MEDIA

Here's Why ESPN Didn't Break The Peyton Manning Story

Prominent voices in sports media have dismissed Al Jazeera's report without bothering to consider the evidence.

Al Jazeera is getting a lot of flak for breaking the biggest sports story of the year.

It’s not just die-hard Peyton Manning fans who have pilloried the network’s explosive documentary, “The Dark Side: The Secret World Of Sports Doping,” which links the NFL quarterback to performance-enhancing human growth hormone. Chief among the critics have been prominent voices in the traditional sports media, who have attacked the network’s credibility or, in the case of CBS’s Jim Nantz, refused to cover the story at all. 

“If we talk about it, we would only continue to breathe life into a story that, on all levels, is a non-story,” said Nantz, who declined to mention the allegations in his coverage of last weekend’s Broncos game. “Why add another layer to it?”

ESPN’s Mike Ditka was even more pointed in his remarks, calling the story and the network itself “garbage.”

“Here's the thing that bothers me,” Ditka said on Sunday’s episode of “NFL Countdown.” “Al Jazeera is not a credible news organization. They’re out there spreading garbage. That’s what they do, yet we give them credibility by talking about it.”

To set the record straight: Al Jazeera is no fly-by-night propaganda machine but one of the largest news organizations on the planet, with 80 bureaus around the world and a massive English-language viewership and readership. The network poached dozens of talented journalists from places like CBS, NBC, CNN and PBS when it launched Al Jazeera America in 2013 and now offers an array of news programming alongside documentary investigations and miniseries. It has won dozens of awards for its investigative and documentary work, including an Emmy and two Peabody awards.

Other journalists' reflexive dismissal of the network's allegations without bothering to examine the evidence says more about the traditional sports media -- and its prejudice against a news source with an Arabic name -- than it does about the folks on the investigative team at Al Jazeera, which spent eight months on the investigation.

Deborah Davies, the reporter behind the doping investigation, told The Huffington Post that she and her team “haven’t been dented or damaged in any way by the criticism.”

The linchpin of the allegations against Manning are undercover recordings of a former worker at the Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine in Indiana, where Manning was once treated. On the tapes, former pharmacy intern Charlie Sly says he shipped human growth hormone to Manning’s wife in Florida. “It would never be under Peyton's name; it would always be under her name,” Sly said.

While Manning denies taking the performance-enhancing drugs, he has not denied that they were shipped to his wife. “Any medical treatments that my wife received -- that's her business,” Manning told ESPN. “That has nothing to do with me.”

Sly’s testimony also linked the Phillies’ Ryan Howard and the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman to performance-enhancing drugs. Both have sued the network. Zimmerman’s lawsuit accuses Al Jazeera of “[choosing] to publish their defamatory story in an attempt to stir scandal and increase Al Jazeera’s low ratings.”

Sly recanted his story on YouTube before the documentary came out, but Davies said the team had already confirmed the information with an additional anonymous source she called “utterly credible and well-placed.”

“When a second source confirms everything Sly knows about Peyton Manning, it adds to confidence that he’s telling us the truth,” Davies said.

Pushback from the subject of any investigation is par for the course in journalism, but the documentary’s producer, Jeremy Young, sees the hostility toward Al Jazeera from the sports entertainment bubble as a symptom of a greater problem.

“What you have to understand is that a lot of the commentators -- especially from CBS, ESPN -- have big contracts with major sports leagues,” Young said. “It’s not easy for them to openly criticize [sports figures] because it could have potential ramifications for their bottom line.”

Indeed, days after Nantz slammed the Al Jazeera report, The New York Daily News revealed that Nantz and Manning have both been represented by sports broadcasting agent Sandy Montag, who in turn helped Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to George W. Bush, set up his sports communications practice. Fleischer now represents Manning.

Young says those sorts of connections help explain why other major scandals concerning performance-enhancing drugs in sports have been spurred by a federal investigation or a leak rather than traditional sports media.

“This is a rare example of original journalism resulting in an impactful investigation,” Young said. “There were no leaked docs, no whistleblower -- we initiated the investigative process.”

Davies said she sees this as a developing story and Al Jazeera’s documentary as just the beginning. The New York Times moved the story forward earlier this week by linking all the players Sly named to a fitness instructor in Florida.

“What should now be happening is some kind of serious law enforcement investigation,” Davies said.

Gabriel Arana is senior media editor at The Huffington Post.
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