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Thursday, April 30, 2009
Why I’m skeptical of Selena Roberts’ new bookThis morning I wrote that, while the facts are the facts when it comes to the A-Rod business, and that they will ultimately bear themselves out (or not), we should be mindful of the characterizations and judgments that accompany those facts:
Which in some ways illustrates my skepticism about the book. Not about the facts as such -- facts have a funny way of proving themselves right or wrong on their own, and once the book is out and A-Rod and his lawyers and publicists have their say, the allegations in this book will take on either an air of credibility or not. Lord knows after Clemens and Bonds and everything else, no steroid-related fact will shock me.
As some people mentioned in the comments, there is more than Roberts' previous work on A-Rod to be considered when assessing whether she has committed an act of responsible journalism or a drive-by character assassination. For example, there's Roberts' work on the Duke lacrosse case. Via Timeswatch.org, here's what Roberts wrote in March 2006, in a column that Timeswatch says "seethes with the presumption of guilt":
"The season is over, but the paradox lives on in Duke's lacrosse team, a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings. Something happened March 13, when a woman, hired to dance at a private party, alleged that three lacrosse players sexually assaulted her in a bathroom for 30 minutes. According to reported court documents, she was raped, robbed, strangled and was the victim of a hate crime. She was also reportedly treated at a hospital for vaginal and anal injuries consistent with sexual assault and rape.
Later, as the erroneousness of the rape charges and prosecutor Mike Nifong's perfidies came to light, Roberts took on a defiant tone. After noting how much hate mail she had received for earlier reporting, Roberts continued:
"What happens if all the charges are dismissed? There is a tendency to conflate the alleged crime at the Duke lacrosse team kegger on March 13, 2006, with the irrefutable culture of misogyny, racial animus and athlete entitlement that went unrestrained that night.
Roberts concluded the piece by seemingly suggesting that the false rape charges and prosecutorial misconduct were worth it in the end, if it opens up Duke to "change" and positively impacted the culture of spoiled white athletes. Like a lot of people, I wasn't very critical of the first reports, but post-Nifong, Roberts' latter article was nothing short of astounding.
But don't take my word for it. A much longer and scholarly handing of Roberts' reporting on the Duke lacrosse case can be found in this law review article, the conclusion of which was a real humdinger:
[The New York Times] largely ignored the law of defamation in its reportage on the Duke lacrosse case. Chest-thumping newsworthiness or news creation became its mantra, if not its mode of operations. Maybe this is the unfortunate true legacy of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the most important defamation decision in Anglo-American legal history: that the media may largely act unconstrained by defamation liability concerns because of the practical difficulty of litigation and the huge obstacles to actually collecting an award.
Before I go any further, let me make a couple of things perfectly clear:
(1) I don't dare propose that anything to do with A-Rod rises to the level of seriousness of the Duke lacrosse case; and
(2) I have no idea if the facts reported in today's Daily News piece or any of the other facts in Roberts' upcoming book are true or not.
Indeed, as I've said three times today, I don't even think that I care if the facts are true or not, because the facts don't interest me as much as the way in which they are presented, the context, and the conclusions they cause Roberts to draw. For all I know, A-Rod was eating minotaur adrenal glands three times a week until last Thursday and has been involved in every underhanded baseball operation since the death of Hal Chase. Such matters will be borne out as true or false in a mostly orderly fashion over time.
What I do care about -- and the reason I have quoted all of this stuff by and about Selena Roberts -- is the culture of character assassination that has become inextricably linked to the subject of steroids in baseball. Every big name who has tested positive has not only been branded a cheater by the media, but a dirty cheater with evil and chicanery in his heart. Every assertion of innocence -- even to subordinate allegations -- has been met with scorn. In addition to censuring players under the rules of baseball, the media (and the public at large following the media's lead) has further demanded that high-profile steroids users be ostracized, and that the historical record be expunged, as best it can be, of their very existence. It has been a shameful few years in this regard, and I hope and pray that one day some semblance of perspective on the subject of performance enhancing drugs in baseball prevails. But we're certainly not there yet.
Enter Selena Roberts. The same Selena Roberts who has already demonstrated a clear interest in making Alex Rodriguez into a villain. The same Selena Roberts who smeared the Duke lacrosse players. Even if we concede that she gets the facts right in her upcoming book, can we have any faith that she presents them with even a semblance of balance, as opposed to surrounding them with innuendo, rumor, conjecture, and false sanctimony?
And before you ask, yes, that stuff is important. It's important because whatever we think of Alex Rodriguez the baseball player, we cannot forget that Alex Rodriguez is also a person. That he's a father. That because so few people will actually get to know him personally over the course of his life, books like Roberts' and the surrounding media storm will forever be his calling cards, whether he likes it or not. In light of this, the man -- or any other person who becomes the subject of intense scrutiny -- should be afforded some basic fairness in such endeavors. Report the truth for good or ill, but be double damn sure about the character judgments you draw about him in the process.
As I said this morning. It's one thing to say that A-Rod lied about certain things and broke certain rules. It's another thing to say that he did so because he's an inherently evil or damaged person. I have no problem with the former. Based on Selena Roberts' track record, however, I am extremely skeptical of anything she writes positing the latter.
UPDATE: I have some more thoughts on this here.
Posted by Craig Calcaterra at 4:23pm
Posted 04/30 at 04:43 PM
And well presented.
Posted 04/30 at 04:46 PM
“Enter Selena Roberts. The same Selena Roberts who has already demonstrated a clear interest in making Alex Rodriguez into a villain. The same Selena Roberts who smeared the Duke lacrosse players. Even if we concede that she gets the facts right in her upcoming book, can we have any faith that she presents them with even a semblance of balance, as opposed to surrounding them with innuendo, rumor, conjecture, and false sanctimony?”
Very very well said Shyster.
Posted 04/30 at 05:05 PM
I think this whole thing stinks of the last great battleground between MSM and “bloggers”—the subjective, “character assassination,” flowery prose of MSM vs. the objective, fact-based rat-tat-tat of the bloggosphere. Which is ironic, because it is the MSM that accuses blogs of being incorrect, factually deficient, and out to “assassinate character.” But I think that CC is dead right—the subjective tone given to this story is actually what shapes the story.
The irony (well, not irony, but something) is that this is the one year anniversary (give or take, according to Deadspin) of the Leitch v. Bissinger show down. That’s why this story seems to be part of those final, rear-guard skirmishes of the war. To me, the appearance is of a snarky, trying-to-make-it-in-a-male-athlete-world female reporter slanting a story to give her a niche, and MSM like the Daily News is peppering our airwaves/newspapers with bits and pieces of a story that (1) not many care about, and (2) everyone knows about (or assumes) already. And the presentation has a personal, subjective edge to it to spice it up.
Could A-Rod, in all his glory, actually help bring down the last bastions of the MSM?
Posted 04/30 at 05:18 PM
Huzzah to you, Craig. Well said.
Posted 04/30 at 05:22 PM
Craig I think that’s easily the best thing you’ve written that I have read. No one is willing to challenge the validity of what she has been writing and her moral presumptions about those she writes about also go unchallenged. I have not seen similar commentary on her like this anywhere else and again, it was a phenomenal piece.
Posted 04/30 at 05:40 PM
Thanks for saying what needed to be said. Once again, it’s a blogger who has to stand up for decent standards of journalism while one of the great names in print media is taken down another peg.
Posted 04/30 at 06:07 PM
Posted 04/30 at 06:26 PM
Craig this was great. I rarely comment on anything because I don’t usually feel like I can add any perspective. However, I’m a chemistry graduate student and just yesterday gave a seminar to my department regarding Designer Steroids from the Black Market. In my research for the talk, my perspective was greatly changed. What I realized is that there is a massive disconnect in media/public perception of drug users when it comes to steroids.
The media and public constantly vilify Bonds, Clemens and A-Rod, but in my opinion, the real villains here are the people who make and distribute these drugs. But look at what’s going on, Bonds is still being prosecuted, but Patrick Arnold, who made, distributed and profited from steroids spent 3 months in prison for his role in the BALCO scandal. Why is the drug user being punished more than the drug dealer? Would this be the case if it were heroin?
I’m not naive, I know the answer to that, but I really think that most people neglect to think about the fact that there are much more sinister people out there connected with these drugs. And journalists like Roberts just exacerbate this problem. Who should we be more worried about? The famous guy who might convince your kid to take drugs or the guy who’s making them?
Posted 04/30 at 06:40 PM
We are in the minority. Just like those of us who put on the brakes during the early days of the Duke case were in the minority.
Roberts isn’t a harbinger of the end of the MSM. She’s the only thing keeping it alive. For every person disgusted by writers like Roberts, there are five readers who eat it up. And the former group wasn’t buying newspapers, anyway.
Posted 04/30 at 07:38 PM
Addendum: The former group doesn’t buy books like these, either.
Posted 04/30 at 07:44 PM
Apparently, fewer and fewer of the latter buying newspapers, too.
Posted 04/30 at 07:57 PM
Talk about killing the messenger. If the reporter gets the facts wrong, then she should be critisized - see Duke lacrosse, where any critisism of Roberts is well deserved.
But if she gets the facts right, then what, exactly, are you critisizing? That she had the gall to report the facts? That can’t be her fault. That some people care about those facts? That’s not her fault, that’s the book publisher’s and book buyers’ fault - blame them, not the person who brings them their facts. That, in addition to reporting facts, she seems to have a perspective about those facts? Isn’t that what blogging is?
The problem in Duke lacrosse wasn’t that Roberts judged the accused players harshly. If the allegations had been true, they deserved to be judged harshly. The problem is Duke lacrosse was that the allegations were false - in other words, the facts were wrong.
The same is true here. If her reported facts are true - ARod took steroids, ARod took steriods on the Yanks when he said he didn’t, ARod intentionally tried to help the opposing teams at the expense of his own team (to me, the worst of all the allegations), then he deserves to be judged harshly, by Roberts and anyone else who cares to do so. If those facts are wrong, of course, then Roberts has a lot to answer for.
But it’s about the facts. Either he cheated or he didn’t. And it’s about ARod, not Roberts.
Posted 04/30 at 08:37 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Ben—except as demonstrated above, even after the facts were set straight in the Duke case—after Nifong was being prosecuted for prosecutorial misconduct and the players in question had been exonerated, Roberts was still stirring the pot, still casting aspersions on the Duke lacrosse team and it’s culture, and coming to the conclusion that a false prosecution may have been for the best anyway. Sorry, that’s more than reporting facts, as you say. That’s ignoring facts that are inconvenient to her premise (i.e. that the rich White students at Duke are evil and are due their comeuppance) and blasting forward with the premise anyway.
I haven’t read her book on A-Rod yet. No one has. But given her track record, we should be skeptical of the same thing in this case.
Posted 04/30 at 09:07 PM
Mansfield Bob said...
A-Rod is a proven cheat. Ask the Rangers. Ask his wife. You cannot assassinate character that isn’t there to begin with. And kissing his butt at Selena Roberts’ expense doesn’t change that fact.
Posted 04/30 at 09:26 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Bob: Of course you can. What if the book says he was a cheating baseball player and a bad husband, ergo he is a horrible father? What if it says that he is a cheating baseball player and a bad husband, ergo he hates the poor? What if the book says he was a cheating baseball player and a bad husband and that made him a wretched and miserable human being? I’d say all of those things, absent more, are unsupported leaps. Even if A-Rod has some pretty crappy character in many respects doesn’t make him an abomination.
If, on the other hand, she documents and reports facts and draws reasonable, supportable conclusions from them, great. Lovely. I hope she wins a Pulitzer Prize. My point is that given Roberts’ track record, I don’t think she should be given an advanced benefit of the doubt about that before anyone has had a chance to read her book.
And explain to me how I’m kissing A-Rod’s butt.
Posted 04/30 at 09:33 PM
Now I feel like I’m coming up for the second time in an inning, but I must say once again
Posted 04/30 at 09:36 PM
Craig, you said the following: “Indeed, as I’ve said three times today, I don’t even think that I care if the facts are true or not, because the facts don’t interest me as much as the way in which they are presented, the context, and the conclusions they cause Roberts to draw.”
Now, in response to my comment, you say that we should be “skeptical” of the factual assertions in Roberts’ book because, in other situations, she hasn’t backed off factual assertions once proven wrong.
So which is it? Do the facts not matter at all, as you said three times earlier? Or do the facts actually matter, but we should doubt whether not her allegations are actually true?
I can accept the latter. These are serious allegations and, when it comes to initial reactions, the messenger matters. But I can’t accept the former AS A CRITISISM OF ROBERTS. If you don’t care about the facts - about whether ARod cheated, about whether he deliberately hurt his own team’s chances of winning in favor of helping his friends - then the identity of the messenger doesn’t matter.
You can say you don’t care about the facts because, well, you don’t care. Fine. No one says you have to care. But if you don’t care about the facts, that’s not a critisism of Roberts.
Posted 04/30 at 09:45 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Bob: In case I was unclear, my last comment was not that we should be skeptical of her facts. It’s that we should be skeptical of the conclusions and judgments she draws from them.
She may have a stack of certified and notarized receipts establishing that A-Rod never tipped more than 15% at Hooters. I am skeptical, however, if she uses those facts to conclude that A-Rod is cheapskate misogynist.
She may have sworn affidavits from 132 people establishing that A-Rod did steroids from the age of 17. I am skeptical, however, if she uses those facts to conclude that he is a psychotic sociopath who treats our nation’s laws are meaningless.
She may have videotaped testimony of ballplayers hooked up to lie detectors stating that A-Rod tipped opposing players off to the coming pitches. I am skeptical, however, if she uses those facts to conclude that A-Rod conspired to throw the 2007 division series.
Of course, based on the Daily News excerpt, she doesn’t have that level of evidence—she has unnamed sources and a lot of “he may haves,” but let’s leave that for another day.
What we can’t leave for another day is our skepticism that a writer with Roberts’ track record won’t oversell the smallest of facts into the largest of moral judgments.
Posted 04/30 at 09:56 PM
1. Well done, Craig. Very good piece.
2. Interesting that Craig writes this the same day that the Baltimore Sun cuts a third of its remaining, already bare-bones newsroom. This includes virtually every sportswriter not named Peter Schmuck that they’ve got left.
3. Ben, I think you’re being a little too obtuse here. What Craig is saying, I think (he can of course defend himself, and almost certainly will) is merely that in this case specifically and in her career overall, Selena Roberts has proven that she is unreliable, especially by the standards of the journalistic profession that she claims to belong to. Part of that unreliability includes her demonstrated ability to hold to a position in contravention of facts as well as the changing situation. She jumps to conclusions and then is unable to admit to being wrong.
From this, we should not jump to conclusions on Rodriguez based on what Roberts has written. Craig doesn’t care about the veracity of any one thing that Roberts has written. Ultimately, all that stuff will shake out. Rather, he doesn’t want all this odious stuff that’s coming out about one aspect of Rodriguez’s life: his (possibly, or more likely probably, fraudulent) job performance. Rodriguez’s scuzzy behavior at work should not be taken as a signifier of his general character, which most of us do not, can not, and will not know.
Sitting here, a thought occurs to me…
There might be some parallels here with many finance executives. A bunch of people engage in unethical behavior that is almost certainly illegal in terms of the federal government as well as in contravention to the standards applied by one’s employer. This risky behavior is common for many reasons, perhaps not the least of with is the lack of policing from official and unofficial sources (SEC/MLB and the media in both cases). Once the situation can’t be contained any more the media rediscovers its purpose and goes digging for scapegoats. The people who have lost/spent a bunch of money on a lie are understandably peeved, and overreact. Now, death threats against AIG execs are much more serious than character assassination of a rather tone-deaf baseball player. And the financial crisis is of course more serious than baseball. But this is the situation of the media in late-capitalist America: that of simulacra. A-Rod the man is replaced by A-Rod the monster. The AIG executive who has two kids and a wife and volunteers at his church on weekends (or whatever) is replaced by the greedy capitalist.
Just thinking aloud, but ultimately we should all sit back and realize these are complex people with a lot going on. Selena Roberts does not help with this.
Posted 04/30 at 10:07 PM
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