In new media world, Rice video bound to end up on TMZ

Posted: September 10, 2014

There's a marvelous scene in the film All the President's Men in which the Washington Post's editors are holding their afternoon meeting, reviewing the day's most important stories and deciding which ones merit front-page placement, when the topic of Watergate comes up.

It is still early in the scandal's evolution, and one of the editors argues that "no one cares" about its latest development. Besides, the editor says, if Watergate were really a big deal, we'd put our most seasoned political reporters on the story. We wouldn't keep two nobodies like Woodward and Bernstein on it.

There's a valuable lesson in that scene that applies to the three-pronged news that broke Monday: TMZ.com's revelation of the security video that showed Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer-Rice, who was then his fiancee and is now his wife; the Ravens' subsequent decision to release Rice; and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's subsequent decision to suspend Rice from the league indefinitely.

The lesson has to do with journalistic independence and integrity, with an understanding of the relationships between professional sports leagues and teams and the media who cover them and profit from them, and with a jaundiced eye toward how media reveal and present information and why.

After that dramatized meeting, the Post exposes Watergate's full depth and breadth in large part because it did not assign its plugged-in people to cover the scandal. The editors keep Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the story, even though at the time the two reporters were outsiders with few ties to or loyalties within Washington's incestuous political culture. Their relationship to that culture, actually, parallels the relationship that TMZ has to the NFL's.

It might seem ridiculous at first to link perhaps the 20th-century's most glorified work of investigative journalism to a disquieting video of spousal abuse posted on a gossip-driven website that pays sources for information. But it's not ridiculous - not anymore anyway. There are so many media entities with so much invested in covering the NFL a certain way, for football-centric audiences, that it would have been stunning had any other outlet obtained that video of Rice socking Palmer-Rice inside an Atlantic City casino elevator.

This wasn't Mike Rice raving like a madman and pegging basketballs at Rutgers players, an unknown coach at a run-of-the-mill college program behaving badly. This was the National Football League, America's most popular and powerful sports leviathan, with its own television network, in the midst of a reported $15.2 billion deal with ESPN to televise Monday Night Football through 2021, with billions more coming in from Fox and CBS and NBC. (So much for the tsk-tsking that TMZ, by comparison, isn't ethical because it pays for information and/or access.)

Always, this story would have to be broken by someone outside the league's purview, which meant that the likes of Adam Schefter, Chris Mortensen, Peter King, and Jay Glazer - those insiders feeding us morsels of preapproved info - were never going to get this scoop. They are not outside the NFL's culture. They inhabit it.

The thing is, though, most of us in this business are beholden to others. Covering sports nowadays is often a second-by-second chase for information that was once considered uninteresting or irrelevant - or that once wouldn't have been considered information at all.

To get those transactional tidbits, to find out who made the practice squad or who signed that 10-day contract, to get "a source" to say what might happen if a particular player happened to be traded, we develop relationships and grant anonymity and conveniently ignore that the source might have an agenda or might earn his paycheck from the same company that owns our all-sports network or newspaper or website, and that we might be nothing more than a mouthpiece.

In a fragmented world of media consumers, we're all trying to figure out what people want and how best to provide it. Should we be breaking down Eagles game film and explaining how Jeremy Maclin got open for that touchdown catch Sunday? Should we be writing moving human-interest pieces on a player's friendship with a cancer-stricken child? Should we poke fun at Tony Romo every chance we get? If we have access to the coaches and players and executives, if we have the opportunity to press them for answers, what kinds of questions should we be asking?

Yet when we spend all this time and money on what we think people want, we often end up closing the distance between ourselves and those we're supposed to keep honest. That's a dangerous posture to fall into, because incidents such as this one - a sports figure doing something incompetent or unseemly or downright awful, such as beating his fiancee until she's unconscious - occur frequently enough that we always should be ready for them. Too often, we aren't.

The easy part of the Ray Rice story is the condemnation. Practically everyone involved deserves some. Rice himself, of course. The Atlantic County prosecutors, who allowed Rice to skate out of jail time with a plea bargain that placed him in an intervention program. Goodell and the NFL, who in initially suspending Rice for just two games had displayed moral callousness with respect to Rice's actions and a profound ignorance of how the public would react to so feeble a punishment. The Ravens, who chose to defend Rice as a man of good character until they had no recourse but to cut ties with him.

But it's worth remembering something: Each of them would have escaped the same degree of condemnation, or maybe any at all, if those nobodies at TMZ hadn't gotten their hands on that video, and these days, they're probably the only ones who could have.


msielski@phillynews.com

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MikeSielski

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