And so it begins.
Since throwing his last pass of the 2009 season, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has endured a storm of media criticism and public outcry unparalleled in Steelers history.
Roethlisberger rehabilitation has been underway for some time, but it will shift into high gear as he prepares for his first post-suspension game. The role the media plays in this process will be interesting to watch.
Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower has commented on the press’ performance in the Roethlisberger story, complementing the Tribune Review’s Carl Prine and the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac for their rock-solid old school journalistic approach to the story, and it has condemned various members of the national media for distorting the facts in their stories.
Now it is time to examine how the media will help, or hinder, Roethlisberger’s ability to resuscitate his public image.
The Press and Relations Between Public Figures
The personal relationship between the press corps and the figures they cover has a tremendous impact on the coverage that the celebrities and/or politicians receive. Elliot King and Michael Schudson. documented this phenomenon in the Columbia Review of Journalism in 1987 in the article “Ronald Reagan and the Press: The Myth of the Great Communicator.”
As Steel Curtain Rising has commented before, King and Schudson's argument deals with politics, but is readily applied to sports.
Bill Cowher had an often contentious relationship with the press, at least the Pittsburgh press, and one can see this in the fact that the tone of Cowher’s coverage shifted negative very quickly the moment things got rough in the dark days of 1998 and 1999.
Going outside of Steelers Nation, Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe provide another example. While space and time do not permit the extensive research needed to prove this point, consider the following:
- Both were number one picks, and neither lived up to his potential.
- Bledsoe got his team to a Super Bowl once, and made a huge contribution coming off the bench in the 2001 AFC Championship against the Steelers.
- Vinny barely sniffed a Super Bowl in his career
Nonetheless, assessments of Bledsoe’s career tend to be far more negative than those of Vinny Testaverde (remember the “Vinny Testaverde is a magician on the football field” United Way ads?)
These observations are far from definitive. They don’t need to be to see that the press regards Testaverde as “a good guy” and regards Bledsoe with far less affection.
Ben and the Press
And so it is with Ben Roethlisberger. He has never been a favorite in the press room.
This much was obvious before Ben was named in a criminal sexual assault allegation in March of 2010.
Despite being the first rookie to go 15-0 as a starter, despite being the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, despite bouncing back from the motorcycle accident and appendectomy, Ben was written off as a "game manager" early in his career.
Even after he led the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, ESPN’s Trent Dilffer rated Roethlisberger as a third tier quarterback.
Ben seemed to both aware and unconcerned with his poor press relations, as his “I ain’t gonna get no Rooney award” comment revealed last year.
Ben’s apparent ambivalence towards his relationship with the press is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Meet Bob Smizik Media Consultant
Writing back in May, the Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizik reported that Ben’s agent had reached out to several in the Pittsburgh media seeking suggestions on how his client might begin “reaching out to the fan base through the media.” Smizik had not been contacted, but he offered his two cents, including:
- Provide television interviews via Pittsburgh’s stations
- Make himself available to the media
- “he needs to look reporters in the eye and be engaged. He needs to call people by their first name when he answers a question”
- Grant one-on-one interviews
Smizik denied that he wanted Roethlisberger “suck up to the press” by conceded that “Roethlisberger needs to use the media -- and the media likes to be used in such a manner -- to win back the fans.”
Big Ben, Sticking to Smizik’s Script
Who knows if Ben or one of this representatives read Smizik’s column, but they’re certainly sticking to his script.
Shortly after he joined Steelers OTA’s, Ben granted two exclusive interviews with Pittsburgh TV stations. He did not agree to newspaper interviews, but Ed Bouchette shared with PG Plus readers that made an effort to say “hello” and later granted an off the record chat.
When training camp began, Ben continued to engage the media, and they took notice. On the day that players arrived at St. Vincent’s, reporters were at pains to make sure that everyone knew that how polite Ben was and that Roethlisberger made sure to apologize for bumping into people as he removed his luggage from his car.
None of this is to suggest that either Ben’s attempts to become a better person or the media’s willingness to accept his overtures are insincere.
I really do hope, for his sake, that Ben is making good on his pledge to live a better life. For their part, the media's first point of reference is always going to be what they see day-to-day.
But the vast majority of Steelers Nation is never going to cross paths with Ben Roethlisberger in a meaningful way. And that means that the only glimpses we’ll catch of “the new Ben” will come through the eyes of the professional press that covers him on a daily basis.
And, as Smizik pointed out for us, Ben’s new found amicability with the press helps ensure that the “new Ben” is the Ben that the public sees.