These are embarrassing days to be an Alaska journalist.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post matter of factly reported that “in mid-October police questioned (Johnny) Manziel after witnesses saw the (Cleveland Browns) quarterback allegedly beating his girlfriend, Colleen Crowley.”
The story appeared only four days after this website broke the news that the biggest sporting event in the Alaska — the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — had its own Manziel/Ray Rice/Kurt Busch/Jose Reyes. And, in a decision that can only be described as gutless, withheld the name of the victim of musher Travis Beals.
This despite the fact the Beals made Manziel look like a slacker. Beals had already been convicted once in connection with a domestic violence incident involving his fiancée in Seward, stood accused in court documents of breaking her arm, and was facing new charges of domestic violence in a Palmer court this month.
Worse than one website’s pussyfooting around the victim’s name, however, has been the willingness of most of the rest of Alaska journalism to ignore the story in its entirety. Or only rather reluctantly join the coverage with the suggestion “Iditarod critics” have made domestic violence an issue.
Why the need for some excuse?
That is a question best left to readers to answer. But one undeniable reality is that the journalistic behavior in the 49th state stands in stark contrast to how domestic violence cases involving professional athletes have been reported by the media everywhere Outside.
Alaska’s only real pros
And make no mistake, Beals is a professional athlete. He won $15,500 in prize money for this year finishing 18th in what has been called Alaska’s Superbowl. He won $29,000 in 2014 for finishing 11th in and collecting the Horizon Lines Most Improved Musher Award.
Maybe, God forbid, a majority of Alaskans don’t want to know Beals’ struggles with his temper and lashes out. Maybe they don’t want to know Alaska women face the same or worse threats from domestic and sexual violence as women elsewhere. Maybe they want to be shielded from the idea that an Alaska event carried to international fame on the backs of two tough women, Iditarod champs Libby Riddles and the late Susan Butcher, welcomed a male entrant with a history of abusing women.
This could well be. The author here freely admits he didn’t name Beals’ victim — another Iditarod musher — because he didn’t want to take the anticipated heat from angry Alaskans. Craigmedred.news is a tiny, one-man operation that lacks the resources and support of the state’s largest news operations, the Alaska Dispatch News, with its backing from a multimillionaire owner, and KTUU.com, with its Outside owners.
Plenty of heat was expected to come from Iditarod fans upset about seeing any story at all even if the victim wasn’t named, and it did. A lot of the reaction was hot air, but it stung to read a Facebook post from Sebastian Schnuelle, an Iditarod.com reporter on the trail:
“Craig seems to feel the need for being a self-proclaimed bearer of bad news. As he wrote himself, it has cost him his precious job. He is entitled to that, yet I wonder why and what good it does to the sport of mushing as a whole,” Schnuelle wrote. “Each and every person chooses what to focus on in life. Some prefer to focus on the negative, Craig seems to be one of those, specially when it comes to the case of Iditarod. Others try to surround themselves with positive people and positive news and there are plenty of those surrounding the last Great Race.”
I respect Schnuelle for his boots-on-the-ground reporting of the Iditarod. He gets out on the trail on a snowmachine in order to provide the kind coverage other reporters are afraid to even attempt. He provides insight into the battle from the battleground, but sadly he was not trained as a journalist.
Not a pretty world
The job of a journalist is not to focus solely on positive people and positive news, but to provide an accurate view of the world. Sometimes the accurate view isn’t pretty. Sometimes a journalist is forced to tell stories people might not want to know.
The late Martin Luther King once observed that “cowardice asks the question: Is it safe? Expediency asks the question: Is it politic? Vanity asks the question: Is it popular? But conscience asks the question: Is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular — but one must take it simply because it is right.”
It’s easy to quote that passage. It’s damn hard to live by it.
I tried my best, and at the end of the day I still took the safe way out on at least part of the story. So be it. I chose not to name the victim, though I knew full well how domestic violence involving professional athletes was and is being reported elsewhere.
In all of the cases mentioned above — Manziel, Rice, Busch and Reyes — the victim of the domestic assault was plainly and simply identified by national media. For those unfamiliar with professional sports other than the Iditarod, Manziel and Rice are (or were) players in the National Football League. Busch is a stock-car driver competing in NASCAR. And Reyes is a shortstop for Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies.
What those professional athletes did and who they did it to was considered news all across the U.S.. Somehow, though, things are different in Alaska. Somehow it would appear the failings of our most visible professional athletes are to be weighed against, as Schnuelle put it, “what good (the story) does to the sport of mushing as a whole.”
Special treatment for Iditarod?
I understand the Schnuelle sentiment.
Truth be told, I was actually hoping to avoid breaking the Beals story on this website, hoping some other news organization would take the lead, hoping against hope that some other journalists would consider it news that an Alaska dog race that owes its international fame to women let a once-convicted abuser compete in the race while he was facing new charges of domestic violence stemming from, of all things, a fight that courts records say started over a “dog team.”
When it became obvious no one else was willing to do the story, it went up (with the victim unnamed) on this site on the weekend of what used to be “Journalism Week” in Alaska. In the silence that followed, you could have heard a spruce-needle drop.
The Valley Frontiersman, a small newspaper that makes its home not far from the headquarters of the Iditarod Trail Committee, did bravely pick up the story three days later and added some new details. But the state’s major media — the media that spends tens of thousands of dollars on coverage that glorifies the Iditarod as heroic — remained silent.
Frontiersman editor Matt Tunseth, in an editorial, confessed to his own reservations, much like mine, about coverage on his way to clearly outlining the journalistic responsibility to do the job.
“We believe this story has major ramification for both the Iditarod and Alaska as a whole,” he wrote. “Iditarod officials had an opportunity to speak out against abuse within their sport and they chose not to. Their reasons are only known to them, but whether it was incompetent investigation or a willful desire to keep the domestic violence charges out of the public eye, those officials failed to send a clear message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated in their sport.”
After that story appeared, I queried a media friend as to why everyone seemed so reluctant to report on Alaska’s version of Ray Race. Not long after that, Alaska Public Media did a story about “questions over Iditarod “rules.”
“Beals is accused of an Assault 4 misdemeanor, causing fear of injury, over an incident in Willow,” wrote APM Iditarod reporter, Zachariah Hughes. “The case was still pending in January when Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley learned about it. According to Hooley, the organization didn’t ignore the charges at the time but was told by its legal counsel to wait for a court ruling.
“‘We feel, and have felt all along, that we need to let the legal process complete itself,’ Hooley said by phone. ‘Then we’ll have decisions to make based upon that.'”
The fear of injury?
The story ignored court records in which the victim told troopers that Beals had previously broken her arm, as well as the file from the pending case which made the Willow incident sound like something more than just “causing fear of injury.”
According to the case file, the victim was first struck by the door of a truck as Beals tried to flee the cabin the couple shared near Willow. Apparently worried about what she took to be his aggressive behavior, the victim then fled inside and locked Beals out.
“Beals entered the cabin through a window and grabbed (the victim) in a headlock, picking her up off the couch, physically escorted her to the door and pushed her out of the cabin into the yard, causing (her) to be placed in fear of imminent physical injury,” the court file says. “Beals grabbed (her) personal belongings after throwing her out of the house, including but not limited to a Samsung Galaxy tablet with an approximate value of $200, and threw the items onto the ground in the yard breaking the Samsung tablet.”
In other states, if this sort of behavior involved a professional athlete, it would make the news within days if not hours. In Alaska, when it involved an Iditarod musher, the story went unreported for four months though multiple reporters were aware of what happened, and even after the story surfaced, the mainstream media ignored it.
KTVA-TV, the official channel of the Iditarod, finally reported the story on Wednesday night in what was as much Iditarod press release as news story. The story had Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley saying that “had they known sooner, things might’ve been different. He said the trail committee doesn’t have enough resources to conduct background checks on everyone who applies to the race.”
The trail committee, however, was never asked to conduct background checks on everyone. It was asked to review the case of Beals, who was pending trail. His bad behavior was well known in the mushing community. Iditarod asked its lawyers for advice on how to handle the case, or so it says. Is it really possible there’s a law firm in Alaska where the lawyers don’t know how to use Courtview to check for priors?
There are a whole lot of questions serious journalists should be asking here, including how a musher by the name of Brennan Norden from Kasilof got banned from the race for life if it is so hard to ban mushers from the race.
Why aren’t these questions being asked of the state’s biggest professional sport? Again, it is best left to the reader to decide.
The trust issue
As a journalist involved in how all of this his unfolded, the truly troubling aspect rests in the willingness of the state’s journalistic powers to ignore the story for whatever reason . Their inaction undermines the credibility of every journalist — including this one — working in the 49th state.
If the Alaska media is willing to let develop even a hint of an idea that it is afraid to report a story that involves an Iditarod musher assaulting his fiancée — and that might be the most reasonable conclusion an objective observer would draw — what else is the Alaska media unwilling to report about Iditarod?
The race has in past years come under attack from animal-rights activists as cruel. Alaska journalists, myself included, have repeatedly defended the event.
The value of that defense rests in the credibility of the journalists involved. And if Alaska journalists have in reality become nothing but propagandists for what has been called The Last Great Race — if they have actually bought into Schnuelle’s idea that stories are to be weighed and judged against “what good it does to the sport of mushing as a whole,” the value of their reporting falls to nothing.
Zero. Zilch. Worthless.
All of which is not only sad and embarrassing but bad for Iditarod in the long run.