How to turn domestic violence into a thrilling chase: On a journalistic basis, it can be painful to watch sports reporters reason about the Ray Rice matter.
Or about the Roger Goodell matter, which the Ray Rice matter is being transformed into.
It can be painful to watch sports columnists try to reason about Goodell. For one example, here’s how Mike Wise began his column in today’s Washington Post:
WISE (9/11/14): Hour by hour, Roger Goodell’s mission to preserve the game’s integrity is failing, and any further discussion of his inability to properly deal with the NFL’s domestic violence problem has to begin and end with the commissioner’s necessary termination—preferably before Sunday.“The Associated Press essentially called Goodell a bald-faced liar?” It’s painful to see a major journalist who can’t reason better than that.
It comes down to this: If Goodell’s league cannot better protect battered women, what good is this moral armor Goodell has the audacity to call “The Shield”?
A day after he emphatically said that before Monday, no one in the league offices had seen video of Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City casino elevator, the Associated Press essentially called Goodell a bald-faced liar.
For the record, Goodell has said that, as far as he knows, no one in the NFL office had seen that second tape.
That said, yesterday’s AP report did not call Goodell a liar. Although, of course, he always could be, just like everyone else on earth, not excluding Mike Wise.
Nor did the AP report establish that Goodell has been lying at all. Here’s the way Rob Maaddi began his report:
MAADDI (9/10/14): A law enforcement official says he sent a video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee to an NFL executive five months ago, while Commissioner Roger Goodell has insisted the league didn't see the violent images until this week.How accurate is that AP report? For various reasons, it’s hard to tell. Let’s establish a few basic points:
The person played The Associated Press a 12-second voicemail from an NFL office number on April 9 confirming the video arrived. A female voice expresses thanks and says: "You're right. It's terrible."
The law enforcement official, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, says he had no further communication with any NFL employee and can't confirm anyone watched the video. The person said he was unauthorized to release the video but shared it unsolicited, because he wanted the NFL to have it before deciding on Rice's punishment.
The NFL has repeatedly said it asked for but could not obtain the video of the Baltimore Ravens running back hitting Janay Palmer—who is now his wife—at an Atlantic City casino in February.
The league says it has no record of the video, and no one in the league office had seen it until it was released by TMZ Monday. When asked about the voicemail Wednesday, NFL officials repeated their assertion that no league official had seen the video before Monday.
The law enforcement official said he sent a DVD copy of the security camera video to an NFL office and included his contact information. He asked the AP not to release the name of the NFL executive for fear that the information would identify the law enforcement official as the source.
According to the AP report, the anonymous law enforcement official wasn’t authorized to release the videotape. For that reason, he won’t allow the AP to name the NFL executive who allegedly received it.
There are probably a lot of NFL executives. The AP report provides no hint—none at all—as to where this particular person stands in the NFL chain of command.
The NFL executive hadn’t asked for the tape. (The anonymous law enforcement official sent it “unsolicited.”) Assuming there really is such an executive, he may have taken the videotape and thrown it right in the nearest river, for any number of easily imagined reasons.
That may not be what happened, of course—but that is entirely possible. In what way does that AP report “essentially call Goodell a bald-faced liar?” Even if we assume that every fact in the AP report is accurate, we have no idea if the tape was ever seen by anyone outside the office at which it was received. Or if it was even viewed by anyone in that office!
Wait a minute, you plaintively cry. What about the woman who called back and said, “You're right. It's terrible,” as part of a 12-second voicemail?
Did the AP hear the entire voicemail? If so, was it clear from her 12-second message that the woman had actually seen the videotape?
“You're right. It's terrible,” is quite imprecise. Has the woman watched the tape? And was it the tape from inside the elevator? Could the AP discern these facts from the voicemail? Most important, why didn’t Maaddi address such basic facts in his AP report?
(Note: The AP isn’t always entirely super-reliable.)
The AP report creates an intriguing possibility. It suggest a new route for investigation. But it’s a highly imprecise initial report—and in no way does it establish, or even allege, that Goodell has been lying, let along in a bald-faced way..
We have no particular view of Goodell, but we do have an obvious view of Wise. After watching him emote on TV; after reading this hapless if exciting column; he doesn’t seem to possess the most basic skills required of a competent reporter.
That said, cable TV is turning a story about domestic violence into an entertainment event—a cops-and-robbers detective chase of a very familiar kind. On Tuesday night’s Hardball, we saw Chris Matthews ask the most thrilling question of all:
MATTHEWS (9/9/14): What did he know and when did he know it?
On Wednesday night’s Chris Hayes program, we saw Dave Zirin play a similar card:
ZIRIN (9/10/11): I mean, it looks like “I didn’t see the tape,” it could become his “I am not a crook,” “I did not have sex with that woman.”
When people hand you these lines, you should check your wallet. They get to pretend that they are discussing domestic violence. They are really selling you a brand of TV entertainment that dates to Watergate, the greatest political thriller of the TV age. They’re selling you part of the package Richard M. Cohen described in 1988, speaking to Howard Kurtz
CBS executives "believe you lower the common denominator, frame everything in entertainment terms, make it pablum...The currency of the realm ceases to be journalism.
“They're left with a huge game of pretend.”
Journalism is built around the skeptical awareness of the limits of what we know at any given time. It’s horrifying to see how many sports reporters lack even the simplest tools for analyzing a highly imprecise initial news report.
Beyond that, don’t get fooled:
When you see your favorite TV stars dragging out their Watergate lingo, they’re no longer discussing domestic violence. They’re selling you cops and robbers—the thrill of the chase.
They’re selling you the entertainment component of that CBS package. They’re selling you excitement.
They’re no longer talking about men striking women. They’re talking about a different old sickness:
Killing the pig.