In the wake of the story of him allegedly bullying teammate Jonathan Martin and threatening his life, Miami Dolphins' guard Richie Incognito became one of the most sought-after interviews in sports. Fox's Jay Glazer was the guy who got him, landing an exclusive interview with Incognito this week that aired on the network's NFL pregame show Sunday (and later on Fox Sports Live); a transcript of the portions of the interview that aired can be found here. However, that interview proved controversial, given that Glazer has trained Incognito in MMA in the past and has been friendly with him. As seen in this Sports Business Daily piece, some journalists praised Glazer for the exclusive and for asking some hard questions, while others thought he was too soft and still others found this relationship to be a sad commentary on the state of sports journalism. How does Glazer's interview fit into the media landscape, and what does it tell us about journalism today?
There are several points in favour of what Glazer and Fox did here. First off, it's worth pointing out that Glazer wasn't completely compromised. Glazer's relationship with Incognito was not a financial one (he's stated that he didn't receive payment for training Incognito), and just about everyone covering a sport (particularly "insiders" like Glazer) works to become close to sources. Moreover, Glazer has stated (including on The Dan Patrick Show) that there were no preconditions to this interview. He was allowed to ask anything, and did; Incognito elected not to respond to some questions (including those on what coaches told him to do with Martin), and that's his right, but that's not on Glazer. Fox and Glazer also handled disclosure well, with Glazer informing viewers at the start of the piece that he had a relationship with Incognito. There's no dispute that Glazer isn't purely a neutral, objective journalist here, but that's no reason to say he can't do this interview and Fox can't air that. Viewers were informed of the relationship and then were allowed to judge for themselves if the interview was tough enough; that's a fair way to handle this.
Moreover, as Ed Sherman points out, these kinds of relationships are widespread, and they're sometimes necessary to getting an interview. Could someone else have questioned Incognito more intensely? Sure; as Richard Deitsch writes, this "wasn't Oriana Fallaci grilling Henry Kissinger in 1972 on the Vietnam War." It's worth noting that Glazer likely got this interview because of his relationship with Incognito, though, and Glazer has said that Incognito's PR team was leery of doing it even with that, favouring keeping silent. Incognito's not going to talk to a lot of the people who have blasted Glazer here, including Dave Zirin or Tom Ley. They make some valid points about the problems with these kinds of pieces, but there's still journalistic value in having Incognito's comments out there; he wasn't going to give them to a hostile or even a neutral-but-unknown reporter. Glazer got the scoop, prefaced it with an appropriate disclaimer and put it out there for people to judge.
Yes, it's less than ideal that a reporter covering a sport is involved with his subjects outside of that. If that leads to something of value in the end, though, that's not necessarily bad. It's interesting that some of the harshest criticism here came from Deadspin's Ley, who called the interview "a f***ing joke"; there are some parallels here to Gawker Media's oft-discussed approach of paying for particular stories, which carries some ethical problems, but can be valuable if it provides something useful that wouldn't otherwise emerge. On a less-controversial level are anonymous sources: they're less than ideal, certainly, and can lead to disasters, but a lot of important pieces wouldn't be published without them, so just about every outlet will use them under certain circumstances. As with Glazer-Incognito, not all important stories can be obtained solely with perfect, on-the-record interviews with dogged investigative reporters. Sometimes, the lines get murkier.
However, there are still questions here for Fox and Glazer. For one thing, many of the critiques of Glazer have focused on the lack of an aired question about Incognito being accused of molesting a young female volunteer with a golf club. Glazer told Bob Raissman of The New York Daily News he asked about that, but it was cut from the final interview that aired (Glazer interviewed Incognito for 45 minutes, but the eventual segment only ran six minutes.) That's fair enough on his part, but not including that is a suspect editing decision from Fox. (And if it wasn't good enough to air in such a short segment, why not release it and other footage from the interview online to make your reporter look better?) Moreover, while Fox got the exclusive, they may have lost some authority on the subject from how they handled it. Airing Incognito's side of the story is valuable, but the circumstances under which it was obtained weren't ideal journalistically, and it may get some viewers to wonder about Glazer's credibility when he has relationships with athletes he covers. Those relationships shouldn't disqualify Glazer from covering the NFL, but they should be disclosed (as they were here) so viewers can decide for themselves if the information he provides is objective enough or not.
Really, in some ways, this comes down to the perils of access, and that goes beyond Fox. As we saw when ESPN dropped out of their concussion documentary joint project with PBS, it's awfully difficult for NFL rightsholders to be too critical of the league. Similarly, Deadspin scooped ESPN on Manti Te'o (and ESPN made themselves look terrible afterwards by getting a Te'o "exclusive" that involved Jeremy Schaap just relaying what Te'o told him off camera) partly thanks to their lack of access; without a relationship with Te'o (or his team, or the sport he plays), they didn't feel they needed to get his side on the record before publishing. Relationships can make critical coverage dicey. However, that doesn't mean that all relationships should be nixed, as on-camera access still matters, and it doesn't mean that all no-access coverage is superior; sometimes it turns into criticism for the sake of criticism.
In the end, consumers are well-served; they can see Glazer's interview with Incognito thanks to his access, and they can read the criticism of it before deciding for themselves how to view it. Relationships like the Glazer-Incognito one certainly don't make for perfect journalism from an ethics standpoint, but they can advance the amount of information out there. Whether that information's fair or important is best left to the media consumer to decide.