CBS drops the ball in coverage of the Chiefs' murder-suicide tragedy
CBS showed poor editorial judgment in its coverage of the Chiefs' tragedy Sunday
FOX's show delivered the most appropriate reporting and analysis on the story
ESPN toned it down for the somber story, while the NFLN left much to be desired
We live in a Bayless-ian age of hyperbole where can-you-top-this snap judgments are delivered for maximum viewership and page views. So I want readers to know the following sentence was considered with deliberation and thought:
CBS's The NFL Today show disgraced itself on Sunday.
Viewers understand that networks have bills to pay and can tolerate mild product placement. But common sense and decency should always carry the day, and 24 hours after Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered Kasandra Perkins (the mother of their three-month old daughter, Zoe), The NFL Today opened its pregame show with a ham-handed live advertisement for Garmin that featured host James Brown hawking the product ("We would like to thank our friends from Garmin for helping navigate our open!") like a GPS-happy P.T. Barnum.
You didn't need a GPS to realize how far off the opening was and had CBS's producers tuned in to ESPN or the NFL Network earlier in the day, they would have seen a pair of networks exhibiting the proper sobriety at the top of a show following a double shooting involving an NFL player.
Had CBS headed straight into thoughtful analysis and reporting of the story after its opener, it would have saved itself from these kind of critiques. Instead, CBS compounded the shill job by opting not to talk about the murder-suicide for the next five minutes.
Think about that kind of editorial judgment. What did The NFL Today talk about? It talked about clothing. After analyst Bill Cowher mentioned what kind of ties he and Shannon Sharpe were wearing, viewers were treated to a chuckle-hut segment on the AFC playoff race. Then came a discussion on the NFC postseason picture. Finally, after an excruciating five minutes that should be shown in journalism schools across the country as an example of what not to do on a big story, Brown made the most awkward-of-awkward turns by saying, "All right, fellas, a little switch here."'
The host then gave a 90-second recap of the news from Kansas City before introducing reporter Lesley Visser, who was live at Arrowhead Stadium. Visser interviewed Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt on the field and did get off at least one good question: Why did the Chiefs management deem it inappropriate to wear Belcher's number on the players' jerseys? "Under the circumstances, we didn't think it was appropriate to honor just one and not the other," said Hunt, sounding much smarter than CBS yesterday.
But Visser was gone faster than Usain Bolt and followed by CBS information reporter Jason LaCanfora, who reported on the Panthers deferring to the Chiefs for a decision on whether the game should be played. That should have led into some kind of discussion on all the issues at play here, but the NFL Today instead gave viewers 60 seconds of "rallying a team" commentary. They then went to a feature on the death of Rick Majerus before ending the opening segment.
Thankfully, The NFL Today did have time to air a five-minute segment featuring Victoria's Secret model Lily Aldridge picking NFL games with its analysts. This is an annual tradition for the program, and much digital ink has been spilled on the once-a-year fiesta of 50-something men ogling over a 20-something model. Take a guess whose name was mentioned more on the NFL Today yesterday between Lily Aldridge and Kasandra Perkins? You already know the answer.
After the crew hawked the CBS-owned Victoria's Secret Fashion Show ("Oooh, Justin Bieber," Brown cooed excitedly of the guest list), the show embarked on its usual segments. Finally, about 40 minutes into the NFL Today, Brown led his analysts on a three-minute roundtable discussion that focused mostly on how the Chiefs' players would handle the circumstances (Brown did mention his involvement in a domestic violence organization and the role men could play in it). Rather than go to commercial on this thoughtful note, The NFL Today had Brown deliver a brutal segue to a conversation on the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game. Asked by USA Today Sports how CBS covered the Belcher story, CBS Sports executive vice-president/production Harold Bryant said, "We covered it very well." And so it goes.
Unlike ESPN, CBS did not have a graphic to commemorate the life of Kasandra Perkins (they did show a photo of Perkins and her daughter), nor did its viewers learn that Perkins was the cousin of the wife of Jamaal Charles (Alas, CBS would need more than a Garmin GPS to find those reporting details, as well.)
Instead, viewers were treated to business as usual at CBS on a day that was anything but. It was abysmal television and it left me disgusted as a viewer.
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the weekend. The first four entries will recap how some of the other pregame shows did on the murder-suicide story.)
1. While watching the 1 a.m. ET SportsCenter on Sunday morning, I was struck that ESPN had a graphic marking the birth and death of Belcher (1989-2012) but not one for Perkins. There's an argument to be made that Belcher is the person the ESPN audience is familiar with when news breaks, but it troubled me because the message, even if not overt, was that Belcher's life was more important than the life of Perkins. When I tweeted the observation out on Twitter, I was struck by the flood of responses and how angry people were by what they perceived as hero-worshiping coverage of Belcher. I think that's too strong a tag for ESPN's coverage overall but the larger point is there was no one at ESPN at that hour to speak up for Perkins.
Yesterday, on ESPN's Sunday Countdown, host Chris Berman began the show on the appropriate somber note, with the producers showing a live shot inside Arrowhead Stadium. Berman then sent the audience to reporter Ed Werder, a longtime journalist who had traveled to Kansas City. Werder provided what Werder always does: credible reporting. Given the news in Kansas City, ESPN, to its credit, canceled its comic segment with Frank Caliendo and its frivolous "Come On, Man" segments.
Though Berman at one point misidentified the age of the victim, the show paid her tribute with co-host Tom Jackson reminding viewers not to forget the 22-year-old Perkins. "We hear about what a great teammate he [Belcher] was and how close some of the guys were to him; he is in fact a guy who is a murderer, who has taken the life of Kasandra Perkins as a new mom and left a little girl without her parents," Jackson said. "So, you know, as we look at the outpouring of all of the sympathy that will go toward Jovan Belcher today, I would ask people to remember Kasandra Perkins, this 22-year-old new mom who lost her life to gun violence."
Countdown ended its opening segment with this graphic, and while I understand some won't be happy with the two running side by side, I appreciate them recognizing the life of Perkins. Why did they ultimately decide to show both Belcher and Perkins in a side-by-side graphic? "The production team from Countdown felt this was the approach they were most comfortable with in covering this sensitive story," said ESPN spokesperson David Scott.
2. Covering crime is not easy for a sports network, but it does reveal something about its journalistic DNA. As news broke Saturday morning from Kansas City, the NFL Network opted to continue airing its regular-scheduled programming (in this case, a repeat of Playbook AFC with Sterling Sharpe) while using the scroll at the bottom of the screen to update coverage. I kept popping back to the network, and the only hint of coverage I saw was someone from a makeshift studio giving a 60-second news brief. The Golf Channel's Damon Hack, who covered the NFL for years for the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, spoke for many viewers when he tweeted, "What 's up w NFL Network? S Sharpe is dancing? [Matt] Millen says he's going to show how P Manning "kills people" w play action? Can't be live."
NFLN's executives and its talent have always been aggressive with reporters to counter the notion that they are a house organ for the league. They've also hired journalists on the TV side, including Andrea Kremer to lead a group on player health and safety. So why did the network opt not to go to a live studio format on Saturday morning to cover a murder-suicide involving an NFL player?
Here's spokesperson Alex Riethmiller. "NFL Network became aware of the breaking news in Kansas City shortly before 8 a.m. PT (NFLN's studios are located in California) on Saturday. Immediately, a story went up on NFL.com, which was composed of information from NFL.com reporters Ian Rapoport and Albert Breer, as well as wire services. At 8 a.m. PT, NFL Network broke into regularly scheduled programming (a repeat of Playbook) to report the news. NFL Network continued to give live updates from the newsroom every 30 minutes, providing the latest news and developments."
This is true, though incredibly unsatisfactory. Yes, the network doesn't have live programming on Saturday mornings, but given how weighty and newsworthy this story was, you send an anchor in to host coverage. Watching the NFL Network air a repeat of a show with Sharpe and Millen brought to mind the Big Ten Network airing old football games during the live announcement of the Freeh Report. The network did open with the story on Sunday morning and sent reporter Randy Moss to Kansas City to provide live updates and reports. Riethmiller said Moss will remain in Kansas City as long as needed.
3. FOX NFL Sunday opened its broadcast with a live shot inside of Arrowhead Stadium and host Curt Menefee understanding the magnitude of the story. Said Menefee: "Sadness and heartache. Those are the emotions all around the NFL. This just one day after a murder-suicide by Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher." Menefee then told the audience that Fox would be bypassing its normal routine to focus on the story out of Kansas City. He gave viewers a surface briefing of the news before sending to game announcers Ron Pitts and Mike Martz, who were calling the Chiefs-Panthers game for Fox. (Credit Martz, though seeing the story mostly through the prism of a football coach, offered some eloquence on the situation.) Pitts and Martz were followed by Jay Glazer reporting the Chiefs would hold a moment of silence for victims of domestic violence, local and league-wide reaction to the shooting, and the disturbing news out of Cleveland that a Browns employee had committed suicide at that team's facility.
Menefee then did something that viewers should really appreciate: He mentioned that Kasandra Perkins was training to be a teacher, a detail no other network mentioned, and one that humanized the victim of a senseless crime. Co-host Terry Bradshaw then followed with a welcome note beyond the usually jockocracy stuff. "Let's not overstate this so much that we forget about the real importance here of what is left behind," Bradshaw said. "We have a three-month-old baby girl who has lost her momma and her daddy. Both of them are gone. Therein lies the tragedy."
Menefee then closed the segment: "When we come back, we'll talk football." Well done, Fox.