We got a couple of creepy voyeuristic peeks into the sports media last week. Both stories, one involving a champion quarterback and the other involving a pretty sideline reporter, could make you teeter between feeling stimulated and feeling dirty. One involved a shameful peephole that undressed a popular sports figure. And the other involved Erin Andrews.
The Ben Roethlisberger and Andrews stories aren't that different metaphorically, believe it or not. They involve what the public craves, and how much of that craving should be fed, and how this ever-growing appetite takes us into places we ought not be sometimes.
I can't tell you how many people I've heard say how disgusting it is that someone would illegally videotape a naked Andrews in her hotel room ... while requesting the link. And I can't tell you how many people I've heard complain about how the media behaves ... while craving and even demanding the dirt produced by that behavior. We cover our aghast faces with our hands but can't help but feed our primal urges by peeking through splayed fingers.
Roethlisberger, for those of you who don't know (and you wouldn't know for more than a day if your only source of sports information is ESPN), is being accused of rape in a civil suit. Civil suit. Not criminal. It is an important distinction, if you care about fairness. I have no idea if this woman was terribly and criminally wronged or is insane. I just know she can say whatever she wants in a civil suit without making it so. The temptation is to report what she says, and file it under journalistic "fact-gathering" or "truth-seeking," even though the media, allegedly fair and objective, is never, ever, ever as zealous or thorough in reporting the acquittal as it is in reporting the accusation.
Let's make it your brother, your father or you instead of Roethlisberger. And let's say, for the sake of argument, that you are being wrongly accused in a civil suit. And then that "news" is everywhere, smearing you, but the exoneration isn't reported with the same gossipy hyperventilation. That going to feel fair? The need to be first long ago trampled the need to be just or right or just right. The need to get the conversation going in the instant-media age has usurped the need to have the conversation be fair or human or empathetic.
Asking the media to slow down on Roethlisberger until he at least speaks or until police are involved is like asking piranha to be reasonable. Doesn't help, either, that the voices gathering strength on the Internet are shouting for more bloody chum to be thrown in the water. The temptation as the crowd gathers around the peephole is to wander over toward the whispers.
Which makes what ESPN did kind of amazing in the modern media age. It totally ignored this Roethlisberger story before finally bowing Wednesday night. Everyone else was reporting it. Everyone. And consumers crave it. The famous falling is always a ratings monster. Michael Jackson's death wouldn't have been covered that way if media outlets weren't being rewarded for covering it that way by the paying public.
But predictably, ESPN was killed for protecting Roethlisberger. Covered for him instead of covering him. All ESPN was doing was waiting for him to speak or for police to get involved. But we want our gossip, even if it is not true, and our need for it makes TMZ and smut rags grow while books and newspapers and literary magazines die. It is one of the many ways America keeps getting dumber by the day. And, in this climate, it makes the high ground an awfully difficult place to be.
Where's the line?
I'll get accused of protecting a gravy train here, even though I criticize ESPN plenty and publicly, but ESPN tries not to cover civil suits. You haven't heard about Dwyane Wade's messy divorce on ESPN. A scorned woman accused Roberto Alomar of all manner of awful in the gluttonous New York tabloids, and that wasn't on SportsCenter, either. Kobe Bryant's rape case was different. It involved police. Isiah Thomas was different. It involved a trial.
Those things change the journalistic discussion, although I'd be all for the utopian and impossible day when nothing was reported until after the trial because the police get plenty wrong, too. Heck, boxer Arturo Gatti just died and the media and police got carried away with accusing his wife when, oops, he may have just hanged himself with her bloody purse strap. She doesn't get a do over on that one if we were wrong.
Black or white
But here's where the high ground becomes even more slippery when all you seek is balance: It is a white quarterback's alleged crime not being covered at the very same time that a black quarterback, Michael Vick, gets an unholy and disproportionate amount of punishment and coverage for another crime. That one gets hard to explain to black people, journalism's rules be damned, given America's history of injustice and the baggage brought to any racial discussion.
Skin color always gets noticed at times like these, especially when a news organization or legal system can be accused of preferential treatment. Black people are going to wonder if Vick, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Barry Bonds or any other black media punching bag would be extended the same courtesy as Roethlisberger was here — especially when a Moss civil accusation got play on some ESPN outlets just before the unreasonable frenzy of a Super Bowl. Consciously or subconsciously, we always absorb black-white. And you can imagine how the discussion would have sounded if Donte Stallworth had spent less than a month in jail for killing someone and had been white.
Regardless, the easiest thing for ESPN to have done with this Roethlisberger story was to merrily follow the crowd to the trough. There is no criticism in that. It is one of the many reasons following is so much easier than leading.