- - Wednesday, September 10, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Even though he played football just up the road from the media epicenter of the world, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s off-the-field crimes went virtually uncovered until the self-described gossip and entertainment website, TMZ.com, came up with a videotape showing Mr. Rice knocking out his then-fiancee earlier this year.

TMZ, which stands for the so-called “Thirty-Mile Zone” in which the Hollywood studios exist in a radius around Los Angeles, has been breaking sports stories while many media outlets don’t expend the effort to find out what really happened — as in the case of Mr. Rice, who initially received a mere two-game suspension before the more damning video was released this week.

Why didn’t the heavy hitters of sports journalism — CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC — get the surveillance video from the recently closed Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that graphically showed Mr. Rice knocking his girlfriend unconscious?

It’s fairly easy to connect the dots. The four big television networks pay roughly $5 billion a year to broadcast NFL games. CBS, Fox and NBC also operate major news divisions; Disney owns ESPN and also ABC News. Journalists from these outlets venture into investigating football stars and the game at some significant risk.

Harvey Levin, a Southern California lawyer, opened TMZ.com in 2005 in Los Angeles. In recent months, TMZ.com has become the go-to place to find out what really happens in major sports.



The scoops have been impressive. TMZ broke many of the stories concerning Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs. Last November, the website reported that eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston was being investigated for sexually abusing a fellow student at Florida State University — a case that is still under review by the college. In April, TMZ posted an audio recording of then-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, making racist remarks — remarks that eventually cost him his control of the team. The videotape of Mr. Rice pounding his fiance cost him his job and may cost him his career.

Even The New York Times had to admit: “Tabloids have always trafficked in gossip and scandal-mongering. The idea was never just to titillate, though; it was, at least in part, to hold the rich and powerful accountable.”

Some journalists decry TMZ’s practice of paying for material such as the videotape. As a former television producer, I find no ethical problem with paying for videotapes or photographs — something that happens frequently in the news business.

What I don’t understand is why other news organizations failed to follow up on the existence of the surveillance video at the hotel through the local police or the prosecutor’s office. Earlier video showed Mr. Rice dragging his girlfriend’s limp body from the elevator, which I think should have been enough to ban him for a much longer time than two games. TMZ simply used Journalism 101 when the case was closed after Mr. Rice got the equivalent of probation.

Not only have mainstream journalists missed these stories, Mr. Levin, TMZ’s founder, attacked the NFL for its lack of interest in getting to the bottom of the Rice affair. “The NFL knew this surveillance video existed, they knew the casino had surveillance video,” he said. The league has denied the claim.

Nevertheless, now that other media have used the ugly scenes inside the Revel elevator, the true story about the probable cover-up of Mr. Rice’s actions may affect many prominent people, including the local police, the prosecutors and even the leadership of the NFL. TMZ’s aggressive reporting on sports should cause news organizations to consider a more vigilant approach toward finding out what really happens off the field and off the court.

Christopher Harper teaches journalism at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] and on Twitter @charper51.

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