Unquiet Riot

Media come out slugging after the NBA brawl in Detroit, throw in sucker punches, 'moral' lessons

Like pissed-off small forward Ron Artest charging into a beered-up crowd, the NBA riot stormed its way onto the news pages of Gotham's papers last week. And it stayed there for days.

The November 19 fight, in which a scuffle at the end of an Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game ended with Artest and two Pacers teammates slugging it out with fans, landed on the New York Post's cover twice—"Hoop Hell" was followed by "Banned," which reported the NBA's record suspensions of the players involved.

The Daily News led with "That's Brawl, Folks!" one day and an exclusive interview with Ron Artest Sr. the next: "Don't Hate My Son," he begged. Over the week, the News' news pages featured at least eight pieces about the brawl, and the editorial writers also weighed in. "Arrest Artest" was their suggestion.

It's no surprise the tabs feasted on the images of Artest and Co. furiously pummeling their paying customers. But more (ahem) respectable publications got their licks in too. Newsday threw Artest on its cover ("NBA Smackdown") and editorialized—somewhat obviously—that "players should stay out of the stands." Even The New York Times reported Artest's lengthy suspension on the front page on November 22.

The national networks didn't shy away either. Good Morning America, The Early Show, and Today all stayed on the beatdown beat for days, with the riot leading the headlines at times. NBC's Today interviewed Artest himself. CBS Early Show co-host René Syler said at one point, "We can't stop talking about this this morning."

Morning shows, however, are rarely mistaken for hard-news vehicles. The networks' evening broadcasts, on the other hand, do take themselves seriously. And they took the fight story seriously as well. CBS devoted coverage on consecutive nights. Nightline's November 22 edition was titled "Brawl." Tom Brokaw's November 23 show had the story as its "In Depth" segment, while Peter Jennings took a "Closer Look."

After some exit polls suggested that "moral values" trumped Iraq or the economy in Middle America on Election Day, it seemed as though the media had their antennae up for the moral of the Artest story. Post columnist Andrea Peyser attacked Artest's "whiny brat" attitude and what she called his false victimhood. Nightline faulted the growing divide between players and fans. CNN's Tucker Carlson saw a possible symptom of Hollywood's being out of touch with American values. The Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson thought the brawl reflected the arrogance of George W. Bush's " 'bring 'em on' society."

"There is a long history of professional athletes occasionally engaging in some rather nasty fights," ABC's Jennings said, as only he could. "But the decision by several Indiana Pacers to charge into the stands certainly crossed the line, as the NBA commissioner, David Stern, said."

The line Artest crossed, it seemed, was the one that allowed media—all media, from the tabs to the custodians of "serious journalism"—to apply their cultural critique of choice to the brawl. What's worth a "Closer Look" is why a similar moral lens is not cast on the war in Iraq, the scenes of mad shoppers trampling each other on the first day of the Christmas shopping season, or other stories not featuring sweaty athletes.


Bench press

If you're not getting to read Rush & Molloy or Lowdown in time for the first watercooler chat of the day, you can blame the Pressmen's Union. At least, that's what the Daily News is doing. Last week, the News was back in federal court claiming that its members are sabotaging the paper's presses in New Jersey and thus delaying distribution of the tabloid.

The union denies wrongdoing, blaming the problems on the equipment, which—as one printer told the Post—"sucks." In its court filing, the Daily News dubbed the machines used in its plant "state-of-the-art." But those are the same presses that worked so poorly that News owner Mort Zuckerman sued the manufacturer for alleged fraud in 1997. (The machinery has been upgraded since then.)

The city's pressmen have been at the wrong end of these lawsuits before. Before agreeing to a new contract in September, the Times accused union members of a work slowdown. The Post made similar claims. In the '90s, federal civil rights monitors went after both the union and the Times for failing to diversify their mainly white, male ranks.

As recently as September, the Daily News went to court to get a judge's backing for an arbitrator's ruling barring the union from a work slowdown that the newspaper said workers were threatening. The difference between the pressmen's current tussle and the earlier court fights is that no contract is on the table: The pressmen's current deal is good until March 2010. The News' suit implies that the pressmen are upset over discipline meted out by circulation veep James Brill, who used to be the paper's shop steward for the union that delivers newspapers for the dailies.


Powell: The sequel

A few days after announcing his resignation and enjoying near universal praise for being the one sane cop in Dubya's wacky town, Colin Powell raised red flags—and eyebrows—over Iran's alleged efforts to join nuclear bombs with long-range missiles and make life in the ho-hum Middle East a little more interesting.

Some scribes noted the déjà vu feeling of Powell accusing an oil-rich country of WMD misdeeds: The Times' Steven Weisman saw an "eerie repetition of" and Great Britain's Independent detected "distinct parallels with" the run-up to the Iraq war. The déjà got vu-dier the next day, when U.S. officials noted the intelligence was unverified and single-source. Is this a rerun?

The diplomatic tussle with Tehran stirred memories of two juicy stories from days of yore that seem to have disappeared. Wasn't onetime Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi accused of passing secrets to Iran? And wasn't a Pentagon analyst accused of passing U.S. material on Iran to Israel?

Recent references to those two stories have been few and far between in the mainstream press, but at last report, the two cases were subjects of FBI investigations. The FBI refused to comment.

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