Bobby Valentine and Johan Santana merged in my mind this week, Santana as a victim of bad journalism, Valentine as a victim of his self-generated personal publicity machine.
Last week, within a couple of days of the Florida Marlins’ dismissal of Fredi Gonzalez as their manager, the Web site SI.com reported that Valentine would replace him. Foxsports.com and others joined in, and it quickly became a foregone conclusion that the job belonged to Valentine.
That’s the way the Valentine publicity machine operates. He feeds information to his band of favorite reporters, and they do his bidding. In this instance, however, he and they were premature, and reports, again led by SI.com, emerged early this week that Valentine was no longer a candidate for the job.
Not that he didn’t have the job they had already reported that he had, but that he wasn’t a candidate for it any more.
At the same time the original Valentine reports surfaced last week, newspaper stories appeared about Santana, reporting that last October a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her on a golf course in Fort Myers, Fla., where the Mets’ pitcher lives in the off-season.
The articles also reported that police investigated the alleged incident but neither arrested Santana nor charged him with any crime because, the police said, there was “insufficient evidence to prove lack of consent beyond a reasonable doubt.” In addition, the “alleged victim’s statement is not consistent with other witnesses.”
I am not suggesting that the woman should not be believed, but the conclusions of the authorities certainly raise doubts about her accusation. It is also curious, as she told police, that after the incident she called rape, she watched Santana play tennis against a man who was identified as his father. That behavior would never be accepted in an episode of Law & Order S.V.U.
The police report lay dormant and unreported for nearly eight months, until a salacious celebrity Web site, TMZ, discovered it last week. Newspapers quickly picked up the story.
I was not surprised that the New York tabloids, the Post and the Daily News, ran the story. I would have been surprised if they hadn’t. That is, after all, what they do. It is their raison d’etre.
But the Times? I was surprised that the Times ran the story. The Times duly reported that Santana was not charged because of a lack of evidence, but the woman’s accusation appeared in the newspaper nevertheless. In fact, a second story appeared the next day, quoting another police report on a police interview with Santana in which he acknowledged having had consensual sex with the woman.
Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, did not respond to e-mail requests for comment on the Times’ decision to run the story. In the many years I worked at the Times, the story would not have appeared in the paper unless Santana had been charged.
The Times used to be ultra sensitive to these matters. In fact, there’s a guideline in the Times’ “Manual of Style and Usage” that can be related to this instance.
Discussing use of the word “accused,” the style book says, “Avoid any construction that implies guilt on the part of someone merely accused, charged or suspected.”
If the Times demands such caution by its reporters on the mere usage of words, surely the newspaper has no desire to wreck a man’s reputation by allowing a woman to accuse him of rape when the accusation doesn’t rise to the level of a formal police charge.
It wasn’t that long ago, twice in the last five years, that a Times editor said I could not write a column about suspicions of steroids use by Mike Piazza. We have never written about Piazza and steroids, the editor explained. Well, the Times had never written about Johan Santana and rape, but it gave the woman the use and freedom of its pages to accuse him of it.
The absence of a charge has discouraged even the commissioner’s office from investigating the incident. An official close to the investigations department said the fact that the pitcher hasn’t been charged makes it difficult to do anything.
Not for the Times and the other newspapers, though. Not in this day of competing with Web sites on the Internet, which don’t guide themselves by any kind of standards.
Andy Schotz, chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the issue wasn’t an easy one to decide.
“This is one of those examples where I don’t think there’s a perfect answer,” he said. “There are different questions to ask. Weighing the options is the best you can do.”
“He’s a famous athlete,” Schotz added. “Should he be scrutinized more than the average man? No, but….It could be a disservice not to report sexual assault.”
But in Santana’s case, there’s no concrete evidence of an assault. It’s as unfair to write about a sexual assault when there wasn’t one as it would be ignoring a sexual assault if one occurred.
There’s one other issue here. “The morality aspect makes it much worse, though it’s not related to the criminal aspect,” Schotz said.
As far as I’m concerned, there is no morality issue. Santana, who is married and has three children, told police that he had sex with a woman who wasn’t his wife. That makes it a problem between Johan and Yasmile Santana, not Santana with the police. That game, though, is common in baseball as well as all sports and all walks of life.
I don’t judge players for their promiscuity; nor do I write about it unless it affects a player’s play on the field. What a player does on his own time is his business, not mine or yours. If in the years I covered the Yankees I had written about all of the off-field games I was aware of, I wouldn’t have had time to write about George and Billy and Reggie.
So let’s leave morality out of it.
Perhaps Valentine should check his own morality in the way he manipulates news about himself. In the matter of his reported hiring by the Marlins, his SI.com outlet was much too far ahead of developments. The original report even specified that Valentine would begin managing the Marlins by last Monday.
When its original report turned out to be wrong, SI.com didn’t say it had been wrong and why it had been wrong, just that Valentine would not be getting the Marlins job. I doubt that Sports Illustrated the magazine would have acted in that manner.
I have always believed in acknowledging mistakes as soon as possible. That’s what I will do here now.
In my last column I wrote an item about Valentine becoming manager of the Marlins. That item followed all of the other reports and was based not on my own reporting but on the preponderance of other reports.
But just before the Marlins game last Tuesday night, owner Jeffrey Loria announced that Edwin Rodriguez, their interim manager, would be the manager the rest of the season and they would evaluate the managerial situation at the end of the season.
Loria didn’t mention Valentine – he never had – but they apparently encountered problems before reaching an agreement.
I don’t like being wrong, and in this instance I was wrong because I relied on the reporting of others and not my own efforts. That has always been against my personal policy, and I slipped this time.