Watch Tower: National Press Declares Open Season on Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger

The Watch Tower’s lights have been dim for quite some time, but that’s due to lack of time and certainly not for lack of material. Today we shine our lights on the national press piling on Pittsburgh in light of the Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell shake ups, some historical background on those two stories, and more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Myles Garret, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie

Myles Garrett sacks Ben Roethlisberger in Steelers tie with Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, PennLive.com

National Media Declares Open Season on the Steelers, Roethlisberger

The Pittsburgh Steelers have taken a pounding from the national press. Certainly, the Steelers bear some responsibility. But much of the heat directed at the Steelers is unfounded.

  • Just how bad is it?

Well, when someone like Mark Madden can take the press to task for sloppy journalism, you know things are bad. The facts of the two stories are well established:

  • Antonio Brown quit with the playoffs on the line and then humiliated his team on social media
  • Le’Veon Bell turned down a 70 million dollar contract from the Steelers, held out, and ended up with a smaller contract from the New York Jets.

But you wouldn’t know that if you’d been following the national press. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were victims of the Rooneys, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and perhaps worst of all Ben Roethlisberger.

Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown trade, Steelers trade Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin

Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger & Mike Tomlin in happier times. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via BTSC

  • The Watch Tower lacks both time and space to shine its revealing light on each culpable national journalist.

But we will start with what is perhaps the most egregious offender Sport Illustrated’s Robert Klemko. Josh Harris, last seen in the Steelers January 2015 playoff loss to the Ravens, tweeted that Ben Roethlisberger had intentionally fumbled in the 2014 season finale against the Bengals.

Accusing a fellow player of intentionally fumbling is an explosive charge, far more serious than a quarterback calling out a receiver for running the wrong route, but given that Josh Harris’ 9 NFL carry career ended 4 years ago, it likely would have and should have gone unnoticed.

Yet Robert Klemko gave Josh Harris a national platform in a feature length story that included interviews with Harris and Isaac Redman. From a journalistic stand point, that’s a completely ethical story line if you’re objective.

  • But Robert Klemko didn’t even feign objectivity.

Klemko could have requested a response from Roethlisberger, yet gives no indication that he tried. He could have talked to 9 of the other players in the huddle then. He did not. He could have analyzed the video from the play. He did not.

  • When Bruce Gradkowski offered a detailed rebuttal, he could have interviewed Gradkowski and done a follow up story. He did not.

Instead he took the words of Josh Harris, a player whose career doesn’t even merit a footnote in Steelers history, and treated them as if they had come from the Burning Bush. Klemko’s story was so one-sided that Isaac Redman publicly called him out for taking his words out of context.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Wolf pack journalism and the use of negative headlines to sell papers er, um, generate clicks are nothing new.

  • But the Watch Tower wonders whether the digital media landscape has exacerbated both tendencies.

Stories from Jenny Vrentas of SI.com and ESPN’s Jeff Darlington perhaps offer examples. For a long time, teams, agents, and players depended on the media to get their message across. Now, thanks to social media, individual actors no longer need third parties to mediate for them.

Yet one of the few ways that independent press outlets can differentiate themselves from the “Content aggregators” is by getting one-on-one access to players.

  • But it seems as if this access is coming at a price.

While it has been normal for agents and PR reps to set ground rules in exchange for interviews, the press still retained leverage. Jenny Vrentas interview with Le’Veon Bell and Jeff Darlington’s interview with Antonio Brown suggest this is changing. Both Bell and Brown made outlandish claims to Vrentas and Darlington, claims that in a serious journalistic context would have been challenged.

Yet neither journalist showed any interest in challenging their subjects in name of finding the truth. If this is indicative of the direction professional sports journalism, then the Watch Tower shudders for its future.

Shout Out for the Good Guys

While the Steelers have largely remained silent against this onslaught of negative news, members of the Pittsburgh press and Steelers-focused bloggers have not.

  • Gerry Dulac, Ed Bouchette, Jim Wexell, Joe Starkey, Mark Kaboly, Mark Madden, Ian Whetstone and Simon Chester, to name just a few, have pushed back.

While their focus has been on the Brown and Bell stories, the national press has seemingly come at the Steelers from every angle. For example, Bill Barnwell (among others) have called out the Steelers for the salary cap of Brown’s 2018 contract re-structure.

Fortunately, scribes like Ian Whetstone have been quick to set the record straight:

Ian Whetstone has been particularly aggressive in this regard, so aggressive that a complete accounting of his efforts could easily fill up an entire column.

  • Ian Whetsonte wins Watch Tower kudos for his effort to promote the truth.

Simon Chester of Behind the Steel Curtain has been a particularly strong voice in the effort to set the record straight. Jesse James free agent defection to Detroit was unfortunate if not unexpected. Jesse James was asked about the situation in Pittsburgh as one might expect.

Jesse James.

Jesse James scores against the Panthers.

  • The national media took a few stray comments from James out of context, and tried to make it sound like his goal was to get out of Pittsburgh as soon as he could.

A full reading of his press conference, reveals a very different attitude. Fortunately, Simon Chester detailed this in a feature length story, which is a welcome benefit to those of us too busy working 10-12 hour days to research the story for ourselves.

And while it would be unfair for the Watch Tower to claim that national press as a whole has refused to admit that Le’Veon Bell lost his gamble, there are no shortage of writers who insist that Bell “won.” Again, Simon Chester was ready with a fact-based refutation of the Bell apologists.

Finally, The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly exposed the NFL Network for splicing together two separate Ben Roethlisberger quotes regarding the infamous route running incident in Denver:

Not that the national media had it out for the Steelers, or anything like that….

Pounding the Pavement on the Brown and Bell Stories

None of what has transpired over the last few months occurred in a vacuum, and the Watch Tower would like to shout out a few journalists who’ve earned their salaries as reporters during the time these stories have evolved.

  • Jeremy Fowler of ESPN earns Watch Tower Kudos for his reporting on both the Brown and Bell stories.

Jeremy Fowler got Le’Veon Bell on the record saying he would report to the Steelers during bye week. Bell of course never showed up, but Fowler was the only journalist to get Bell on the record at that time.

Fowler also provided perhaps the most detailed account of Antonio Brown’s conduct and special treatment by the Steelers organization, even unearthing the Brown didn’t stay at St. Vincent’s during training camp. That was an incredible story that took a lot of diligent reporting to write, and Jeremy Fowler deserves praise for putting it together.

Finally, Jim Wexell also offered an important detail that added important depth to the Bell story by reporting that Le’Veon Bell insisted offered to report late in the season before the deadline but only if the Steelers paid him the full 14.5 million.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on, much more than can be contained in this single column. Hopefully the Watch Tower will be back with more much sooner.

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