Rick Reilly’s Lance Armstrong problem is all of journalism’s problem
Sportswriter Rick Reilly has been a staunch defender of Lance Armstrong against charges that the superstar cyclist’s incredible win record was fueled by performance-enhancing drugs. His faith that Armstrong was clean was buttressed by his relationship with the man himself, who repeatedly denied point-blank to Reilly that he’d doped.
So Reilly was understandably upset when Armstrong emailed him to take it all back just before admitting his doping to Oprah Winfrey:
“Never failed a drug test,” I’d always point out. “Most tested athlete in the world. Tested maybe 500 times. Never flunked one.”
Why? Because Armstrong always told me he was clean.
On the record. Off the record. Every kind of record. In Colorado. In Texas. In France. On team buses. In cars. On cell phones…
Every time — every single time — he’d push himself up on his elbows and his face would be red and he’d stare at me like I’d just shot his dog and give me some very well-delivered explanation involving a few dozen F words, a painting of the accuser as a wronged employee seeking revenge, and how lawsuits were forthcoming.
And when my own reporting would produce no proof, I’d be convinced. I’d go out there and continue polishing a legend that turned out to be plated in fool’s gold.
It has to burn to go out on a limb defending someone and then find out that someone has been deceiving you all along. So I don’t begrudge Reilly his right to be angry with Armstrong. If I were him I’d be angry, too.
But when you get suckered, there’s a point at which you have to wonder if at least a little of the blame for being treated as a sucker doesn’t fall to you — to your willingness to be deceived. Not every sucker is complicit in their own deception, but many are. And a little further down in Reilly’s piece about Armstrong deceiving him, we find this:
Look, I’ve been fooled before. I believed Mark McGwire was hitting those home runs all on his own natural gifts. I believed Joe Paterno couldn’t possibly cover up something so grisly as child molestation. I bought Manti Te’o’s girlfriend story. But those people never looked me square in the pupils and spit.
Which is kind of an astonishing list of admissions for someone who gets paid to follow sports, if you think about it.
Was there anyone who watched Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s home run duel and didn’t at least wonder if the two men were juicing? Was there anyone who watched the evidence pile up against Paterno and didn’t at least wonder if the man was willing to sell out kids to hold on to his legacy?
The only people who you’d expect to be so oblivious are the most rabid of fans — the ones to whom their idols are capable of doing no wrong.
Here’s the thing. If you’re just watching the game from the bleachers, and you want to be a blind fan, that’s your right. (It makes you kind of a dope, I would argue, but this is a free country and you’re free to be a dope if you want to.) But a sportswriter is, in theory, anyway, a journalist. Journalists aren’t supposed to be blind fans. They’re supposed to follow the evidence.
I’m not saying that a journalist in any of these cases had to be convinced right away that the people involved were crossing lines. There was plenty of deniability to go around in all of them, especially in their beginnings. But a journalist, who’s paid to have a critical eye, should have at least have been open to the possibility that the denials were false.
And here’s Reilly, admitting that he wasn’t. He just took everyone at their word until doing so became completely untenable. Especially Armstrong, to whom he became so close that even near the end, when the cyclist’s defense essentially boiled down to “everyone in the world is out to get me,” he was still willing to extend the benefit of the doubt.
To his credit, he shows a glimmer of self-awareness on this point:
It’s partially my fault. I let myself admire him. Let myself admire what he’d done with his life, admire the way he’d not only beaten his own cancer but was trying to help others beat it. When my sister was diagnosed, she read his book and got inspired. And I felt some pride in that. I let it get personal. And now I know he was living a lie and I was helping him live it.
This is why I feel that the style of reporting usually called “access journalism” is neither: neither access, nor journalism. Reporters can get close to a subject, can get “access,” but they can never get close enough for a malicious subject to let them see the real story; Lance Armstrong would let Rick Reilly into his team bus, but he’d never let Reilly follow him into the room where Michele Ferrari was waiting to dose him. And the large investment of time and credibility required to get close to a subject can lead the journalist to identify with the subject, to “let it get personal”; it’s the reporter’s version of Stockholm Syndrome. The result is reporting that is less about the truth and more about the image that the subject wants to portray to the world.
None of which would be particularly interesting if it were something that only happened to sportswriters. But it happens all the time, in all forms of journalism. Political reporters cozy up to candidates; business reporters to CEOs; product reviewers to the people who make the products they review. The result is news outlets that can’t call a lie a lie, and it serves nobody except established interests and corrupt institutions.
Rick Reilly’s problem is journalism’s problem. And journalism as a whole, not just this one man, needs to start grappling with it.