ESPN’s latest slippery report: Based on this morning’s horrible Morning Joe, cable news will rock tonight with another entertainment spectacular in which the parsons and goodies of Salem Village chase the demon Goodell.
Last Friday’s gong-shows on CNN were about as bad as cable dunkings get. Based on Joe and Mika’s sanctimony—and Willie’s faithful recitations—we’re forced to predict more wet weather tonight.
In this case, the mob is chasing a relatively insignificant figure—the commissioner of a professional sport. At other times, the screaming mimis of “cable news” have chased presidential candidates (and presidents) in similar ways, changing world history in the process.
Goodell’s fate is less important. But on a journalistic basis, last Friday’s work was just amazingly bad. Ditto for the screeching columns of people like Mike Wise (the Washington Post) and Michel Powell (the New York Times), who must be among the least self-aware people on the planet.
Remember—in such cable chases, everyone agrees on who the villain is. For that reason, the only way a pundit can distinguish himself is by voicing the Standard Group Judgment in the most overwrought manner possible.
Last Friday’s overwrought conduct concerned a new report by ESPN’s slippery Don Van Natta. The report was instantly treated as the final word about various issues. On Sunday, the relentless blowhard Wise voiced the consensus like this:
WISE (9/21/14): When TMZ procured a video the NFL inexplicably says it could not, Rice overnight became a violent abuser whom the team and league had no problem denouncing as a batterer who had lied to them.Internally, that second paragraph doesn’t seem to make sense. If they all knew what happened, how could they have conspired through ignorance, willful or otherwise?
It's clear now they all knew what happened, the ugly malice in that elevator. But from Goodell to Bisciotti on down, they all conspired either through willful ignorance or outright falsehoods to prevent us from knowing what they knew.
Whatever! Let’s take this ridiculous fellow’s first statement. Is it clear now that everyone knew what happened in that elevator?
It’s certainly possible! But such a claim isn’t clear at all from this second ESPN report, which features more of the sleight of hand found in its predecessor.
Just how strong is the new report? What new facts does it demonstrate?
Last Friday night, Anderson Cooper introduced his discussion of the new ESPN report in the manner shown below.
He doesn’t refer to allegations. In his typical less-than-competent way, he says we’ve “learned” important things from the new report:
COOPER (9/19/14): Just a short time ago, we learned the Ravens may not have obtained the tape. But within hours—not months or weeks or days, but within hours of the actual attack—team officials knew, in detail, what was on the tape.According to Cooper, we’ve learned this from the new report: Within hours of the actual attack, Ravens team officials knew, in detail, what was on the tape.
More on these late developments from host of CNN's Unguarded, Rachel Nichols. So what do we know about these new details now?
If true, that would constitute highly significant new information about this earth-shaking matter.
At this point, Cooper threw to Rachel Nichols, as shown above. Eventually, she managed to say the word “alleged,” even as the tone of her voice suggested something much stronger.
She also vouched for the new report’s extremely strong sourcing:
NICHOLS (continuing directly): Yes, ESPN just released a pretty extensive and detailed report, from multiple sources throughout, saying that the night Ray Rice attacked his wife in the elevator, the team's director of security was on the phone with an Atlantic City police officer who had a copy of the tape. And that the Atlantic police officer described for him, blow by blow, literally, as he was watching the tape, on the phone—Eventually, Nichols managed to use the word “allege,” contradicting Cooper’s basic formulation. That said, as the segment continued, the sense was strong that the new report had presented the unvarnished truth.
COOPER: A copy of the tape inside the elevator, not just outside the elevator.
NICHOLS: Correct. And was describing, as the tape played out in front of him, to the director of security on the phone. And the ESPN report then alleges that the director security went to Ravens officials and described for them exactly what happened. So that is the night in question.
The Ravens have since said publicly, “Hey, we don't know exactly what happened.” The owner gave some tearful and private interviews to their local press saying “Hey, you know, I wanted to believe the best. I never pictured what I actually saw on the tape.”
Well, this report paints a sparkly different story. And basically alleges that the Ravens engaged in a cover-up.
(You can see Nichols starting to snark as she talks about those “tearful and private interviews” Ravens officials gave.)
It’s certainly possible that the new report presents the unvarnished truth. It’s possible that Ravens officials knew, on the very first night, that Ray Rice punched his fiancée is a rather violent manner.
On the other hand, the new report is shakier than a cable viewer would have dreamed from watching the Salem Village of Cooper’s TV show. Here we need another lesson is how to read a news report. Let’s start with Nichol’s reassuring claim that the new ESPN report features “multiple sources throughout.”
Below, you see the start of ESPN’s new report. In this passage, the new report makes its key factual claim.
Absolutely no sources are cited. There is no indication how Van Natta claims to know any of this:
VAN NATTA (9/19/14): The seven-month scandal that is threatening Roger Goodell's future as NFL commissioner began with an unexpected phone call in the early morning hours on a Saturday in February.We give up! Those claims may all be perfectly accurate. But how does Van Natta know these things?
Just hours after running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée with a left hook at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Baltimore Ravens' director of security, Darren Sanders, reached an Atlantic City police officer by phone. While watching surveillance video—shot from inside the elevator where Rice's punch knocked his fiancée unconscious—the officer, who told Sanders he just happened to be a Ravens fan, described in detail to Sanders what he was seeing.
Sanders quickly relayed the damning video’s play-by-play to team executives in Baltimore, unknowingly starting a seven-month odyssey that has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL's 94-year history.
Alas! There is no statement in that passage about Van Natta’s source for this, the central claim of his lengthy report. A generic discussion of sourcing follows. But he never presents any specific sourcing for this, his new report’s central assertion.
In this passage, we seem to be told that Darren Sanders called an Atlantic City police officer. We’re plainly told that the officer described the tape from inside the elevator to Sanders over the phone.
That may be exactly what happened, but no sourcing is provided. Quite a bit later, Van Natta introduces an element of uncertainty, still without any sourcing:
VAN NATTA: Sanders relayed the information he had obtained on Feb. 15 to his bosses, but whether he spoke directly with Bisciotti or Cass or someone else who relayed the information remains unclear. Four days after the incident, TMZ Sports released a different surveillance video, shot from outside of the elevator, showing Rice impassively dragging Janay's unconscious body out of the elevator. Although the grainy video did not show what had happened behind the elevator's doors, the images horrified Ravens coach John Harbaugh, according to four sources inside and outside the organization. The Super Bowl-winning coach urged his bosses to release Rice immediately, especially if the team had evidence Rice had thrown a punch. That opinion was shared by George Kokinis, the Baltimore director of player personnel, according to a fifth source outside the organization but familiar with the team’s thinking.There is no sourcing here either—zero, nada, none. But now, we’re told that we don’t even know who Sanders spoke to after the alleged phone call. He may have spoken to Bisciotti, the Ravens owner, or to Cass, the Ravens president. Or he may have spoken to someone else who “relayed the information.”
How do we know the alleged information ever got relayed at all? That obvious question isn’t answered. And Nichols’ statement to the side, no sourcing is provided.
Beyond that, please note the tiny hint of a possible contradiction. From this passage, it seems that Harbaugh still didn’t know, four days after the incident, that Rice had actually punched his fiancée. (Neither did Kokinis.)
This doesn’t mean that the Ravens owner didn’t know. But there is no sourcing, at any point, as Van Natta provides the very heart of his new report.
On CNN, Cooper said we had “learned” that these claims are accurate. Nichols said that Van Natta provided “multiple sources throughout.”
There is no sourcing whatsoever as his key claims are made.
Van Natta’s account may be perfectly accurate. But at this point, Cooper and Nichols went stampeding off in a typical cable lynch mob.
As journalists, Cooper and Nichols should have been noting the flaws in Van Natta’s presentation—and warning viewers that such reports often turn out to be wrong. Instead, they staged a standard entertainment event.
Unless we live to be amused, their conduct was lazy, incompetent, wrong.
Here at this incomparable site, we don’t trust Van Natta. We also don’t trust Lizette Alvarez, his heinously error-prone wife.
We don’t trust the pair because we’ve reviewed their work in the past—and because the slippery Van Natta included two passages of the type we show below in his new report.
In the passage shown below, Van Natta is trying to make us think that Rice told the unvarnished truth to Harbaugh right from the start.
The passage is plainly designed to convince us. Can you see what makes it so slippery, par for the course from this scribe?
VAN NATTA: The day after the incident in Atlantic City, Rice met Kyle Jakobe, his personal trainer and one of his closest friends, at Jakobe's gym, Sweat Performance, in Timonium, Maryland. In Jakobe's office, Rice wept as he described what happened between him and his future wife. "I'm holding him, he’s crying, he's devastated," Jakobe said. According to Jakobe, Rice didn’t sugarcoat what happened. The running back told his friend much of what we now know: Rice struck Janay in the face with his left fist and sent her careening into the elevator wall, where she struck her head and was knocked out instantly. "He motioned it to me," Jakobe said, making a closed fist and bringing it across his body. "He was like 'Hey, this is what happened.’”Rather plainly, that passage is supposed to convince us that Rice told the Ravens, right from the start, that he punched Janay Palmer.
Rice also leveled with his general manager, Newsome, who had a Hall of Fame career as a tight end with the Cleveland Browns. Rice sat down with Harbaugh, as well, and Harbaugh later described their conversation in a June interview with ESPN The Magazine. "I talked to Ray right away," Harbaugh said, "and what he told me right away—we always tell our guys, 'Never lie, never cheat, never steal'—he told me the exact truth of what happened, and it held up all the way through. He didn't sugarcoat it, he admitted what he did wrong, he explained everything to a T. Everything I've heard since then is held up to what he said.”
We see Rice telling a friend that he punched Palmer. We’re immediately told that Rice “also leveled with his general manager, [Ozzie] Newsome.”
No source is given for that statement. We then see Harbaugh saying, back in June, that Rice told him the full story right from the start.
“He didn't sugarcoat it,” Harbaugh says. “He explained everything to a T. Everything I've heard since then is held up to what he said.”
That sounds quite convincing! Here’s what we may not realize as we read that slippery passage:
Uh-oh! According to Harbaugh, he didn’t know in June that Rice had punched Janay Palmer. The slippery Van Natta tells you this only at the very end of his very lengthy piece:
VAN NATTA: "Outside the Lines" contacted Harbaugh on Friday morning to ask if he felt he'd been kept in the dark during any part of the process, and the coach reaffirmed his stance that he did not know Rice had violently punched his future wife until Sept. 8, when TMZ released the second video from inside the elevator.In his familiar slippery way, the slippery Van Natta tells you that near the very end of his 7000-word piece. Keep that passage in mind as you read another earlier slippery passage where Van Natta tries to make you think that Harbaugh has vouched for Rice’s truthfulness from the start:
VAN NATTA: In his letter to Ravens stakeholders last week, Bisciotti said that, by the end of February, "this is what we knew: A player who had been a model citizen in the community and terrific teammate for six seasons had been charged with simple assault against his [fiancée]...Ray and Janay both told us nothing like this had happened before. He was showing great remorse; they were meeting regularly with our team chaplain and were diligently attending couples counseling."The overall logic there is a bit hard to follow. But again, it sounds like Harbaugh is vouching for Rice’s truthfulness from the start.
For his part, Harbaugh said, given what he knew, he was also satisfied with Rice's account of the incident: "Ray has told me his side of it," Harbaugh said on March 5, "and everything we've seen so far is very consistent with what he said."
The problem we noted above still obtains. According to Harbaugh, he didn’t know on March 5 that Rice had punched Janay Palmer. Van Natta, a rather slippery fellow, seems to be playing his readers again.
Our nation’s major journalists often travel this slippery path. People like Cooper and Nichols will take their slippery work and stampede, staging an entertainment/moral outrage spectacular.
It’s a good business model for CNN, but it’s an entertainment scam. What they're doing isn’t journalism.
Last Friday, Cooper said we’ve “learned” what is true from Van Natta’s new report. Nichols told us, very falsely, that the report is multiply sourced throughout.
If CNN really was a journalistic concern, people like Cooper and Nichols would quickly be released. But CNN is a big, three-letter corporate org, not unlike the NFL.
Please understand! It may be that the Ravens brass knew the truth all along. It may be that Rice told them the truth all along.
Those things could be true—but then again, they could be false. We’re just trying to warn you about the Van Natta types, and about horrible TV stars with names like Cooper and Nichols.
Tomorrow: Other things we didn’t hear on cable last week
For extra credit only: Were you able to hear us say that Van Natta’s claims could be right? Were you able to hear us say that his claims could be wrong?
Are you able to hold both ideas in your head? Or do you need some cable friends to entertain you tonight?