With the new NFL season about to begin, my mind has been drifting back a year recently. It was a very turbulent time for the Jets, the NFL, and the world as a whole for many reasons.
It wasn’t the most notable news at the time, but around this time last year we found out that longtime Jets Daily News beat reporter Manish Mehta had been stripped of his credential for covering the team.
Plenty of theories came out about why the Jets made the decision. A number of people speculated that the team finally had enough of his generally negative reporting. That never seemed plausible to me. I personally have criticized the Jets in every way imaginable over the last decade, and the team has never been anything but gracious and welcoming in my dealings with them. It was obvious something outrageous had happened.
Of course anybody familiar with Mehta’s work wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that something outrageous had indeed happened. There was no beat writer covering any NFL team that had a worse reputation for sensationalist negative coverage.
It’s a tragic story in many ways. Somewhere underneath the provocateur layers is a talented writer. I have never seen a beat writer make such efforts to provide thoughtful, insightful analysis as Mehta early in his days on the Jets beat with the Star-Ledger. A decade ago I remember once on a survey for SB Nation saying Mehta was the best beat writer the Jets had. It wasn’t even clear he would be on the Jets beat for long. His excellent coverage of the Olympics suggested bigger things might be in his future.
Before long things began to change. Mehta moved to the Daily News and seemed to figure out something that many in sports media eventually learn. Getting people angry generates just as much attention as smart analysis and is much less work.
At the end of the 2011 season, Mehta published an article full of anonymous criticism of Mark Sanchez from sources within the team. This became par for the course in the years that followed. You would get stories designed to provoke emotion. Nobody would know who was telling Mehta these things so they would be impossible to refute, and they would create controversy.
Anonymous sources have their role. They have helped shape some of our society’s most important and influential works of journalism. However, the inner workings of the Jets locker room are hardly matters of national security that require extreme discretion and secrecy. Indeed many of Mehta’s best known articles seemed less like attempts to illuminate the team’s inner workings and more to generate controversy and/or push the agenda of some disgruntled source of his within the organization.
There was a degree of complexity to Metha’s work. He was a legitimate beat writer on the team and did legitimately break news like signings, trades, and cuts. Occasionally the Mehta we saw at the Star-Ledger would even make an appearance with a genuinely insightful story.
There also was complexity because the Jets have genuinely been a horribly run organization over the last decade. They have the longest current Playoff drought in the NFL, double the length of the next highest team. They have only come close to the postseason once in that stretch. Off the field, the team’s dysfunction has been staggering. It’s easy to complain about negative media coverage, but if coverage of the Jets over the last ten years hasn’t been negative it probably hasn’t been honest.
Still it has felt like even when Mehta was right, it was for the wrong reasons. When Muhammad Wilkerson regressed from a star into a highly paid underachiever, Mehta constantly ripped him. Was that because Wilkerson deserved it, or because Wilkerson refused to be one of his sources?
Over the last few years Mehta became known as one of Adam Gase’s staunchest critics. Was it because he could see all of Gase’s shortcomings clearly? It would be difficult to square his initial thoughts on the Gase hire with that.
He’s smart, confident and doesn’t put up with any B.S. He realizes that a rotten culture will destroy everything. He’s got no time for knuckleheads.
The Jets hit a home run by hiring Adam Gase to be their next coach.
Now we all get things wrong. I thought Todd Bowles was going to be a really good head coach for the Jets. We also should be willing to change our minds as new evidence presents itself.
Here’s the thing. Mehta didn’t change his mind on Gase after the Jets started losing games with a stagnant offense. He changed his tune after Gase engineered the firing of general manager Mike Maccagnan, Maccagnan was widely known to be a favored Mehta source.
To be sure there were issues about the way the Jets handled the Maccagnan firing. For starters, it happened too late. Maccagnan was allowed to run the 2019 offseason, a decision that directly led to the results you saw the last two seasons. Additionally, the move provided Gase with a built in excuse for the 2019 failure we saw, allowing him to parlay it into a second season.
But Mehta’s comments about Wilkerson, Gase, and too many others to name through the years didn’t seem about the actual merits. They seemed to be about personal feuds. If those happened to overlap with the truth, all the better.
Manish Metha wasn’t alone in the sports media field emphasizing emotion over substance. This approach is widely practiced. It isn’t always bad either. There are some personalities who are genuinely entertaining and enjoyable to follow even if they couldn’t tell you the first thing about the intricacies of a Cover 3 defense. Most, however, are just irritating and trying too hard.
Late last season the Daily News announced that Mehta would no longer be part of its Jets coverage.
Manish Mehta has been removed from the New York Jets beat. Coverage of the team will continue uninterrupted.— NY Daily News Sports (@NYDNSports) December 10, 2020
This came after former Daily News writer Charles McDonald revealed Mehta had essentially taking credit for his work since his credentials were pulled.
I found what happened after this particularly striking. I follow sports beyond the Jets. There are plenty of writers who have bad reputations for being sensationalistic. But if you look hard enough, you can usually find kindness once you look past the role they play professionally.
You’ll hear stories about how some beat writer encouraged and mentored aspiring sportswriters. You’ll hear how they took time to give these writers feedback.
With Mehta it was the opposite. If you went on Twitter during those times, you saw stories of how he mocked and belittled young, aspiring writers.
A Washington Post expose published shortly after his departure from the Daily News revealed that Mehta’s general behavior on the job was just as toxic as the product he generally published.
I’d like to think this whole episode will cause Mehta to reflect on how he went astray and grow. Maybe one day that talented writer from the Star-Ledger will reemerge. In reality I have no idea. There are plenty of members of the sports media who bounce from controversy to controversy in their career. Their brand becomes making people angry.
The more important thing to consider is what we can learn from these episodes.
There are reasons Manish Mehta was allowed to stay on the Jets beat for as long as he was despite how unpopular he was. You see, entities like the Daily News don’t care whether or not you like an article. They care whether or not you click on it. An angry click is not a negative. It helps them.
When you get outraged by an article and then share the link to show everybody how stupid it is, you aren’t hurting them by calling it stupid. You are helping them by getting everybody else to click.
A new season gives us all a fresh start. It gives the Jets a chance to have a better season. It also gives us all a chance to watch the game in a more enjoyable way. So let me propose something.
This season you will undoubtedly see a clickbait article that gets you annoyed. The point of clickbait is to get attention. If you get angry and post the article in the comments, you are giving the author exactly what they want. So instead of doing that, ignore the article. Every time you are tempted to post an article that irritates you, find something you enjoy that offers genuine insight and post that instead. There are a lot of good writers working in obscurity who could use attention, and you’ll allow your fellow fans to discover their good work.
Let’s make this a more enjoyable and more insightful season for all of us.