What a startling new movie on brain injuries tells us about media coverage of the NFL
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Editor's note: This story has been edited to reflect a clarification that was issued by Rebecca Carpenter after this story was published.
'Requiem for a Running Back'
As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly negotiates a new $50-million-a-year deal, he and the football press should get to a Manhattan movie screening to understand the unceasing American tragedy around them.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that families of former NFL players "say the league is obstructing their access to an estimated $1 billion settlement over concussions" via both rejecting bonafide claims and other administrative roadblocks.
And, by coincidence, Wednesday night brings a screening and discussion at the Cinema Village of "Requiem for a Running Back," a compelling documentary on NFL concussions as seen through the eyes of Rebecca Carpenter, a Harvard-educated filmmaker whose father, Lew, was a star running back for the Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns before a long career as an esteemed assistant coach.
After he died, Boston University brain researchers determined that his brain was badly injured with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that explained erratic adult behavior. She includes his tale, her family's befuddlement and the tales of many others. A few of those really do verge on the heartbreaking (former players sitting next to wives whom they no longer recognize). Even hard-ass Mike Ditka, the blowhard Hall of Fame player-turned-coach-analyst, tells her that if he had an 8-year-old son today, he wouldn't let him play football.
"Rebecca's documentary has three interwoven threads, all compelling," says David Maraniss, the historian and esteemed Washington Post reporter-editor whose works include "When Pride Still Mattered," a great biography of the legendary Lombardi.
"It tells the specific and horrific story of football and brain trauma. It places that medical story into the context of the rise of the NFL as a voracious commercial enterprise. And it illuminates — both with unforgettable stories of not just brain-damaged men but their families — the lasting collateral victims of this collision sport. In that sense it is a quite brilliant example of how to combine fact and emotion in storytelling."
Making documentaries can be an exercise in frustration, with quality and commerce not necessarily melding. The movie market and funding are similarly fickle. And so it's been with Carpenter, who's faced all the usual stumbles and is still looking for more money and distribution. But, hey, she's sure had a better few weeks — as the film is getting some initial, scattered notice — than, say, her Harvard classmate, Mark Halperin, the now disgraced political pundit.
Indeed, I wondered about how her years in a football family and, now, as a chronicler of CTE, informs her of the role of the media in covering the league and the sport's increasingly documented health risks.
"The press, in many ways, has shaped the story of football since its inception as an Ivy League sport in the late 1800s," says Carpenter, who's had a long TV and film career. "Popular newspapers and magazines and football grew up together in the late 19th century, and the narrativization of football – with its dramatic story arcs and colorful cast of characters – made for dramatic and accessible journalism. There was great storytelling going on, and football was a fantastic vehicle for selling newspapers."
"Fast forward to 2017, where ESPN is paying more than $7 billion to broadcast professional sports, and bringing in $6 billion (at one point revenues were as high as $10 billion). It’s hard to envision a media corporation that’s making billions off of a sport also doing investigative reporting that exposes the catastrophic dangers of their cash cow."
[Editor's note: After being contacted by journalists from ESPN, Carpenter has apologized for her remarks. Poynter.org has published this story clarifying the remarks. It also published an excerpt from an investigative editor at ESPN who detailed several instances of coverage by ESPN.]
As for anybody she'd single out for great reporting, she's quick to respond:
"Alan Schwarz at the New York Times was far ahead of the curve. He risked his reputation and his career on this reporting – well over 100 articles starting in, I believe 2007. He was a mathematician, and he could see that there was something mathematically astounding about the numbers of players being identified with CTE post-mortem."
Even now, does she have any sense of reporters — especially beat reporters, covering the league or a specific team — being anxious about angering the league or those teams they cover, and simply not doing much digging on the topic?
"Absolutely," she says. "We are all afraid of pissing off the league. I still am. Even writing this inspires fear. I’m just a girl trying to tell a story about my dad, and this mysterious disease that caused him to withdraw from life, as we knew it. I have heard that even at ESPN reporters have a hard time getting management to approve truly in-depth stories about CTE."
"But I can tell you, from the dining room table stories I heard as a child, and the stories I heard that never made it into newspapers, the media does a very good job of containing negative stories about football. The explosion of grassroots social media has finally changed the death grip of major media institutions on this story, and stories like this."
Oh, it was unavoidable, since she's been in the entertainment business, and went to the same college class as Halperin, what she thought of that whole topic.
"I do not know him (Halperin) but I can tell you, as a woman at Harvard, who was the first traditional college student in my family, and then working my way toward becoming a director, that I’ve had my share of strip joints for lunch and after dinner drinks with producers and directors, and a long list of both subtle and overt indignities related to my gender."
"I’m glad these guys are being exposed so that women artists and journalists will be freer to do their important work without this additional layer of obstacles to navigate. It’s really hard to direct a film, and to develop the skills necessary to directing a film. To have the additional layer of institutionalized sexual harassment is enervating. My energy is better spent on being the best director I can be."
Here's the trailer for the movie. Tonight's screening will be followed by a panel that includes Rebecca Carpenter and Dr. Ann McKee, the chief researcher at Boston University on NFL brain injuries. I attended a Chicago screening last weekend and my date, namely my 8th-grader, had previously seen Will Smith's "Concussion" and came away saying this is superior and more impactful.
Is Peter Thiel's next target Google?
He funded Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker. Now, writes Bloomberg, "Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who backed Donald Trump’s presidential run, gave $300,000 to a political campaign of Josh Hawley, the Missouri attorney general who opened an antitrust investigation into Google this week."
"Hawley, a Republican, unveiled a probe into Alphabet Inc.’s Google for favoring its own products in search results, citing the similar case in the European Union that resulted in a record fine. His subpoena is the most significant case against Google in the U.S. since the Federal Trade Commission picked up, then dropped, a competition case in 2013."
How does one not read this?
"Trump & Friends" was fixated on the naming of a second special counsel, to look into Hillary Clinton, and wasn't big on taking on the mess of Alabama Senate politics. Nor was it very demanding when it came to the testimony of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. What some thought was an occasional display of Congressional Alzheimer's — a witness's selective recollections upon anything more than marshmallow-soft inquiries — was not a diagnosis discerned here in what's become a daily rehab unit for all Trump-related ills.
CNN "New Day" blue-skied the politics of whether Moore runs and played the suddenly fashionable parlor game: Dump Moore for Sessions, or have Sessions as a write-in candidate in the Alabama race? At heart remains the notion of getting rid of a guy who may not want to go, believing his primary victory can result in a full election win.
MSNBC's "Morning Joe" got into why Dwight Eisenhower was an effective president, with Joe Scarborough briefly morphing into a combo of World War II historian Rick Atkinson and leadership guru Stephen Covey. He praised Ike and noted his vast experience in dealing with war leaders Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Bernard Montgomery. He noted the ability to take orders, turn a chin and assemble giant military operations. It was about being deferential to others. The point? Trump has to learn to do likewise.
Self-immolation via lax fact-checking
"A new report released today by the American Press Institute highlights some of the challenges facing American newsrooms online — and it doesn’t look pretty. The report, which focuses on how publications are using social media to address misinformation and declining trust, found that most newsrooms are woefully unprepared to tackle those challenges."
ProPublica writes, a Trump official exits
"A senior official in charge of a federal loan guarantee program resigned after ProPublica reported his prior role in obtaining a guarantee under the same program as part of a deal that failed."
"The official, Gavin Clarkson, stepped down Monday as deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development in the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was appointed in June and his position did not require Senate confirmation."
"At the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Clarkson supervised a program that provides loan guarantees to Indian businesses. As ProPublica reported, in his previous role as a businessman and academic, he had arranged financing and a $20 million guarantee, under the same program, for a loan that helped an Indian tribe buy a Wall Street brokerage."
Those who quit voluntarily (over cuts)
As a longtime newsroom manager who became fairly adroit in managing decline, one does wonder about the dividing line between being realistic amid down times and just saying enough is enough. Poynter's Kristen Hare tracked down editors who did the latter. At what point does one say that, yes, you and your staff have done great work but now financial realities are undermining too much of your achievements?
Firefox and Chrome
"The last half-decade hasn’t been great for Firefox marketshare," writes TechCrunch in the understatement of the day (not including various things declared about Roy Moore in Alabama). "Chrome first overtook Mozilla’s browser back in late 2011 and now hovers above 60 percent, according to StatCounter numbers. But after a fair amount of struggles, Mozilla’s been undergoing an interesting sort of renaissance of late, and is banking on its new Quantum browser to bring bygone users back into the Firefox fold."
"After two months of beta testing, the 57th version of the browser drops today for public consumption, belying the slow moving condiment that shares its build number. According to the foundation’s numbers, the latest build uses 30 percent less memory than the competition when running on a Windows System."
Shepard Smith flying solo
The Fox afternoon anchor totally derided the Hillary Clinton-Uranium One conspiracy theory that's been a Fox staple. If you've missed it, it's about the purchase of American mines by a Russian-backed company, with some investors also being Clinton donors. What Trump has promoted as some Watergate-like conspiracy is tied to Cllnton since the State Department was one of nine — yes, nine — agencies with oversight. Let's get C-SPAN to have Smith and Sean Hannity debate the matter.
Meanwhile, a crack in the pro-Roy Moore firewall at Fox came near the end of Hannity's show as he suddenly evinced chagrin at "inconsistencies" in Moore's story. Clear them up in 24 hours or exit the race, Hannity intoned, looking nearly as dyspeptic as Sen. Mitch McConnell. Hannity got air time on Fox, of course, but also a little bit later on "The 11th Hour with Brian Williams," which played his admonition to Moore.
Poynter is running a Jan. 18-19 workshop on covering poverty in the South, especially as it relates to children. It's free and stipends are available for travel and lodging.
Changes in a journalism curriculum
The University of North Carolina student paper reports, "The UNC School of Media and Journalism announced a new curriculum structure last week aimed at facilitating a more diverse learning experience, combining the current eight concentrations into two areas of study: Journalism, and Advertising and Public Relations. The school will also offer a special third area of study in Business Journalism, a program that requires permission from both the MJ-school and the Kenan-Flagler Business School."
Life after RealClearPolitics
Alexis Simendinger, who'd been a very astute White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics before a big layoff there, is joining The Hill as a national political correspondent and host of a weekly podcast.
Vox and Rotten Tomatoes
How could one have a sentence mentioning both Vox and Rotten Tomatoes? Well, here's goes, as a result of this Vox opus:
"'Justice League' reviews will start coming out early Wednesday morning — the studio-imposed embargo lifts at 2:50 a.m. Eastern on Nov. 15. But anyone who’s wondering whether the film will be deemed 'fresh' or 'rotten' by Rotten Tomatoes will have to wait another day for the site to reveal its rating. And that’s raising some eyebrows."
"A couple weeks ago, on Oct. 31, Rotten Tomatoes announced the launch of a weekly show called Rotten Tomatoes See It / Skip It, broadcast on Facebook via the social media site’s Watch platform. One of the show’s regular features is a 'Tomatometer Score Reveal' — and this week’s reveal is Justice League, the hotly anticipated DC Extended Universe movie that unites Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, The Flash, and Superman. The episode containing the reveal is scheduled to air at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16."
"The choice to hold the film’s Tomatometer score is a savvy one, from Rotten Tomatoes’ perspective — especially as advertising for See It / Skip It. The site has long billed itself as merely a review aggregator, a kind of landing spot that gathers the critical opinions of thousands of 'Tomatometer-approved critics' around the world, then assigns a score that correlates to the percentage of positive reviews."
Sexual harassment in newsrooms
In a Nieman Reports cover story, Katherine Goldstein dissects sexual harassment in the news industry. There's a very good related package in which eight journalists detail the complexities of covering the topic. They include Vanity Fair special correspondent Gabriel Sherman, Hollywood Reporter editor-at-large Kim Masters and New York Times business writer Emily Steel.
Jim DeRogatis, a Chicago music writer and co-host the syndicated radio show "Sound Opinions," has done lots of work on the unseemly actions of R. Kelly and says:
"Now, we have the floodgates opened, but for how long, and to what extent does it change anything? It’s hard to be optimistic when we have a president of the United States of America who said, 'Grab them by the pussy,' and apparently meant it and did it."