The bizarre case of a 13-year-old legal document from a 14-year-old lawsuit over a 15-year-old book that cited 20-year-old allegations against a then-19-year-old continues to spark a wide variety of skirmishes and debates over issues unrelated to the merits of the case. That’s probably because it’s currently impossible to resolve the merits of the case, because all cases arising from whatever Peyton Manning did to Jamie Naughright in 1996 and thereafter were resolved long ago.
But even the fact that all claims were settled gets filtered through the perspectives of those with a predetermined point of view regarding the situation. Anyone inclined to believe the worst about Manning will say the settlements show he was guilty. Anyone inclined to believe that the claims made by Naughright were exaggerated or fabricated will say she settled in lieu of letting a jury scrutinize her words and demeanor and in turn determine whether she was telling the truth.
Today’s social-media/talk-radio hot-take blast furnace abhors a vacuum. It’s not nearly enough for someone to objectively report both sides without bias and then allow the reader to reach his or her own conclusions. Everyone writing the words and reading them must have an opinion, and any new facts or developments or allegations will prompt not an honest, square-one reconsideration of pre-existing views but a funneling of the fresh information through cured-concrete beliefs to which everyone already has decided to cling.
In this case, it happened from the moment Shaun King of the New York Daily News received a 74-page document written by Naughright’s lawyers in an effort to beat Peyton and Archie Manning in court, fundamentally misunderstood (deliberately or not) the nature and purpose of the document, failed to do any additional reporting (including seeking comment from Manning or his lawyers), and fashioned a #longread that accepted every allegation in the 74-page document as true and summarized it like a 10th grader scribbling out a connect-the-dots book report.
King’s own perspective was that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had been receiving unfair criticism for his behavior during and after Super Bowl 50. So King, apparently believing the criticism of Newton was motivated by race, opted to open an outdated can of worms regarding a prominent white quarterback.
In the absence of any mechanism for resolving the cracked and yellowed he-said/she-said, King opened the door to fair criticism of the manner in which he clumsily set the agenda, misleading those already predisposed to presume Peyton Manning’s guilt. Some (like PFT) opted to explain what the document is and what is isn’t, allowing for a more complete assessment of the situation. As to those who already concluded based on King’s one-sided narrative that Manning “sexually assaulted” Naughright, however, any effort to explain the circumstances in a measured, objective way was viewed as an effort to protect Manning.
Then came King’s follow-up article on Monday, in which he defended himself against critics, doubling down with an erroneous explanation of the legal posture of the case by writing that a judge had affirmatively found “clear and convincing evidence” that Peyton and Archie Manning acted with malice toward Naughright. King and his editors failed to realize the fundamental mistake he had made when Monday’s article was published, and they apparently have chosen to do nothing to acknowledge the misstatement or to repair it. (In an interview on CBS Sports Radio, King has conceded that he possibly misunderstood the judge’s words, but King consistently — and somewhat amazingly — has said that he has not read any of the articles criticizing his work. As of this posting, the Monday article still has not been revised to correct King’s obvious mistake.)
Now comes an item from Chuck Modiano of the New York Daily News accusing those who have criticized the prior work of his colleague as a “Kill-the-Messenger” play orchestrated by “Peyton Manning and his machine.” Modiano supports his argument with no hard facts to show, for example, that P.R. wraith Ari Fleischer or anyone else working on Manning’s behalf has been lobbying people like Clay Travis or Jason Whitlock (or me) with talking points or other messages aimed at shaping the narrative.
Which perhaps means that the Peyton Manning machine runs so smoothly and efficiently that it doesn’t even need an on/off switch.
Modiano launches his column by suggesting that the Manning machine targeted Al Jazeera generally in response to the HGH report and King individually in response to the document he published. While Manning (and some in the media) aggressively lashed out at the Al Jazeera report, plenty of items were published in the aftermath of the HGH report pointing out the flaws in Manning’s argument, and the gaping hole in his story that came from the refusal to disclose facts about treatment his wife received. PFT ultimately explained that Manning and his wife have the ability to empower the NFL to conduct a full and complete investigation by authorizing the Guyer Institute in Indianapolis to produce to the league’s investigators all documents and other information regarding the treatment they received; that suggestion was anything but a product of “Peyton Manning and his machine.”
The HGH allegations present a situation conducive to a real and meaningful investigation, whether by the NFL or by the media. Indeed, the Washington Post has painted a damning picture of Manning’s efforts (through his investigators) to arguably intimidate Charles Sly into recanting the things he said while being secretly recorded by Al Jazeera — even though he reportedly didn’t know what he was recanting when he recanted.
In this case, Modiano chastises the national media (other than USA Today) for failing to do or say more in response to information published in 2003 about the Naughright case. To the extent that Modiano’s own publication has a national profile, why didn’t the Daily News say more (or, you know, anything) about the situation when the story first surfaced? Why didn’t Gary Myers of the New York Daily News, who wrote on Tuesday a column suggesting that, if Peyton Manning is lying about anything that he did to Naughright he could be lying about not using HGH, not even make a single mention of the Naughright litigation in his recently-published 254-page joint biography of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady?
The most troubling aspect of Modiano’s column comes near the bottom, when he writes these words: “In exactly what sports media universe has a law degree or Ph.D. from Columbia School of Journalism ever been needed for journalists to render an opinion of assumed guilt? . . . ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is a legal standard, not the bar to hold an educated opinion.”
The key word there is “educated.” The people responsible for shaping public opinion shouldn’t adopt their own opinions in the same incomplete, haphazard way that non-journalists do. Journalists are supposed to consider both sides before forming opinions. And while columnists are paid to express their own opinions, those opinions need to be rooted in a fair and knowledgeable consideration of the facts, along with a basic understanding of what is and isn’t proven fact.
As the media continues to change to better meet the demands of the modern consumer, the media can’t adopt the mindset of the modern consumer. Modiano seems to believe that, in the court of public opinion, writers and reporters are fellow members of the jury. If that attitude reflects the culture of the New York Daily News, I finally understand why King handled this situation the way he did.