Several hours after SB Nation published a 12,000-word, highly-sympathetic profile of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, a serial rapist who was sentenced to 263 years in prison last month for raping 8 women — all of whom were African American — while on duty, the article was removed and replaced with a note from the popular sports website’s editorial director.
“The publication of this story represents a complete breakdown of a part of the editorial process at SB Nation,” Spencer Hall wrote. “… In light of that failure, we’ve taken the story down.”
According to Hall’s note, the article was an attempt look at 29-year-old Daniel Holtzclaw’s backstory, particularly his career playing college football. But the piece turned out “tone-deaf, insensitive to the victims of sexual assault and rape, and wrongheaded in approach and execution,” Hall wrote.
“There is no qualification: it was a complete failure,” he added.
“Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” by freelance sports writer Jeff Arnold (who covered Holtzclaw’s career at Eastern Michigan University) is no longer on the SB Nation site. But it can still be read in cached form.
Citing Holtzclaw’s family, lawyer, former teammates, a psychiatrist and Holtzclaw himself, the article suggests that the disgraced former police officer may have been innocent, or may have been driven to commit his crimes by brain injuries, a sexual disorder or disappointment that he was never drafted by a professional football team.
“If anything caused Holtzclaw to become unhinged, that may, in part, be what did,” Arnold wrote, referring to Holtzclaw’s unrealized dream of playing in the NFL.
The story twice quotes Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater, who called Holtzclaw a “rapist masquerading as a law enforcement officer,” and, briefly, one of Holtzclaw’s victims. But the majority of interviews are with people who believe that Holtzclaw is innocent — or, at least, have trouble squaring the man convicted of sexual violence specifically targeted at some of society’s most vulnerable with the person they thought they knew.
“Basically, this is the local news interviewing the shocked neighbors — ‘He always seemed like such a nice kid’ — over and over again for 12,000 words,” Deadspin editor Barry Petchesky commented.
At his trial, the prosecution argued that Holtzclaw used his position to target vulnerable women with criminal records or histories of illegal drug use who he could intimidate with threats of jail. All of his victims were African American; Holtzclaw is listed in court records as “Asian or Pacific Islander.” In December, he was convicted of 18 counts of first degree rape, second degree rape, forced oral sodomy, sexual battery and lewd exhibition.
SB Nation, which is owned by Vox Media, has published profiles of athletes convicted of violent crimes in the past; some of them are deftly written. Greg Hanlon’s 2014 piece “The Many Crimes of Mel Hall,” about a former Major League Baseball player who was convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl, was listed as “notable” in the collection “Best American Sports Writing” last year.
But even after just a few hours online, “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw” has been roundly condemned as an example of how not to write about a convicted serial rapist.
“It’s certainly conceivable that someone could have written a thoughtful profile of Holtzclaw that included digging into his college football career,” Slate associate editor L.V. Anderson wrote, “but that is not what writer Jeff Arnold has done. Rather, Arnold has written the most sympathetic portrait of a convicted rapist imaginable.”
Petchesky said much the same thing.
“It starts off with expressions of full sympathy for Holtzclaw, hinting that perhaps there are two sides to this story. It tells only one,” he wrote on Deadspin. “The side based in reality — that Holtzclaw violated and brutalized at least eight poor, black women and is in jail for the rest of his life — is never given more than cursory attention.”
Hall did not immediately respond to an email from The Post requesting comment Wednesday night. Arnold switched his Twitter profile to private after the story was removed from the SB Nation site, according to the Huffington Post.
It’s not clear whether the article was published accidentally — Hall wrote that senior editorial staff had objections about the piece that “went unheeded” — or if the decision to remove it was made after the online outcry.
Hall did say he takes full responsibility for the piece’s publication, adding, “We’re reviewing all of our processes in light of this failure. There are a lot of them, and I promise to talk in detail about them publicly while we work through all of them.”
In the meantime, critics of the piece have been debating what its publication says about pressures and priorities at a site like SB Nation.
ProPublica reporter Derek Willis wondered whether the article might have paid more attention to Holtzclaw’s victims if a woman had been involved in its writing or editing (all of the four managers listed on SB Nation’s masthead are men).
Would be interested to know how many female editors @SBNation has & at what level.
— Derek Willis (@derekwillis) February 18, 2016
Others pointed out that this isn’t the first time the sports media — or any media, really — has been criticized for a lack of sensitivity. Many cited Grantland’s infamous “Dr. V” story, about the transgender inventor of a “magical” golf putter who committed suicide during the course of writer Caleb Hannan’s reporting on her.
Petchesky, meanwhile, diagnosed the problem as stemming from “the cult of longform” — “longform” being media-speak for stories that are, well, long. Ideally, these are thoughtful, deeply-reported narratives and hard-hitting investigations that require 2,000; 5,000 or 10,000 words to tell them, but as is true of anything else on the Internet, quantity is not always a guarantee of quality.
SB Nation has an entire section of its site dedicated to longform writing, edited by veteran sportswriter Glenn Stout. The pressure to turn out these kinds of stories means that bad ones — and in this case, Patchesky writes, “a complete failure of concept and execution,” — slip through.
“‘The untold side of an American monster’ is an intriguing pitch. ‘Twelve thousand words on it’ is praise bait,” he continued. “‘Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?’ turned out to be an irresponsible, offensive disaster, an uncomplicated hagiography of a man who deserves one about as little as anyone can. But it appears that when it was cloaked in the presentation of what we’ve been conditioned to recognize as quality journalism, the people whose job it was to notice this simply didn’t.”