Transparency is abundant in the editor’s note appended to ESPN’s story of the long weekend. It’s a first-person essay by Janay Rice, wife of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was suspended from the NFL for hitting her in an Atlantic City hotel elevator back in February. Here’s the text of the note:
Editor’s Note: This is Janay Rice’s story, as told to ESPN’s Jemele Hill. On Wednesday, Nov. 5, Jemele interviewed Janay for three hours at the home of Janet Rice, Ray Rice’s mother, in their hometown of New Rochelle, New York. Ray Rice was not present. Janay’s account of what happened in Atlantic City, and in the months that followed, was written from Jemele’s extensive interview, as well as a phone follow-up. No questions were off limits. Janay Rice was given approval over its content and release date.
Bold text inserted to highlight two sentences that merit another editor’s note: In what universe can no questions be off limits when the subject has “approval” over the interview’s “content and release date”?
The arrangement raises a number of questions, some of which the Erik Wemple Blog has posed to ESPN. Those include whether ESPN has ever before agreed to such conditions; how ESPN reconciles the odd ground rules for the interview; and whether Janay Rice indeed used her editorial control to kill parts of her exchange with ESPN’s Jemele Hill.
ESPN indicates that it’s working on answers to the questions.
In a conversation with CNN’s Brian Stelter, Hill answered the question about the conditions this way: “I’m a journalist,” said Hill on today’s edition of “Reliable Sources.” “And so I know people see that language and final approval and they envision this process of her shooting down things not to be in there. But it was in no way was this ever a dictatorship. It was fully a collaboration. She came into it with the mind-set that she wanted to be as transparent as possible.”
The as-told-to story furnishes evidence of that intent. For instance, Janay Rice narrates what happens after she and her then-boyfriend were bickering after dinner and drinks: “As we were arguing, he was on his phone and not looking at me. I went to reach for his phone, and when he grabbed it back, he spit at me and I slapped him,” notes the story.
Then she comes to the elevator situation: “We got into the elevator and what happened inside is still foggy to me. The only thing I know — and I can’t even say I ‘remember’ because I only know from what Ray has told me — is that I slapped him again and then he hit me. I remember nothing else from inside the elevator.”
Janay, Ray and two other couples — and some stray fans — “shared two to three bottles of liquor” that night.
Another valuable moment comes when Janay Rice discusses that infamous May 23 Ravens news conference at which she expresses some culpability for the episode.
Looking out over the media, I became angry, seeing all the people who had been covering this and adding to the story. I wanted to tell everyone what was really on my mind. When it was my turn to speak, I said I regretted my role in the incident. I know some people disagreed with me publicly apologizing. I’m not saying that what Ray did wasn’t wrong. He and I both know it was wrong. It’s been made clear to him that it was wrong. But at the same time, who am I to put my hands on somebody? I had already apologized to Ray, and I felt that I should take responsibility for what I did. Even though this followed the Ravens’ suggested script, I owned my words.
Such revelations keep this rather lengthy tell-some-things piece humming right along. Though it’s not the result of no-holds-barred journalism, it does make for good reading. Janay Rice traces her relationship with Ray Rice, how her parents relate to him, and how tense things became in the aftermath of the assault:
Later, my mother asked me privately did this ever happen before. I understood why she asked, but I was livid — probably because I was embarrassed. She told me she was not going to allow me to be in a situation like this. She said she wasn’t going to tolerate that from either one of us, and that I needed to make a decision about whether I was able to move past it. I just sat there and let her speak because I had no words. She wasn’t saying anything wrong. But I was still processing everything.
Now here’s something else: Janay Rice reveals that in a June 16 meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and others, “Ray told the commissioner, and his colleagues, everything that happened. There was no reason to lie because we knew that there was a video and we assumed the NFL knew what was in it, even though we didn’t know whether or not they saw it.”
That little tidbit bears considerably on the world of ESPN. Here’s why: In a CBS News interview and in a news conference, Goodell suggested that he didn’t know on a detailed level what had happened in that elevator until TMZ released the video from inside the elevator on Sept. 8. He said he’d gleaned fresh information from that video — information that he’d used to impose an indefinite suspension on Rice (which was recently overturned). ESPN’s Bill Simmons wasn’t buying the notion that Goodell hadn’t known what had gone down, so he called him a “liar” on a podcast and ended up getting suspended for three weeks.
Janay Rice’s first-person account makes that particular suspension look weak.
Now back to the question at hand, which is whether ESPN cheated its audience by allowing this sweetheart interview deal. The answer is, probably. Thanks to the deal’s terms, we won’t know what revelations didn’t get passed along. What is there, however, is quite compelling. ESPN extended these interviewing courtesies not to the commissioner of the NFL nor to a violent NFL player; had it done so, the howl from the Internet would just be getting started. Instead, it extended these courtesies to a victim of domestic violence — albeit one who’s trying to clear the way for her husband’s return to the playing field: “No matter how long we have known each other and no matter what the circumstance is, Ray understands that violent behavior like this, even one time, is never acceptable,” notes Janay Rice in the piece. “Ray told the truth and has fully accepted responsibility for his actions, which allowed us to work together at improving ourselves and get to the better place we are today.”
A firmer judgment will be possible once NBC’s “Today” show finishes airing its Matt Lauer interview with Janay Rice on Monday and Tuesday. Will Lauer manage to probe all those things omitted from the ESPN piece? An NBC News spokeswoman told the Erik Wemple Blog that the session carried no conditions whatsoever. Here’s a preview:
UPDATE 8:45 p.m.: ESPN has responded to a few of our questions:
1) Has anyone at ESPN ever agreed to such conditions before?
Like many other media outlets, we have done “as told to” pieces before. Obviously, in each instance, you need to consider how important and newsworthy the story is and the related parameters. In this case, there were zero limitations on the questions we asked and we were extremely transparent about the process.
2) The word is that no questions were off limits, but Janay Rice had final say over the content; doesn’t that mean that some questions (or at least answers) were indeed off limits?
There were no limitations on questions and the interview lasted nearly 3 hours. Additionally, there were certain elements we insisted be in the piece. Another important factor that everyone involved was aware of is that we reserved the right to walk away from the whole thing at any point if we weren’t comfortable with it.
3) What considerations convinced you to allow these conditions? Was it just that Janay Rice is a private person, not an NFL player or official?
It’s obviously an extremely important and newsworthy story. We considered many factors and had a lot of internal discussions before ultimately determining we would explore this option with the understanding we could walk away at any point if we weren’t comfortable.
Left unanswered was this question: Did Janay Rice exercise her authority to delete anything from the piece?