Friday, August 22, 2014

The Media War Surrounding Tony Stewart

Harvick has been the most vocal in support of Stewart
Nothing has been more divisive in the aftermath of the accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park two weeks ago that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. than the ongoing news media coverage.  The drumbeat of media reports and opinions surrounding the story has not subsided.  In fact, it is picking up again with Stewart’s decision not to race this weekend at Bristol.

It has been open season on the mainstream media – stick-and-ball general sports types and news reporters alike – who have often been criticized in the past for covering auto racing only when someone is killed or there is a bad accident.  The criticism has been deserved in some cases, especially those painting Stewart with hairline trigger, ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

On the other side of the story are the regular NASCAR and auto racing reporters, who have been solidly in Stewart’s corner.  They have rallied around the driver with stories “about the real Tony Stewart only we know.”

Marty Smith at ESPN, the Charlotte newspaper reporters and USA Today’s racing writers have all been very vocal in their defense of Stewart.  But then it was just a month ago that USA Today nominated Stewart to run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, stopping just short of anointing him auto racing’s savior.

"With major-league auto racing engaged in a desperate struggle for relevance across every series, Stewart, 43, is among the sport's brightest hopes as an emerging kingmaker…” Nate Ryan wrote in a July 23 column.  “…There is no one better suited for ensuring another century of success at the Brickyard than Stewart, who uniquely blends an appreciation for its heritage and history with a sharply honed business acumen…”

The regular NASCAR reporters are deeply invested in Stewart, along with the other star drivers of the sport.  The reporters walk a fine line between getting the story and upsetting or alienating drivers such as Stewart or Kyle Busch and often treat them with kid gloves.  Be critical of a driver or upset him – and it may be awhile before you get another interview.

The drivers themselves, for the most part, have been reserved, refusing to comment or saying they don’t know what happened.  Stewart isn’t talking with anyone outside his inner circle and that includes other drivers.  As a result, most have taken a position similar to Carl Edwards.

"I have been around racing my whole life," Edwards said in Michigan. "I don't know what happened. It's not right for me to discuss what happened because I don't know.”

Only a few drivers have stepped up to support Stewart in the press, one being Jimmie Johnson.

“I know what I believe happened,” Johnson said.  “I think it was completely an accident. In time, we'll see when Tony's able to talk and where things go from there."

Most outspoken on Stewarts's behalf has been his friend and teammate, Kevin Harvick.

“You have just a lot of unknowledgeable people reporting on a situation that know absolutely nothing about racing,” Harvick said before the Michigan race. “It's just really unfortunate, the perception that has been given to him. I know he'll stay strong and fight, and he'll get the right people and do all the right things.  That's the part that's bothered me the most, is just the poor misrepresentation on the media side for him.”

After the race, in which he finished second, an increasingly frustrated Harvick had more to say.

“I think the hardest part for me has been the way the whole media thing has shaken down.  It's an absolute tragic accident that has happened on both sides of the fence. You have one young man who is dead.

“You've got a guy that we know and are part of an organization that is just getting a lot of just crazy press."

There’s a danger, however, in simply writing off all the media coverage as “crazy press.”  Sure, there’s been some of that, especially by the broadcast media in the days immediately following the accident.  But much of the coverage in the past week has come from some of the country’s leading sports columnists.  They may not cover racing on a daily basis, but they’re knowledgeable about the sport and provide an insight on what many people are thinking.  They shouldn’t be ignored by Stewart and his confidants - or anyone else who cares about racing.

For instance, some might consider the following “crazy.”  But it is from respected Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander.

"…Could Stewart have avoided Ward? Did he want to? Was he trying to teach the kid a little ‘‘attitude’’ lesson? Not kill him but scare him? Maybe a little sideswipe and some face grit?  We may never know...

"…Sports are all about pushing rules to the limit, hitting the corners, tiptoeing down the line, timing the starter’s gun, grabbing, pushing, hitting, intimidating. And doing it all without getting called for a penalty or harming your team. And taking your medicine when you do get flagged by the refs.

"That’s how sports have to be played at the highest levels because the edges of the game are where victory lies, where beauty lies.

"But there’s something else that has to be at work. It’s called morality. There is a point beyond which you don’t go. It has nothing to do with the written rules of the game. It has nothing to do with penalties or fines. It has to do with the fact you’re human, and there are things known as sportsmanship and, yes, empathy.

"It was probably inevitable that something such as this tragic death would occur sooner or later. As Ward’s father said coldly after the race, Stewart was by far the best driver on the little-town track, and he could have prevented the mess. Right?

"Call it a perfect storm, if you like. An arrogant, 43-year-old star chillin’ in a small-time race, doing it like a hobby, teaching an upstart local kid a big lesson.

"Oh, what a lesson.  For Stewart most of all.

Strong words, but a long way from crazy.  And many in the mainstream media are now saying Stewart shouldn’t be allowed to race until he tells his side of the story.  This is from noted Associated Press sports columnist Paul Newberry.

"Until he (Stewart) talks openly and honestly about what was going through his mind when he came around a turn and saw – or maybe didn't see – 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. standing in the track, NASCAR officials should not allow Stewart back into the ride that pays his bills.

“Stewart very plausibly could have been trying to avoid Ward.  Now, it's time to confront the truth.

“Smoke, tell us what happened.”

A logical request.  And there’s the conundrum. 

It makes no legal sense for Stewart to speak publicly until the ongoing criminal investigation is concluded.  Then there is the very real possibility of a civil case being brought against Stewart by the Ward family, something that could drag out for several years.  If Stewart’s legal team has its way, he would probably never address the events of that night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

At some point, however, Stewart will have to start to fight back as Harvick says.  He'll have to overrule his legal team and speak to the media.  Crazy or not. 

1 comment:

  1. nice article. it's nice to see an objective on this subject.