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Media Meltdowns

Bengals Beat Writers Fail To Do Their Jobs

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On Tuesday, the Cincinnati Bengals made potential starting left guard Jackson Carman available to the press during the team’s open locker room session. This was something of a big deal, because Carman had not spoken to the media since Defector reported in April that he had been accused of rape by a teenaged girl while he was a player at Clemson. And yet, not one of the NFL reporters who clustered around Carman on Tuesday bothered to ask even one perfunctory question about the rape allegation. On Wednesday, The Athletic’s Bengals beat writers, Jay Morrison and Paul Dehner, spent nearly 10 minutes of their podcast, called Hear That Podcast Growlin, trying to explain that, actually, it was reasonable and also not that big of a deal that Morrison and the rest of the Bengals beat writers ignored the elephant in the room.

As Defector reported in April, a 17-year-old girl went to the Clemson Police Department in 2020 to report that Carman had raped her. The incident, in which she said Carman took her to his Clemson student housing and “forced himself” on her, took place in May 2018, when she was 15 and Carman was 18.

“He wouldn’t stop,” she told police in her first interview. “And I told him no. I was like please don’t do this, and he did it anyway.”

In September of 2020, the county solicitor decided not to charge Carman. The Bengals have so far declined to comment on Defector’s reporting; at the draft in April, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor repeatedly declined to address the allegation, or talk about what the team knew about Carman and the allegation before he was drafted. The team did not make Carman available to comment before Tuesday, and he has never addressed the allegation publicly.

So it was strange when reporters, whose job it is to ask questions in the public interest, even and especially if they suspect they will not get satisfactory answers, declined to do their jobs. Instead, the reporters asked ingratiating questions about how much Carman is “looking forward to going out there and winning the left guard job” and if he “relishes” that challenge. His answers: a lot, and yes.

It is embarrassing that not a single reporter cared enough about the rape allegation to do the bare minimum and ask about it. But things got even more embarrassing when Morrison and Dehner went on their podcast and delivered tortured justifications for why they totally avoided the topic. It’s a masterclass in spewing flimsy and often contradictory excuses with total confidence and at great length. If you want to listen, the conversation picks up around the 33:40 mark.

It opens with Dehner saying reporters didn’t even expect to see Carman during training camp, that he assumed “anytime there was going to be an open locker room that he would be gone or hiding, whatever the word is.” He acknowledges that people want to know why no one asked about the rape allegation, and then throws it to Morrison for a breakdown. Morrison says that because he first went to speak with other players in the locker room, it took him a moment to realize that Carman was speaking with media members. He said he got the the scrum after the interview began and assumed that the topic of the rape allegation was deemed off limits by the team flacks, or that someone else had already asked about it. He said:

It was an assumption on my part, and we all know what happens when you assume, but because I got in late, I assumed that there had been ground rules that were “Hey, he’s gonna only talk about football. He’s not gonna talk about the other stuff.” Or the other stuff was taken, addressed early, and then they moved on to football. And so I just jumped in on the football conversation and took it that direction, and didn’t realize that it that it had not been addressed at all. And it’s not. I know some people were are saying, you know, you’re afraid to ask the question. It’s not so much afraid of that. What you don’t want to do there’s, there’s a nuance there where if a guy is talking and you’re getting what you need, you don’t want to ask something that’s going to shut it down for everybody else. And especially if you missed the beginning part— hate that, when you’re doing an interview and someone comes in late and they start asking questions that are already been answered, already been asked. So I was just kind of at a disadvantage there having come in late.

Jay Morrison

I’m no expert on locker room decorum. I was in a pro locker room exactly once five years ago, when I got credentialed for a Mets game so I could ask players about the great dildo mystery of 2017. (Due to some dubious flack logic, however, I was allowed only in the press box and not in the actual locker room, and so the only Met I was able to ask about the dildo was then-manager Terry Collins, who gave me a laugh, and then some unidentified comms person gave me a death glare.) So while I may not have extensive locker room experience, I have several close friends and colleagues who do. They tell me the excuses offered above are pretty weak!

Questions are repeated all the time and it’s not a big deal. If a reporter really wants to make sure he gets an answer to an important question, he asks the question. And though the team’s PR flack can try to set little rules for reporters, it’s reporters’ jobs to ignore those rules. Further, if a reporter is close with and considerate of his fellow beat writers (and Morrison goes out of his way to say they are a “very friendly” group), then that reporter is probably friendly enough to give a colleague a little nudge upon joining the huddle and ask quietly, “Hey, did anyone ask about the rape allegation?” If the answer is yes, the reporter is off the hook. If it’s no, he asks it.

But then, Morrison gets to his real argument. It’s not actually about all that stuff I just went on and on about, he says. It’s really about how there were no charges and how Carman is good at football:

We’ve discussed this before, too, where there was never any charges. He’s well within his rights to play football and he is such a—going back to that top five story thing of training camp, I mean, he is right there at the top. That is the big position battle, the big question, and I just kind of rolled with it. And stuck to the football part of it and more kind of how the sausage is being made for listeners. […] But that’s the reason that that wasn’t addressed at all in the story, and it kind of did just focused on the football aspect and trying to win the starting job.

Jay Morrison

At this point, Dehner jumps back in:

Yeah, it’s a tough spot because, I mean, you want to get that “no comment.” I mean, that’s what you would have gotten out of it. I mean, it’s too simple of a thing they have, the stance they have taken, that, you know, they obviously have talked about with Jackson about taking. The fact that he was there standing there was was not a mistake. The fact that PR was there—they obviously were prepared for this potentially happening. There was going to be a “no comment.” It’s not a matter of not wanting to ask. These questions need to be asked and I hate that they didn’t get asked yesterday. And for all of us, that stinks that that didn’t happen.

It stinks. If only there were something someone could have done about it! In the lines above, Dehner pulls off a handy rhetorical flourish: To assert in one breath that it is important to ask about the rape allegation, while wholly dismissing the possibility that doing that exact thing could have any value in the next. He continues:

But you know, you’re right, Jay. The other part of it is even without that, you do have this guy as a relevant aspect of the football conversation in a big way. And, you know, that doesn’t make the story about what he’s doing right now a puff piece because it isn’t a takedown.

Paul Dehner

Does nobody know what a “takedown” is anymore? Asking a basic question about a newsworthy topic and attempting to situate that answer, regardless of what it is, as honestly and clearly as possible is not a takedown.

This allegation matters. What Carman says about it matters. Maybe, on some level, he even wants to talk about it. But Morrison’s story ignored all of this completely in favor of blandly describing Carman’s competitive spirit and “his enjoyment of making and eating pizza with cauliflower crust and toppings such as spinach, low-fat mozzarella and plant-based sausage.” Riveting.

Dehner again:

It sucks that that question wasn’t given an answer. You know, that or that it wasn’t asked and that we didn’t get whatever “no comment” we were gonna get. I wish that was more a part of it. But it would have been a minor throwaway line in a bigger picture about, you know, look from a football perspective to this team, you know, it’s still a very relevant storyline. I you know, it’s a touchy situation. It’s hard.

Paul Dehner

Dehner admitting that the rape allegation was only ever going to be a “throwaway line” in a bigger story about football basically says it all. The horse is dead, yet for some reason they keep beating. Dehner says:

These are questions that he can “no comment” for the rest of his life. The Bengals aren’t doing anything, the Bengals are standing by the no charges thing, they’re not going to comment. You know, next time there’s availability if I’m there, I will make sure that it gets asked. But sometimes, like you said […] sometimes it does happen that way. It sucks. And I hate that that’s the way it goes down but sometimes it does happen.

Paul Dehner

Why does it happen? Is this not something completely in the control of reporters? The pressure for beat writers to maintain access so they can do their jobs is real, and that deserves recognition. But if maintaining those jobs means total reliance on locker room access, or if that access is so tenuous that it could be cut off by asking a second-year potential starting guard to talk about being accused of raping a 15-year-old when he was in college, then what’s the point? There’s something depressingly familiar about seeing people accept that what is will always be, even though they themselves have agency to make it different.

At the end of the podcast discussion, Morrison asserts that there will be plenty of other opportunities to speak with Carman about the rape allegation, and to dig deeper into what the Bengals knew about it when they drafted him.

“This is open locker room two of endless,” he said. “There will be, as you said, more chances to approach him with something like that. And in doing it in a one-on-one session, you might get more from him as opposed to when there’s 567 recorders in his face.”

I hope Morrison and Dehner do get around to asking Carman some important questions. And if they don’t, maybe one of the many other reporters who spoke to Carman on Tuesday and filed unremarkable stories about his competition for the starting left guard spot can step up to the plate.

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