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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
since i dont care if players used steroids theres pretty much nothing shocking here. the tipping off of batters would REALLY piss me off if i was one of the pitchers he was screwing over, but as a fan its not a big deal. as neyer pointed out in one of his posts, stuff like that goes on and no one cares. when farve and the packers o-line conspired to give strahan the single season sack record (and man was that ever blatant), it wasnt a scandal.
people need to get off a-rod’s sack. yes hes a spaz and a weirdo and did stuff i wouldnt, but who cares, im paying to watch him play baseball, not to be a good person. i could give half a dingleberry what hes like in person.
Posted 04/30 at 10:53 PM
Seattle Zen said...
What an outstanding piece of writing. As a fellow attorney and crazed baseball fan, I tip my hat to a superb argument.
Posted 05/01 at 02:17 AM
Great article, Craig. Very well put…and much more eloquent than any response I’ve given to writers with obvious agendas (Mike Freeman over on CBS and his article ‘Deal with the Devil’ comes to mind—an article about A-Rod working with that steroids charity). As you say, facts are facts, but reporting has reached a level of irresponsibility that actually angers me. They’re in real trouble, in my opinion, as their competitors on blogs like this don’t charge anything. The Duke case hit home a little bit and I was appalled at its handling as most were. As someone who played baseball in college, I felt a real general disdain toward college athletes that was completely unwarranted. Keep up the good, sensible, rational, work.
Posted 05/01 at 09:30 AM
If the Times had a Sports Op-Ed page, would we be having this discussion?
It seems that the problem people have with Roberts’s articles is that they are opinion pieces, not traditional sports reporting. Her Duke articles, for example, were very clearly not about the specific case as much as they were about how sports, misogyny, and racism in America intertwine. And to be honest, that’s a conversation worth having. Pointing out the differences in how people reacted to the Duke case versus Kobe Bryant’s rape allegations, regardless of the validity of the charges, and how those differences just might have something to do with race and gender issues—that’s a conversation worth having.
This new book might just be the partisan hack job that you fear. If so, how is it different from the dozens of hack job political biographies that flood the market every year? Could the real problem be that sports reporting is just like all other kinds of reporting—that is always has been?
Posted 05/01 at 09:44 AM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Ralph—there’s no requirment that someone’s opinion be a good one, but I do believe that someone’s opinion—at least someone who’s going to publish stuff for the world to see and comment on—should be a fair one. There’s a difference. If someone is the biggest sonofabitch the world has ever seen, it’s not being fair to act like they’re nice. That’s simply not being accurate. At the same time, if you’re going to call someone the biggest sonofabitch the world has ever seen, you had better have the goods to back it up, lest your opinion be seen as a transparent, evidence-free attack piece.
Roberts’ Duke work is a good example. I have no problem with the social commentary and the tangents into white sports culture at a rich college in a poor town. Very interesting subject, actually. The problem was that Roberts ignored the facts on the ground to make those points, never once—even after the prosecution unraveled—acknowledging that, whatever her opinions on that dynamic, the Duke lacrosse case was not particularly illuminating and, in fact, somewhat cut against—or at the very least complicated—the tired privilege vs. poor narative she tried so hard to cultivate.
As for the political books, I feel they should be held to the same standard. I’m no supporter of George Bush, but lefty screeds against him which deal more in carircature and agenda-setting as opposed to dealing with the facts on the ground and making reasonable conclusions therefrom are utterly useless. Same goes for the stuff the Ann Coulters of the world write about Democrats. No matter the partisan tilt, simplistic armchair psychology, especially when fueled by prexisting biases, leads to pure crap writing whenever the subject has a modicum of complexity to it.
I plan on reading Roberts’ book and will judge it on its own merits. But as the title of this post says, I am skeptical that she’s doing anything much different than the stuff I described in the previous paragraph.
Posted 05/01 at 09:58 AM
I’m with you Craig. Must be an attorney thing!
Posted 05/01 at 11:00 AM
Bob S said...
Posted 05/01 at 11:07 AM
I still like how no one wants to call Rodney Harrison, Shawn Merriman, etc. bastards but will torch any baseball player.
Anyway, I’m still torn between skepticism of a biased reporting of ARod and the feeling that I might want to criticize Roberts because I don’t want to believe ARod really did it. I know that baseball players aren’t perfect (no one is), but in some way, I still want to think the best of them. I wonder if that colors my vision of Roberts and others who might be quick to judge baseball players.
Posted 05/01 at 11:16 AM
Selena Roberts gives all appearances of somebody who has an agenda, and will twist or play up information to suit that agenda. She may, at times, fall into something that is more or less correct, but that does not make her any more accurate as an author, a reporter, or even an opinion columnist. There’s a big difference between:
A) Gathering information
This is what good journalists do. Frankly, they do not do it enough, instead falling back on the he-said-she-said “objectivity” sheen, or, even worse, this:
A) I have an agenda (Democrats are evil; Republicans are evil; all professional athletes, and A-Rod in particular, are misogynist jerks)
This is the Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh route. It is also the Selena Roberts route. Roberts may have the NYT’s imprimatur, but they’re all shameless hacks.
Posted 05/01 at 11:31 AM
Jay Jaffe said...
This one’s a keeper. Nice work, Craig.
What I find incredibly galling about the latest set of revelations is that there isn’t a single name to stand behind them. Given A-Rod’s unpopularity and the jealousy that surrounds him, you could probably find anyone who under the cloak of anonymity would claim that A-Rod sold nuclear secrets to Iran while partying all night with transvestite hookers.
Posted 05/01 at 12:00 PM
Rick Silver said...
I read another superb deconstruction of Selena Roberts’ hatchet jobs yesterday at the site below.
He excerpts all her pieces on A-Rod, which evidently stretch back two years before the article Shysterball exposed as little more than cheap yellow journalism.
I think this guy is a lawyer as well.
Posted 05/01 at 12:40 PM
Oddly enough, we may look back at this book as a key turning point in the perception of players tainted by the steroid mess. Roberts, presumably out of a need to fill pages of a book, went from writing about factual matters to filling a book with innuendo and rumors. When you include crap like how much a player tips you (meaning Roberts) make the antagonist of the story (A-Rod) into a sympathetic character. The sympathy revolves around the fact that normal folks wouldn’t want their tipping to be examined and criticized.
Couple points on the tipping BS:
Posted 05/01 at 12:55 PM
“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.”
Case in point: the “suspicious” 25 pounds he apparently put on between his sophmore and junior years of high school. Well, I played high school baseball and I gained at least that much muscle weight during those years. So did just about every other athelete I knew. It’s called puberty. You sprout a couple inches, your body naturally fills out, and, for most kids, it’s when weight lifting really starts to pay off.
But, anyway - excellent article, Craig. Also a fellow attorney and fan, so add my tip of the hat to Seattle Zen’s.
Posted 05/01 at 01:16 PM
Marc Schneider said...
I object to the “MSM” bashing I see here. It’s become fashionable for bloggers to take a sanctimonious high ground versus the MSM without acknowledging the real value that the MSM provides to society. Obviously, the NYT and other mainstream media make mistakes but it’s pretty obnoxious to see bloggers apparently gloating over the demise of institutions like the Times. MSM bashing has become the sport from both ends of the political spectrum. But are we really going to be better off when blogs are the only source of news? And, are you really going to simply write off the New York Times because of Selena Roberts?
This is not to defend Selena Roberts who, from all appearances, is a poor journalist. But, I read enough in the blogosphere to be just as skeptical of non-mainstream media as well. Personally, I want the MSM (a silly euphemism anyway) to do a better job, not to be eliminated.
Posted 05/01 at 04:16 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Marc—I actually agree with most of that, and you will rarely if ever see me making blanket statements about “the MSM”—at least not serious ones—even if I do go after specific reporters, writers and some newspaper conventions. I appreciate, based on experience, that blogging is an inherently reactive medium. No “MSM”? No blogging. It’s that simple. Indeed, I spend a great part of each day going through the websites of the newspapers that cover Major League teams looking for stories on which to opine. If they weren’t there, I’d be toast.
I don’t think that the mainstream press provides anything over what I can do when it comes to opinion writing, and if I could figure out a way to not work in a law office for a living, I think I’d have a puncher’s chance at in-depth investigative work too.
But the day-in-day-out reporting, game coverage, etc.? I think the MSM is crticial to that, even if there’s a lot of bloat in the system right now that needs to be shaken out (i.e. paper; redundancies, a couple layers of editors, etc.).
Posted 05/01 at 04:27 PM
Craig, been catching you through Neyer, and I am really impressed. I knew abut Roberts earlier work on A-rod this year, but not her work on the Duke Lacrosse team. So with the limited information I had, I was still worried about so many “unnamed sources.” I believe that if a person is going to be vilified as A-Rod is being in this book, the sources better be iron clad. I don’t believe it is happening in this case, or in many stories in general lately.
Keep up the smart work
Posted 05/01 at 04:33 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Anonymous sources are an interesting thing. Someone with a journalism background may have greater insight into this than I do, but I certainly think they have their place. I think that place is limited, such as when the information is truly sensitive or the person providing it could truly be compromised if their identify was known. I gather that there has been something of a tightening of anonymous source standards at big newspapers in recent years, but you still see it a lot more than may be necessary.
In a newspaper setting, a reporter has to (at least in an ideal world) get an editors or sometimes two editors’ approval to use an anonymous source, and the information being passed by them has to be checked out to a pretty serious degree.
My question here is (1) was Roberts truly required to grant the sources anonimity here, and if so, why did she do so; and (2) did anyone at her publisher make an effort to demand that they the information check out the way a newspaper editor would.
Knowing what I know about the book publishing world, I’m guessing the answer to (2) is no, though we certainly will see soon. As for (1), I’m having trouble coming up with a reason, other than fear of personal embarassment or identification as someone with a previous vendetta, that the sources should be anonymous. If so, Roberts should have looked elsewhere for corroboration or demanded that the source be named. If anything, their outing a system of cheating is not something that should be embarassing. Indeed, it would be a service to the game.
Posted 05/01 at 04:45 PM
I agree with your general sentiment, especially as regards the culture of character assassination—but as far as I can tell, there are no “conclusions” drawn in the Newsday article, and if there are, they’re not drawn by Ms. Roberts. I would at least wait until Ms. Roberts has had her say on these particular allegations before you start questioning her motivations and bias. Maybe she deserves it, and she certainly hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt, but maybe her book ends up being a balanced and nuanced view of all the pressures on A-Rod and how he reacts to them. It just strikes me as odd that this post is against attack pieces (but not against balanced reporting of facts, even if they portray a person in a negative light) but itself kind of reads as an attack piece against Ms. Roberts.
Though to be fair, I’m not sure how you could have said, “you may want to be skeptical of what Ms. Roberts writes” without pointing out her past mistakes or agendas, and that’s going to come across as saying, “Ms. Roberts is untrustworthy and disregards truth in favor of her agenda.” But similarly, if A-Rod has cheated and lied in the past, I’m not sure how you could possibly avoid the conclusion that A-Rod is a cheater and a liar.
Posted 05/01 at 05:06 PM
James K. said...
I don’t want to inject politics into this or offend those who are on the political left, but can anything display the follies of modern society better than the deadpan line “she was raped, robbed, strangled and was the victim of a hate crime?” It makes it sound as if (had this crime been real) the bias of the perpetrators was somehow a separate (and possibly worse) than the horrific actions that constituted the real crime.
Posted 05/01 at 10:49 PM
James K. said...
Missing word: I meant “a separate (and possibly worse) crime from the horrific actions that constituted the real crime.”
Posted 05/01 at 10:51 PM