What Ray Rice said to Goodell: Increasingly, the Ray Rice matter has become a fascinating study of cable press corps procedures. These procedures flourished in the traditional press corps before cable became as dominant as it now is.
In the procedures we have in mind, pseudo-journalists select their official target. They then commence their morally pleasing Group Chase.
From that point on, almost everything you are told will be selective, tilted, slanted, perhaps a bit misleading. Just consider the recent excitement about ESPN’s “four sources.”
The excitement continued last night on the Erin Burnett and Chris Hayes programs (among others). That said, let’s return to Thursday night, for which transcripts are available.
If you’ve followed this general topic on cable, you’ve heard about the “bombshell” ESPN report—the one in which four sources contradict Roger Goodell. On Thursday night, Hayes described the bombshell report in the manner shown below.
As is required by cable law, he started with Watergate lingo. To watch the full segment, click here:
HAYES (9/11/14): What did the NFL know? What did Roger Goodell know it and when did he know it? That’s the question that continues to plague NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.Using the thrilling term twice, Hayes described the blockbuster thusly:
Tonight, we have more blockbuster reporting suggesting Goodell knew more than he has said he knew.
Joining me, Bomani Jones, co-host of ESPN’s Highly Questionable.
And the big blockbuster story tonight, Bomani, is that four sources have told ESPN’s Outside the Lines that Ray Rice told Goodell on June 16 that he punched [his] then-fiancee in a casino elevator, an assertion that contradicts Goodell’s statement this week that, "when we met with Ray Rice and his representatives, it was ambiguous about what actually happened."
“Four sources have told ESPN’s Outside the Lines that Ray Rice told Goodell on June 16 that he punched [his] then-fiancée in a casino elevator, an assertion that contradicts Goodell’s statement this week.”
Rice told Goodell that he punched his fiancée! Four sources have told ESPN!
Jones is a charismatic TV sports pundit. Unfortunately, he thought his network’s report was a blockbuster too:
JONES (continuing directly): Well, I think it was fairly predictable. It wasn’t hard to find people who were adamant that Ray Rice told the commissioner what had happened. The Ravens, their Ozzie Newsome has said that Ray Rice was honest with them about what happened. So it seemed like it was just a matter of time before somebody said what happened. I didn’t expect it to be a four-source blockbuster, though. I mean, that’s a lot of people.As far as we know, Newsome has never characterized, on the record, what Rice said at that meeting. Somewhat vaguely, he has characterized what Rice said to himself and to Coach John Harbaugh.
HAYES: Well, that’s a lot of people. And also, it’s another problem for Goodell in a number of ways...
Whatever! From there, Hayes continuing the mandated chasing and killing of the pig, in this case Goodell.
This is Standard Cable Excitement, of a type that was widely practiced against President Clinton and Candidate Gore. Here’s the way it works:
Under these standard procedures, a target is picked by the mainstream press. From that point on, all information will be said to constitute the latest blockbuster showing the target is vile.
In this case, the target is Goodell. The aim is to show that he has been lying about what Rice actually said.
Has Goodell been lying about what Rice said in that meeting? We have no way of knowing. But we do know how to read “news reports,” including the rather shaky report by Don Van Natta at ESPN.
We’re using ESPN’s updated version of its report about the four sources. Evaluate those “sources” with care.
Also, check your wallets:
VAN NATTA (9/12/14): Ray Rice told NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on June 16 that he punched his then-fiancée in a casino elevator, four sources have told "Outside the Lines," an assertion that contradicts Goodell's statement this week that "when we met with Ray Rice and his representatives, it was ambiguous about what actually happened."There is no question about one thing. “The accounts given by the sources” (tend to) contradict Goodell's recent statements.
Goodell made the statement Tuesday during an interview with CBS News, saying the latest video released by TMZ Sports about the incident was "inconsistent" with what the former Baltimore Ravens running back had told him. But four sources close to Rice say that during the disciplinary meeting in the commissioner's office on June 16, Rice told Goodell he had hit Janay Rice, then his fiancée, in the face inside a Revel Casino Hotel elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and had knocked her unconscious.
"Ray didn't lie to the commissioner," a source with knowledge of the meeting told "Outside the Lines." "He told the full truth to Goodell—he made it clear he had hit her, and he told Goodell he was sorry and that it wouldn't happen again."
"He told the truth," a second source said. "This is a public lynching of Ray."
A third source with knowledge of Rice's discussion with the commissioner said: "There was no ambiguity about what happened [in the elevator]." A fourth source also confirmed how the information was relayed at the meeting; however, a fifth source with knowledge of the meeting said Rice told Goodell he had "slapped" his fiancée.
The accounts given by the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, contradict Goodell's statement that he did not know precisely what had happened inside the elevator until he watched the TMZ Sports-released videotape on Monday morning.
(In this context, be careful about the extremely slippery word "hit.")
Having said that, riddle us this: Do you see any indication that any of ESPN’s four sources were actually present at the June 16 meeting? In other words, do any of ESPN’s “four sources” have first-hand knowledge of what Rice told Goodell?
Uh-oh! Van Natta never says that! At no point does Van Natta say that these sources have first-hand knowledge of what was said. Nor does Van Natta explain why they “spoke on condition of anonymity,” or why they were allowed to.
At one point, Van Natta describes the four sources as “four sources close to Rice.” As far as we can tell from his report, this could mean that they’re simply repeating what Rice has told them about that meeting.
Elsewhere, Van Natta says these sources have “knowledge of the meeting” or “knowledge of Rice's discussion with the commissioner.” But do the sources have first-hand knowledge? Van Natta never says.
According to Van Natta, a fifth source says that Rice told Goodell that he “slapped” his fiancée. (That isn’t what Rice actually did in the elevator, of course.) Here too, there is no claim that this source was actually present at the June 16 meeting.
This is suspiciously weak “reporting.” For the record, Van Natta is an old Times hand. While he was at the New York Times, this kind of slippery reporting was widely employed against Clinton and Gore. Also against Wen Ho Lee, in blockbuster reports for which the Times later had to apologize.
On its face, that ESPN report is noticeably soft. Instead of talking to Jones, Hayes should have been asking Van Natta about the strength of those “four sources,” who may or may not actually know what they’re talking about.
Instead, Hayes told you the report was a “blockbuster.” That's how these chases work.
Do those four sources have first-hand knowledge? We don’t have the slightest idea.
To appearances, neither does Hayes. As a matter of basic journalism, he should have pointed that out.
Present at the creation: Deep in his lengthy report, Van Natta seems to provide the list of people present at the meeting:
VAN NATTA: The June 16 meeting in Goodell's Manhattan office was attended by Rice, his wife, two players' union representatives, Newsome and Ravens president Dick Cass.How many of ESPN’s four sources were actually present that day? We’ve seen the giant stars of cable discuss this report again and again.
Goodell was accompanied at the meeting by Adolpho Birch, the league's senior vice president for labor policy, and Jeff Pash, the NFL's general counsel.
How many of the sources were present? So far, we’ve seen no one ask!