The tendency to rush to judgment in the media, based more on suppositions than facts, is now unfortunately common not only on the Internet and in the blogosphere but in the mainstream media.
Here’s a recent example: In July 2014, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell imposed a two-game suspension on Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice after he was seen on video dragging his then-fiancee and now-wife Janay Palmer out of an Atlantic City casino elevator. Rice was subsequently arrested and charged with assault by local police. Goodell was universally criticized for that two-game penalty as being much too light.
On Sept. 9, The Associated Press published a story based on a source identified only as a “law enforcement official” who claimed that in April 2014 he had sent a DVD of the in-elevator video to NFL headquarters in New York City, plus a note, “this is terrible.” The AP said the “law enforcement official” played a 12-second voicemail message that he said he received from someone at the NFL with a female voice, in what he thought was proof the league had seen the tape: “You’re right. It’s terrible.”
The immediate conclusion across almost all media based on this AP story, from the mainstream media to the blogosphere, from ESPN to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” was to accuse or strongly insinuate that Goodell and his NFL senior management colleagues had “lied” about not having seen the in-elevator recording before the Sept. 8 TMZ showing.
Just recently, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, hired by the NFL to investigate whether the tape had been seen by Goodell and his colleagues prior to Sept. 8, issued his report. Here’s what Mueller reported concerning his effort to substantiate the suggestion that a woman who worked at the NFL had received the tape and had called the anonymous source back and left the message, “it’s terrible.”
“We created a database of all 1,583 outgoing calls to 1,050 unique telephone numbers from the League’s office on April 9. ... There were 143 such calls to 112 unique telephone numbers. We then researched and ultimately called the remaining 938 numbers, regardless of the length of the call, to identify each recipient. As part of that effort, we asked each League employee from whose extension calls were placed to identify the numbers he or she had called. The employees identified NFL vendors, former players, nearby restaurants, doctors’ offices, family members, and the like. Finally, we validated that information by calling each person or entity identified. In interviews, nobody admitted to receiving the call. The investigators set up an anonymous tip line that got no calls.”
Mueller’s conclusion: “We found no evidence that anyone at the NFL had or saw the in-elevator video before it was publicly shown. We also found no evidence that a woman at the NFL acknowledged receipt of that video in a voicemail message on April 9, 2014.”
However, Mueller was quite critical of the NFL senior management, including Goodell, for not pressing hard enough to get the video themselves. Of course the critics highlighted this portion of the report.
One response to this: Hindsight is 20-20. Had the NFL pressed the New Jersey authorities to obtain the video, the NFL might have been accused of interfering in an ongoing criminal investigation.
An important lesson to media and the rest of us: Wait for hard-proven facts before jumping to conclusions on guilt or innocence, especially reports based on anonymous sources. The chances of that happening? Forget it.
At the very least, after the Mueller report was published, shouldn’t those who charged or suggested that Goodell and NFL senior officials had lied about receiving and viewing the video before Sept. 8 have apologized, or at least admitted that they might have jumped to erroneous, fact-free conclusions?
Haven’t seen that yet.
I am not holding my breath.
Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, as well as executive vice president of strategic communications firm Levick. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.
Davis previously worked for Dan Snyder in 2010 and for the Redskins in 2010 and 2013. He is no longer affiliated with Snyder, the Redskins or the NFL.
Ed. note: This post was updated Jan. 15 at 5:27 p.m. to include an editors note.