McHenry fallout: Peeping-Tom journalism will have TV personalities on best behavior

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana.


This is a guarantee: Every personality in TV sports, big or small, now will be the nicest people in the world in the wake of what happened to Britt McHenry.

Chris Berman will bring flowers to the IRS auditor who will be dissecting his taxes. After making a trip to renew his driver’s license only to hear he is missing a form, Bob Costas will flash a big smile and tell the DMV clerk, “Oh, you’re so kind.”

And you can sure if a big TV sports star gets a car towed, he or she will merrily pay the fee and depart by telling the person in the booth, “Have a lovely day.”

Nobody will dare make the same mistake McHenry did in verbally abusing a towing attendant last week. An apparent edited videotape went viral, and ESPN responded by suspending her for a week.

The reaction on social media was even more extreme. I saw a tweet that read, “She needs to be smacked.” And there was much worse.

In an instant, McHenry, who barely registered on most sports viewers’ radar prior to last week, became a cause célèbre. Her story even was the subject of debate on the Sunday morning talk shows. I mean, Cokie Roberts vilified McHenry.

The whole saga was depressing from a journalistic perspective. It was yet another example of how peeping-Tom journalism has us all sliding down a messy slippery slope to a truly terrible abyss.

Now to be clear, McHenry’s behavior was deplorable, straight out of “Mean Girls.” She had no business ridiculing the clerk’s appearance or educational background. Not everyone is fortunate to be born blonde and have the chance to go to graduate school at Northwestern like McHenry.

Yet McHenry didn’t have her tirade over the air. It was a private moment. She lost it in what clearly was a frustrating situation. If you can’t relate on some level, then you’re not being honest.

One tweeter came to McHenry’s defense: “Haven’t we all cussed out a towing company? Tow companies are one step from Satan, aren’t they?”

Again, people things in the heat of the moment that they wish they could take back. Much also was made of the fact McHenry pulled out the “I’m-on-TV” card. Well, if you think she’s the first broadcast personality to use that line, you need to get a clue. Virtually everyone has invoked his or her media status at some point.

McHenry, though, had the misfortune of having her bad behavior captured on what likely is an edited video. Then it went viral. If only she had taken public transportation that night.

My initial reaction was to ask, “Does this story qualify as news?” Barely anyone had heard of her before this happened. Why should anyone care?

Tom Hoffarth of the Los Angeles Daily News had a bit more pointed way of posing the question:

“Who, again, is Britt McHenry, and why should we care that she’s acting like a snot wad to a tow-truck company employee? Sorry, the excuse that ‘this is the world of video in which we live in’ doesn’t even apply here.”

Intellectually, I know what happened is news, especially after ESPN suspended her for a week because of the social media uproar. As it was explained to me, ESPN tells its talent they represent the company at all times, not just when they are on the air. Apparently, that includes dealing with a towing company.

Jason McIntyre of Big Lead responded to my question with a couple of Tweets: “Pretty person on TV says mean, vile things to minimum wage worker. If it bleeds, it leads?”

And: “I’d guess 80% of largest papers in the country picked it up. Top 10 traffic day of ’15 for us.”

Indeed, as one reader wrote to me, “We love seeing people behave badly.”

It really makes no sense to rail about peeping-Tom journalism. It’s a reality in today’s new media age. Just ask Ray Rice and Donald Sterling. Fair or not, unflattering video and audio will continue to get leaked to sites who will quickly post at just a tad under the speed of sound.

The McHenry flap shows in dramatic fashion how everyone is fair game in the age of cell phones and other forms of sophisticated video. They all need to be on their best behavior, because one bad moment could shatter a career.

Simply put, if Joe Buck is into his second hour waiting for his entree, he will pull over the waiter and say, “I just want you to know how much I appreciate your fine service.”

One thought on “McHenry fallout: Peeping-Tom journalism will have TV personalities on best behavior

  1. Ed,
    While I understand that “Peeping Tom” journalism takes us down a slippery slope there is this immutable fact: if you are a public person, you end up giving your ability to be rude in public. Why? Because you are representing more than yourself. Having been an NBA team-employed announcer for more than two decades, I know that I represent my team and its brand. An angry public outburst, even if justified, can color a fan’s perception of the team I work for. So in public, I make sure that I can appropriately represent my team if I am recognized or approached about my team.
    If you want to be in this business, losing a little bit of your privacy is a necessary tradeoff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *