Ken Tucker: CBS Set Example With Unsparing Ray Rice Coverage

Ray Rice Ravens - H 2014
AP Images

Ray Rice Ravens - H 2014

Occasionally TV can transcend its worst tendencies, writes the veteran critic

Ever since TMZ released the elevator surveillance video of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer, every TV outlet from news and sports shows to showbiz platforms like Entertainment Tonight has replayed the footage ceaselessly.

Whenever something bad happens that’s caught on tape, you can be sure TV will air it over and over, with a mixture of self-righteous duty and cynical eyeball-entrapment, until every American with access to a screen will see that bad event multiple times. The result, too often, is that the awful occurrence becomes a numbing rerun, or even more appallingly, background wallpaper playing behind talking heads reporting or opining.

That’s what the Ray Rice/Janay Palmer footage had become by Thursday, at which point I was switching channels any time it was about to be replayed yet again — it was like trying to escape a kind of pornography that keeps intruding into one’s visual field.

That is, until Thursday night, when CBS sportscaster James Brown used the pre-game show before Thursday Night Football to do something perhaps even more powerful than the elevator videotape to hammer home the horror of male abuse of women. Brown delivered a brief, eloquent, yet brutally pointed message to millions of men and women watching the game, forcing them to think, in his words, about “how we view women.”

He talked not about the images but about the language and actions men use too often to devalue women. And at a time in the swift-moving media story when Janay Palmer was resisting, through social media, the notion that she was a victim, Brown gave Palmer her due but insisted: “Whether Janay Rice considers herself a victim or not, millions of women in this country are.”

James Brown’s Thursday Night Football statement was a potent one delivered from the belly of the beast, from within media central of an NFL broadcast. Combine it with Norah O’Donnell’s superbly specific and unsparing interview with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on CBS This Morning earlier in the week (an interview that left Goodell looking like a duped flunky for the organization he’s supposed to lead), and one could conclude that, in an increasingly rare instance, television had transcended its tendency to exploit tragedy and over-indulge a need for “balance” to use a mix of reporting and commentary that might actually have changed American minds about what it means to be men and women in this country.