Adam Schefter, Greg Hardy, and changing the narrative on redemption stories

While Greg Hardy and Adam Schefter dominate the headlines for all the wrong reasons, the media as a whole gets further and further away from recognizing what is important. Our Josh Webb explores the issue with pre-packaging redemption narratives without first asking some important questions. Special thanks to Lindsay Gibbs of Think Progress for her valuable insight on this matter.

Earlier this week, ESPN’s Adam Schefter sat down with free agent defensive end Greg Hardy to discuss, well... frankly, I am not entirely sure what he went on ESPN to discuss. The commonly accepted reason for Hardy’s sit down interview is because he currently jobless and Schefter has a very comfortable relationship with Hardy’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus. The truth is likely only known to Schefter, Hardy’s camp, and the ESPN executives who authorized the interview.

Quite predictably, the backlash for the interview was through the roof. Media members of all types, including ESPN employees, questioned why ESPN would give Hardy a platform of that magnitude for what amounts to a second chance at a game. The segment was controversial at best, barely digestible for most, and legitimately disturbing for many. The comments, articles and questions were pointed, fair, and representative of the larger social view.

There is a troubling bit of insincerity with regard to some of the questions being asked. Many in the media know the answer to why Hardy was given a platform on ESPN and it is the same reason the outlet they work for has given a platform to many other undeserving athletes in the past; money and controversy sell and drive ratings. The morality of the issue has almost become separate to the bottom line of the issue and this is a fact these journalists accept when they sign a contract with these outlets.

Greg Hardy should have never been given a platform to sell his redemption story. Lance Armstrong should have never been given a platform to do the same. Hope Solo should have faced far more scrutiny for her actions when the United States were in the World Cup just as Ronda Rousey should have been made to answer for the bullying she has done to other female fighters on social media. These platforms are given regularly and the outrage meter tends to vary based on the public’s mood.

The genuine problem with this is that it promotes the idea there is an inherent pecking order to the evils these people have committed upon other human beings and that is simply not the case. As a society, as responsible journalists, we owe every one of these stories more than comparisons and contests against other atrocities. When we measure villainy against itself, we willfully and ignorantly neglect our duty to both sides of the story.

Rather than ask why one individual was given a platform, there needs to be a macro-level shift in the way this information is presented, digested, and created in content form. The packaging and promotion of redemption stories is fine as long as they don’t come as the price of our humanity. Players pay their agents and public relations directors thousands of dollars to repair their image. This is a job function that we’ve created in society -- an acceptable function, I would add. Damage control is a phrase tossed about without even a second thought as to who has been damaged and what is being controlled.

While absolutely true, the narrative that ESPN gave Hardy a new platform is disingenuous. This is something each and every one of these outlets does on a consistent basis and they do with all sorts of human beings undeserving of more air time. Yet the discussion seems to be reduced to deciding which of the wicked is worth the special airtime. If we are truly being honest with ourselves, these types of interviews are just an extrapolation of our societal fascination with the what and why of evil men, redemption stories, and the idea that these monsters could be living just around your corner.

While I maintain that there is a functional need to explore these subjects in further interviews, journalists like Think Progress’ Lindsay Gibbs have correctly pointed out that there are hundreds of qualified journalists, many of whom with vast experience in domestic abuse, abuser cliches, and NFL players, capable of conducting this interview. If Hardy was truly concerned with redemption, there were more genuine ways of putting this interview together.

The person asking the questions is often just as important as the questions themselves. Redemption must come at the price of brutal honesty. Hardy should have been willing to submit himself to questions from a qualified individual ready to really explore the depth of sorrow. There was no way Rosenhaus would have agreed to such an interview and that’s why Schefter was allowed to conduct the interview.

It’s the same reason why Oprah was given the ability to question Lance Armstrong. Oprah is seen as a trustworthy figure by the public and while that may be the case, if the industry standard is acceptable in one arena, media should not act shocked or surprised when that logically is incorrectly applied to another. Inasmuch as Schefter went on his world tour talking about how Greg Hardy “wasn’t wavering, he was adamant,” Oprah did the exact same thing when she told ABC news “he certainly had prepared himself for this moment… He brought it. He really did.”

There are huge differences in both cases that are worth noting. Oprah maintained that viewers should decide for themselves, Armstrong was in the middle of a huge court case, and this was the first time he was admitting publicly his cheating. Hardy, as already mentioned, was out of work, not in the public eye, and failed to admit anything on camera. Afterward, Schefter came off looking somewhat supportive to Hardy’s cause and had to perform an apology tour this morning for the way he phrased some of his comments -- he stood by the interview.

While that is his right, it can distort the message. Is this about Hardy’s redemption, his crime, both? Is this Schefter’s story or Hardy’s? How many viewers are truly educated enough to see past the pomp and circumstance of these redemption narratives when they’re forced down their throats, almost systematically, from every outlet in the media? In the media’s constant search for these stories of redemption, unworthy human beings will consistently fall through the cracks because executives are trained to see dollar signs, not heart strings. Sensationalism has a shelf life that is not conducive to thorough background checks, but redemption sells.

It’s completely worth mentioning that this is not an attack on Schefter, who is by all accounts a very well-respected insider.  More importantly, this is not a slight at the well-reasoned commentaries by many of the thoughtful, informed, and truly inspirational female journalists who braved a sea of abuse on social media to speak out against this interview. The work they’ve done and continue to do is of the utmost importance and this should not be used as a means to discredit them. But there is real value in asking these questions and exploring how they affect these situations.

When a story is packaged and sold as a redemption story, there is an unstated suggestion that the individual deserves a societal reprieve. While America will never fully agree on which stories deserve a second chance, a common theme present in the generally accepted stories is contrition, something completely absent in Hardy’s story. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with every foul deed and there is an expected level of trust between the audience and the outlet. If these decisions are driven by dollar signs rather than genuine sorrow, an abuse of that trust is taking place.

The redemption narrative is sold at all levels of media. Whether it’s your local news showing the feel-good story of a reformed gang member now raising wayward youth or it’s Oprah Winfrey sitting down to get an admission from Lance Armstrong, these are calculated decisions to disrupt the lives of more than just the interviewee and careful consideration should be given at all times. To put it another way, it’s fine that Greg Hardy felt he wanted to tell his side of the story, but the largest sports network in the world giving him a platform to do so invariably meant Nicole Holder was, once again, going to have to put her life on hold because dollars led to a lack of common sense.

The redemption narrative has its place in our society but the assembly line process has resulted in far too many people slipping through the cracks with abhorrent air time. Freedom of speech guarantees a certain amount of this, but it doesn’t mean that major media conglomerates need to force the issue just to generate content. At the minimum, it would be nice if victim consideration were stressed before the fact, not after.

As a whole, the commodification of important issues is an extremely important and pressing issue. Whether it’s domestic violence, mental health, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, or sexual assault, these stories simply cannot be treated as made-to-market products ready for mass consumption. We must do better. We must act better. We must, at all times, treat these issues with the integrity only given in statements to the press.

Schefter mentioned the key word in his response to WEEI when he said “I’m sure he came in with an agenda and so did I.” Agenda. That’s the problem. Everyone seems to have one, but none of them expressly state victim consideration, methodology, or operationalization. That last one is important when authorities like Schefter find that Hardy is a “changed kind of guy.” As originally pointed out by Jessica Luther, at that point Schefter is asserting a professional opinion about a man’s mental state and he is in no, way shape, or form qualified to do so.

https://twitter.com/scATX/status/717418348556853249

That’s the chief problem with packaging narratives -- the context is secondary to content item. Until that changes and until we change that mindset, these questions will be asked time and again by people who know the answer.

A very special thank you to Think Progress' Lindsay Gibbs for her valuable insights, opinions, and extra eyes on this extremely important subject matter. 


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