist friends confirm that that is, in fact, everything that matters.

The shamelessness with which ESPN wants to have it both ways – draping itself in the cloak of a serious news organization on the one hand, while engaging in the most shameless hocking of infotainment on the other – shouldn’t be a surprise at this point. But it’s still grating as hell.

The content of the piece is also disturbing, in my view. For all that we’ve learned about domestic abuse and how the abused respond to, rationalize and take responsibility for that which is being done to them, I am taken aback that ESPN would run this in the form they did.


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