— words, photos and screenshots by Christopher Johnson —
In the old days (circa 2003), the New York Times would run a story like this. Doug Adler, an open-minded white guy from Los Angeles, grows up playing tennis on public courts with people of all races and backgrounds. He plays with USC and the ATP pro tennis tour, becomes an ESPN tennis announcer later in life, then gets fired and hospitalized for a heart attack because about 20 or 30 hyenas on Twitter, reacting to NYT activist-writer Ben Rothenberg, falsely accuse him of racism.
Yes, it’s a good enough story for NBC, Fox, TMZ, several bloggers and even ESPN to report. But the New York Times editors aren’t touching it. Why? Because they have become the story.
It’s now a story about good and bad management.
Good editors not only check spelling and write headlines. They are supposed to train and discipline reporters, check facts, publish corrections and shield reporters from ridicule and law suits.
In short, they are supposed to act like adults, spanking kids who behave online like it’s Planet of the Apes.
The New York Times used to employ adults on the desk. I’ve worked with hundreds of editors worldwide, and my NYT and IHT editors between 2002 and 2011 were the most thorough and professional. I would check facts and rewrite stories to satisfy editors demanding the highest standards of journalism and ethics.
New York Times editors in 2003 published a 7000-word story detailing editorial negligence over Jayson Blair’s fabrications. They sent a warning across the industry: if you fabricate, plagiarize or produce fake news, you’re fired, you’re ruined, and you’ll never set foot in journalism again.
Imagine if NYT editors didn’t do that, and Jayson Blair was still writing for NYT today. He could fabricate stories to smear anybody with false allegations. (Critics accuse Tokyo Vice author Jake Adelstein, known as “Jake the Fake” and “the Jayson Blair of Japan”, of doing this while NYT reporter Hiroko Tabuchi cheers him.) He could purchase fake followers on Twitter and use his podcast or “celebrity” status to incite mobs to destroy, ostracize, or block his critics or enemies, all in the name of “progress” and “social activism”. Editors might condone that because they believe his 50,000 or 100,000 followers are somehow magically worth more than ethical journalism and the life of an innocent person.
Unlike 2003, many managers don’t seem to care if writers plagiarize, fabricate, burn sources or smear colleagues. They castigate Trump and Putin for “fake news” but seemingly do little to clean their own house.
Instead, they have effectively outsourced house cleaning to commentators such as Clay Travis, Larry Elder, Chris Beck and many others outraged by how NYT writers such as Tabuchi and Ben Rothenberg misuse social media to ingratiate themselves and ruin perceived enemies or “offensive” people. The result is a growth industry for outrage against the NYT in a world fed up with lay-offs and severance packages for proven veterans.
Under attack, managers have circled the wagons. They promoted Tabuchi from Tokyo to New York City amid allegations she purchased fake followers on Twitter to create a celebrity status out of nowhere and collaborated with Adelstein in Japan to fabricate news, dupe readers, support plagiarism and slander colleagues.
Editors have defended Rothenberg amid widespread accusations that he joins or incites vicious and moronic online mobs.
In a notable case of “gotcha journalism”, Rothenberg and his clique forced the ouster and public humiliation of Indian Wells tournament director Ray Moore last year for his unvarnished comments at a Sunday brunch meant as a casual background briefing for journalists feted at the event.
A year later, Rothenberg led the lynch mob to crucify veteran ESPN broadcaster Doug Adler. Again, it was “gotcha journalism” better suited to British tabloids than America’s “newspaper of record”.
Adler says he was praising Venus Williams for her stealthy tactics and sneak attack, which he called “the guerrilla effect”, a term used by other tennis media.
Rothenberg, without asking Adler for clarification, falsely accused Adler of comparing Williams to a “gorilla”. He used Adler as an example to highlight racism in sport.
Years ago, media managers would have fired or suspended a young reporter for failure to check facts, ask questions or go directly to the source for balance and fairness. Did NYT reprimand Rothenberg? He’s once again credentialed to cover Indian Wells, where he plays celebrity tennis.
This would all be fun and games on Planet of the Apes, except for the fact that people get hurt. US media have reported that Adler was recently hospitalized for a heart attack.
Adler claims in his court action that ESPN not only fired him, they blacklisted him in the industry. Adler says he didn’t have a Twitter account prior to the smear campaign. Now hIs name is tarnished on Google searches.
Many tennis fans and commentators such as Travis and Beck have come to Adler’s defense and thrown Rothenberg’s mud back at him.
Ultimately, NYT managers, who set the industry’s tone whether they admit it or not, are responsible for this mayhem. By failing to nip these problems in the bud, negligent editors are fueling a new game of Mutually Assured Destruction where everybody can go nuclear and annihilate each other in a flash. If Rothenberg and Tabuchi are allowed to ruin careers and businesses of innocent journalists, then everybody else is allowed to ruin them and the New York Times.
Since NYT executives won’t do it, Beck and others see themselves as defenders of journalism and ethics. They scold the NYT to deter future cheap shot artists in Hyena Media from ruining more careers.
Given the widespread criticism, why do NYT editors empower Tabuchi and Rothenberg?
Tabuchi and Rothenberg didn’t graduate from journalism school or survive a weeding out process at minor league media. But they mastered the art of self-promotion on social media. (Tabuchi has roughly 100,000 Twitter followers; Rothenberg has 50,000).
Many media managers believe that young writers such as Tabuchi and Rothenberg can connect with younger audiences through their voluminous social media accounts. This will somehow magically entice free-loading youth to pay for media via subscriptions and clicks on pages with ads. Does this theory actually work? Are young consumers of media happy to fund the work of Tabuchi, Rothenberg and others?
These same managers tend to overlook the negative side of social media. Many young journalists have become adept at manipulating social media for cyber-bullying, cry-bullying, blocking, shaming and mob vengeance. To his credit, Rothenberg hasn’t blocked Beck or other critics, but he often casts himself in the role of victim after starting campaigns against people. Tabuchi, meanwhile, has the habit of insulting people then blocking them, not unlike a child who throws a tantrum then hides inside a room. Then she compels her cohorts to do the same, de facto silencing criticism, ostracizing black sheep and cutting off vital lines of communication with potential sources of information.
NYT editors have rewarded Tabuchi for her online misbehavior. They believed her victim story — “I’m hounded by vicious rightwing trolls in Japan” — and they moved her to New York City to slam auto industry executives and other targets.
Pampering Tabuchi, editors failed to warn other reporters to behave online or else. In effect, the message was clear: you can getaway with anything on Twitter. You can cyber-bully and cry-bully. You can hurl false accusations at colleagues and blacklist them. You can stir up vicious twitter mobs and get people fired. NYT editors won’t stop you. They’ll reward you.
In this climate of editorial negligence, Rothenberg was allowed to incite hatred against an older generation of men in the tennis world, including Moore, Adler, and veteran British writer Neil Harman, suspended by the London Times after Rothenberg accused him of plagiarism.
Is Rothenberg a “vampire thirsty for blood of colleagues”, as his critics say?
As I’ve learned from working alongside him, Ben is indeed thirsty, but it’s usually for beer with colleagues after long days and nights at tennis events. You can argue with him about tennis over a beer, like old school journalists, but he’s also interested in cheesy Euro-trash music, which reminds you that he’s basically a kid. (A whiz kid, to be more precise).
Ben isn’t a troll hiding away in a basement. He’s more like a blizzard than a snowflake. Ben wants to be the storm, whether he’s podcasting on “No Challenges Remaining”, asking questions at pressers or sitting court-side close to the action.
He’s perhaps the most hated sportswriter of his generation. Yet he’s not a fat-cat staffer on junkets to 5-star hotels and Olympic massage rooms. He’s a freelancer at the lower rank of the totem pole. He might even lose money traipsing around the world to cover a niche sport and send postcards to fans of his podcast.
Does NYT use him because he’s cheap? I wondered about this when, by coincidence, I found Ben staying in a budget room next to mine at an AirBNB flat near the Mutua Madrid Open last year. I didn’t see any horns or a demon’s tail on him. He was impressive, sociable and down-to-earth. He spoke Spanish with shop-keepers and tournament staff. He was courageous enough to walk at night through a dodgy neighborhood, past a lewd couple copulating in a car in front of our flat. He dressed professionally and arrived early for interviews with tournament directors or unheralded junior players. He’s not lacking in ambition. He could probably make a mint in Silicon Valley with other millennials. Instead he works long hours for relatively low freelancer pay. Nobody who knows Ben can question his determination.
And he has an amazing memory for obscure trivia — the tell-tale sign of a sportswriter. He even won money on Jeopardy.
But Ben’s mind is sometimes too fast, too sharp for his own good, and he can’t resist playing the Lord of the Flies game of savagery on Twitter. Like a burly defenseman throwing his weight around, Ben doesn’t realize his power to harm other players, and no editors are stopping him from ruining careers or causing Adler to end up with a heart attack in a Los Angeles hospital.
Did Ben have an agenda, as Adler claims in his court action? I’m not sure, and I would need proof. Adler and others say Rothenberg is trying to ingratiate himself with Serena and Venus Williams after critics, including academics and feminists, accused him of racism and sexism for his NYT article about Serena’s body shape.
Ben also often writes as if he’s doing PR for Maria Sharapova during her suspension for doping. Critics accuse Ben and his buddy Courtney Nguyen, a former lawyer now writing for the WTA, of cronyism and angling to get their friends hired into a tennis media scene dominated by a so-called “gay network” dating back to Billie Jean King’s trailblazing efforts to empower women and break glass ceilings.
Like King and others, Ben is also trying to be progressive by campaigning for more equality, less bigotry in sport.
It’s a campaign I support. (https://grandslammagazine.com/2016/03/24/why-equality-is-good-for-all/)
His activism would be great for Greenpeace or Human Rights Watch, or if he was merely an independent blogger like thousands of others who never studied journalism history or media law.
But he’s de facto representing the New York Times. When Ben tweets or podcasts something, other media will report on it, because Ben Rothenberg works for the New York Times.
That’s what happened in the Doug Adler fiasco.
Ben made a mistake. NYT editors, who also failed to reprimand Tabuchi, apparently did nothing to make Ben fear the consequences of such a mistake. So Ben made a rookie mistake that reporters of all ages make.
Ben got his facts wrong. He saw a Tweet by someone identifying themselves as a food blogger and tennis mom. Out of nowhere, this person falsely accused Adler of calling Venus Williams a gorilla during his ESPN broadcast. She apparently had the time and tech acumen to make a video clip and post it.
Ben didn’t scold the Twitter user for possibly breaching ESPN and ATP’s copyright. He didn’t demand she formally identify herself, as a source for a story about racism in tennis. He didn’t call up Adler and ask what he meant. Instead, Ben retweeted it, inciting the mob against Adler.
Watching ESPN’s live coverage of the Australian Open, I saw Ben retweet this. At first, I was outraged like others. “How dare an ESPN announcer call Venus a gorilla,” I thought. “That’s terrible. That’s racist. She came out of Compton, worked hard to overcome race and gender hurdles in a sport traditionally dominated by caucasians and royalty. How dare that old racist announcer insult her.”
But then I checked facts. I watched the clip. Did Adler say “guerrilla” not “gorilla”? I gave my colleague Adler the benefit of the doubt. I met him once in Paris and liked him. “Of course he’s not a racist,” I thought. “I think he meant the ‘guerilla effect’, as in the famous TV commercial with Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi playing guerrilla tennis.”
I immediately tweeted to Rothenberg that Adler perhaps meant “guerrilla”. But Ben didn’t check facts. He didn’t correct his error. He didn’t take responsibility for his actions. Why? Because his editors haven’t drummed this into his mind like my editors and journalism school professors did. They haven’t made Rothenberg or Tabuchi think about the consequence of their online behavior. They’ve given them carte blanche to ruin colleagues or the rep of all NYT reporters. They’ve let Rothenberg and Tabuchi act like Donald Trump.
It’s “gotcha journalism” and cyber-bullying lacking a sense of fairness, decency and balance. Tabuchi once misrepresented Tokyo’s mayor, quoting him out of context during an interview in New York. Ben figured he “caught” an ESPN announcer comparing an African-American to a gorilla. I can imagine the thoughts in Ben’s mind. “This could be a big breaking story. Like Howard Cosell comparing an NFL player to a monkey.”
So he jumped on it and stirred up the juveniles in the Lord of the Flies. And why not. No adult at NYT was lurking above telling him “stop this nonsense” or “stay focussed on tennis” or “check your facts before you tweet”. In fact, NYT editors have openly encouraged sports reporters to go beyond sports and wander into the minefields of identity and gender politics. They don’t even require writers to understand high-level tennis or NYT-level journalism. Some stories read like PR puff pieces with newsworthy angles — “US player feels more Mexican than American” — buried at the bottom.
They likely haven’t taught Ben about media law and defamation. They didn’t assign Ben to cover city hall, courts, police or education beats, where he could learn about the consequences of burning sources, damaging people and offending readers. They took a sports geek, with his arcane knowledge of statistics, and flung him naked into an arena outside his area of expertise. It was like sending the education reporter to cover boxing, or asking the climate change expert to explain the technique on Djokovic’s inside-out forehand.
Why was a privileged white male NYT sportswriter even scouring the internet for a supposedly racist comment in the first place? Is that his job?
Thanks to editorial incompetence, Ben didn’t do the job of a journalist at any level. He never asked Adler whether he meant “gorilla” or “guerrilla”. He didn’t ask Adler: “Are you a racist?” Ben didn’t bother to ask these questions, because his NYT editors don’t demand it.
These editors don’t care if Tabuchi openly cheerleads malicious smear campaigns by her hero Jake “the Fake” Adelstein, the “Jason Blair of Japan” who calls critics stalkers, rapists, pedophiles and trolls. They don’t care if Tabuchi, Rothenberg and others confirm the suspicions of Trump supporters who call us “enemies of the people”. Tabuchi, Rothenberg and NYT get their clicks. They drive the conversation. They brag about gaining more subscribers. They think they’re winning.
I think they’re losing. Most tennis journalists and fans I know tell me privately they no longer buy or read the NYT. They like the classy old pro Christopher Clarey, but despise the uncouth youth such as Rothenberg.
I’ve also canceled my subscription. Instead, I’m following knowledgeable, civilized, friendly tennis journalists like Pete Ziebron, Jared Pine, Aki Uchida, Ros Satar, and Chris Oddo among many others.
They didn’t join the lynch mob. Like me, they gave Adler the benefit of the doubt. I watched the ESNP clip several times. Venus was in fact sneaking up on her opponent’s second serve. Adler was praising her tactics. She was hanging back and then charging, like an animal or warrior. As the Associated Press pointed out, it’s impossible to discern if Adler said gorilla or guerrilla, which sound similar in English. Even if you believe Adler said “gorilla”, this word doesn’t make him a racist, and I doubt it would offend hardened warriors like Venus or Serena Williams, who have endured much worse in their life, including the murder of their sister.
Adler later explained that he grew up playing tennis with blacks and minorities on public courts in Los Angeles, and he often worked alongside Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, at events in their native LA.
The New York Times didn’t report this in their editions or through their Twitter feeds. The so-called “public editor” Liz Spayd hasn’t touched it. Thus critics can conclude that nobody dares sanction the likes of Rothenberg and Tabuchi. They have become the story. They are the stars of Lord of the Flies, and there’s no adult in the room. Clicks and scalps are more important than ethics or fundamentals. It’s all about exposing everybody else’s dirt, and covering up your own.
Given all that’s happened, Rothenberg and NYT managers, including the CEO, could start by formally apologizing to Adler and accepting responsibility for their actions. They could post a correction, publish a full feature with Adler’s side of the story and also investigate ESPN’s decision to fire Adler. It’s in the public interest, and the business interest of the NYT.
The NYT once printed 7000 words to clean house and win back readers after the Jayson Blair scandal. They should consider what it will take to win back fans this time.
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(words, photos, screenshots by Christopher Johnson Globalite Media all rights reserved)