Monday, March 9, 2009

Idiot Wind: Alex Rodriguez and the Press Piranhas

“One of the more fascinating elements of the Alex Rodriguez steroid chronicles is how willing people — some even in the news media — have been to decry the breach of confidential drug testing, along with the messenger. But isn’t that what a free press is largely about, getting to the bottom of unsavory things that are not necessarily intended to be known?”—Harvey Araton, “Sports of the Times: Exposing the Truth About Exposing the Truth,” The New York Times, March 3, 2009

“Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press.”—Bob Dylan, “Idiot Wind”

I’m beginning to think I understand how Clarence Darrow felt when he represented Leopold and Loeb, or when Daniel Webster went before a (literal) hell of a jury in Stephen Vincent Benet’s clever tall tale, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” You know what I mean: the Defender of the Damned, the advocate for people so guilty as sin they turn your stomach. People like Alex Rodriguez.

My friend Steve has likened Derek Jeter to George Stephanopolous as a “quietly cocky” guy, but I share some of the Yankee captain’s testiness in coming to the aid of a teammate even while he visibly distances himself from everything he represents.

So let me just write here that, with each succeeding season, I’ve grown more disgusted with the overpaid, underperforming (certainly in the clutch), philandering, phony headcase who occupies third base and sucks up all the oxygen for the Yankees.

Pride of the Yankees, he’s not—Hyde of the Yankees, maybe, what with all the exposes of the slugger’s dark underside this past year or so. I wouldn’t mind a bit if Brian Cashman traded him right now, then fumigated the clubhouse ASAP to remove all traces of A-rod and his overbearing agent, his shrinks, his crisis-managers, his strippers, his Material Girl-turned-Cougar, his trainer, and his cousin-enabler.

It would serve A-rod and all the steroid users right to have their records expunged from the books and told they won’t live to see their induction into Cooperstown.

With that all said, you have to do something pretty bad to compel me to take A-rod’s side instead of yours. Yet that’s precisely the situation that the press pack—and, particularly, the scribe who exposed Rodriguez’s drug use, Harvey Araton’s former colleague at The New York Times, Sports Illustrated reporter Selena Roberts—has created with their self-aggrandizing, hypocritical, unethical pursuit of the slugger.

My ears began to twitch as soon as I heard that name: “Selena Roberts.” I kept repeating it to myself. Where had I heard that name before?

Then it came to me—and was confirmed with a single Google search—that Roberts was part of the journalistic wolfpack that tried and convicted a group of Duke lacrosse players for raping a stripper at their rowdy frat party a couple of years ago.

Maybe you remember the case (Harvey Araton, Roberts’ former colleague, evidently has put it out of his mind): Not only did the Duke lacrosse case fall apart because of lack of evidence, but a judge looking into the matter found prosecutor Mike Nifong guilty of contempt for lying to the court on whether DNA evidence had been provided to the players’ defense attorneys--and the young men were declared innocent.

Even while the case was sagging like a flat soufflé, however, Roberts was having none of it: “Don’t mess with Duke, though. To shine a light on its integrity has been treated by the irrational almighty as a threat to white privilege. Feel free to excoriate the African-American basketball stars and football behemoths for the misdeeds of all athletes, but lay off the lacrosse pipeline to Wall Street, excuse the khaki-pants crowd of SAT wonder kids.”

Years ago, I remember my shock to find that Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin, well-known substance abuser, was not guilty of raping a prostitute. It taught me an important lesson: don’t rush to judgment on someone, no matter the circumstances of his or her past life.

The lesson appears to have eluded Roberts, who, as far as I (as well as Clay Waters, author of a Timeswatch post justly lacerating the sportswriter-muckraker) can tell, has never apologized for presuming the Duke lacrosse players’ guilt.

That makes it all the richer that Roberts and her attorney have been fuming that A-Rod sort-of-but-not-really admitted he was wrong about her stalking him without ever coming right out and apologizing for the silly insinuation.

What do you suppose was really behind the exposure of A-Fraud? The voice of wisdom and maturity came from a former player heretofore not known for such qualities: Darryl Strawberry. In a recent interview with the Daily News, the former Mets and Yankee slugger not only evinced admirable candor about whether he would have used steroids if he had the chance ("Hell, yeah, I would have used them. Are you kidding me?"), but also got right to the heart of the motives of Roberts’ secret sources: "Obviously somebody has had it out for him. It's not fair. If you're going to name one, why don't you name all of them.”

Araton defends his old colleague from “misogynist ravings” without recognizing how much Roberts herself has become exploited and used, almost certainly by male sources. It started with her taking the word of Mike Nifong; now it’s those, as Strawberry indicated, who “had it out” for A-rod.

In other words, she got played.

Roberts’ offense was not practicing her profession. Let’s examine a bit more closely Araton’s presumption that journalism is “getting to the bottom of unsavory things.” If that’s the case, then why hasn’t The New York Times run a gossip column all these years? So maybe Araton’s statement needs some alteration.

How about this: “getting to the bottom of unsavory things that matters.” Maybe that’s not the be-all and end-all of the situation, but it’s better than Araton’s description.

Maybe Roberts felt the need for vindication after the Duke scandal blew up in her face. Maybe she feels she got that scalp on her wall she needed.

But using confidential sources is a dangerous game. Not only is a defendant left without the right to confront his accuser, but a reader is left without an important right, too—the right to balance e an informed judgment about the truth or falsity of a claim with the opportunity to discern the character and motives of an accuser. (Not to mention the fact that the reporter might a) have gotten the question or facts wrong, and b) made the whole thing up.)

Briefly, Araton speculates that Roberts’ four anonymous sources were “simply troubled by more fraudulence about to be foisted on the public.” But if that was their only motive, why didn’t at least one of them expose all 104 positive testers?

A few sentences later, he makes another problematic assertion: “Even if the tests had been destroyed by the prevaricating union, there would have been some who knew a truth the public would have had a right to know.”

Oh, oh—there it is, the journalistic cliche: the public’s "right to know.” But perhaps that’s part of the problem here: Roberts’ revelation came as a byproduct of a biography of the slugger that, we are hearing, promises all kinds of salacious details about A-Roid.

One of those details, according to reports, is a standard pickup line of A-Rod’s: “Who’s hotter, me or Jeter?” Now, Cynthia Rodriguez, back when she was married to the slugger—heck, probably even more so during their divorce proceedings—might have been very, very interested in that line. Arguably, hearing about the line might have made Jeter shake his head over his ex-friend’s obsession with him.

But do you really think this is part and parcel of “the public’s right to know”? Even to ask the question makes you chuckle. To seriously believe it is ludicrous—and if Roberts, Araton and Co. don’t realize it, they should enter a different profession—pronto—and get their priorities straight.

You don’t think the media’s justification for this has become a mite bit excessive, do you? I used to scoff at the notion myself, but the A-rod story-a-night coverage these last few weeks reached a breaking point for me a couple of weeks ago, with a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece by Ben McGrath, “Roid Warriors,” discussing—are you ready for this?—The Daily News’ “sports investigative unit.”

I love baseball—and, indeed, other sports—as much as the next guy. But many people in this great, vast land of ours don’t care a fig what happens on the luscious green grass in our nation’s ballparks. Some are even unkind enough to liken our obsession with sports to the ancient Romans’ unquenchable yen for “bread and circuses.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but these people have a point: There are unquestionably many things more important than sports. Things like why so many Americans continue to receive substandard, sinfully expensive health care, and why our political, medical and insurance establishments contribute to this. Like why so many of our tax dollars have vanished into financial institutions like black holes. Like so many fundamental errors concerning war and peace have been committed in Washington over the last few decades.

All of these things call for a special “investigative unit”—in fact, all the resources that a self-proclaimed major media outlet like the Daily News can devote to it. Why isn’t The Daily News fielding their investigative unit on things like these?

The press had better treat lightly on the steroid story, not because athletes deserve a break but because the scandal is fostering the kind of hubris on the part of the Fourth Estate that precedes a fall from grace. When the rights of the press run straight on into the rights of a defendant to a fair trial--even the rights of someone like A-rod to a reasonable degree of privacy--recognizing no impediment to their prerogative practically begs for a massive retaliation.

1 comment:

bjn2727 said...

"Don't believe I'm taken in by stories I have heard.
I just read the DAILY NEWS and swear by every word!"
Barry town
Donald Fagan Walter Becker