The tragic accident that claimed the life of Sprint Car driver Kevin Ward, Jr. at New York’s Canandaigua Motorsports Park Saturday night showcased the absolute worst that human nature and an out-of-control media have to offer.
Ward and former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart tangled during the running of an Empire Super Sprints event, with Ward’s car hitting the Turn Two wall. The 20-year old driver climbed from his damaged racer and attempted to confront Stewart as the field circulated under caution. One car successfully swerved to avoid Ward, but the 20-year old driver was struck by the right-rear tire of Stewart’s car at an estimated speed of 40-45 mph. Despite the best efforts of emergency medical personnel, Ward was pronounced dead on arrival at F.F. Thompson Hospital later that evening.
The accident touched off an immediate firestorm of inaccurate internet speculation and nut-job commentary. Self-appointed online “experts” – both at the speedway and elsewhere -- reported Ward’s passing long before his death was confirmed by authorities. In a headlong rush to be first with the gruesome news, some even Tweeted about his death as he lay on the racing surface being treated for his injuries.
It was inaccurate, irresponsible and disrespectful to the Ward family, but it was nothing compared to the local and national media feeding frenzy that followed.
Within minutes of the accident, speculation surfaced that Stewart had accelerated and swerved toward Ward in an intentional attempt to intimidate him. At least two local television stations conducted telephone interviews with fans at the speedway, probing for all the juicy details -- accurate or not – and posting video of the fatal crash for all to see. One fan offered his opinion of what had transpired, despite having to rely on his wife’s description of the accident, since he was “looking the other way” at the time.
None of that seemed to matter to the news hounds.
The following day, CBS News posted an article entitled, “Questions Of Tony Stewart's Intent Arise In Probe Into Crash That Killed Kevin Ward Jr.,” despite repeated assertions by Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero that investigators had no evidence to support allegations of criminal intent. The CBS report portrayed auto racing as “a sport steeped with bravado” and called Stewart “NASCAR's noted swashbuckler.” It quoted observers at the speedway saying Stewart’s car “seemed to fishtail from the rear and hit (Ward),” whose body “was sucked underneath the car and hurtled through the air before landing on his back as fans looked on in horror.”
The story called confrontations between drivers, “just a part of racing” and “part of the sport's allure,” saying “drivers from mild-mannered Jeff Gordon to ladylike Danica Patrick have erupted in anger on the track at another driver. Stewart, who has a reputation for being a hothead nicknamed `Smoke,’ once wound up like a pitcher and tossed his helmet… at Matt Kenseth's windshield. Fans love it and cheer wildly from the stands.”
A Tampa CBS affiliate stooped even lower, using a two-year old Stewart quote – horribly out of context – to suggest he had intentionally struck Ward, saying that after a wreck at Bristol Motor Speedway two years ago, Stewart had “threatened to run (Matt Kenseth) over.”
It was Yellow Journalism at its worst, and sadly, CBS was not the worst of the offenders. That dubious honor went to ESPN, which was even more callous and reckless in their exploitation of the incident.
Just one week prior to the Stewart/Ward incident, the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader In Sports” correctly declined to air graphic footage of Indiana Pacers star Paul George breaking his leg in a Team USA practice game. Saturday night, however, ESPN inexplicably chose to broadcast the grisly, unedited video of Ward’s death over and over again on its flagship SportsCenter broadcasts, re-racking the footage dozens (if not hundreds) of times over the next 24 hours.
Immediately after broadcasting Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race from Watkins Glen International, ESPN aired a long-form report on the incident, featuring additional airings of the accident video, stand-ups from a clearly uncomfortable Mike Massaro at the Ontario County Sheriff’s Office and “analysis” from legal expert Roger Cossack.
Despite billing it as a “Developing Story,” ESPN reported nothing newer than Stewart’s decision to sit-out Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen; a decision that had been announced nearly eight hours earlier.
In fairness to ESPN, not all of the network’s coverage was slanted toward the sensational. Analysts Ricky Craven and Marty Smith provided a much-needed dose of restraint and fairness in their assessments of the accident, while NASCAR Countdown’s Nicole Briscoe, Rusty Wallace and Brad Daugherty offered valuable insight and analysis, without the breathless hype and senseless hyperbole of their SportsCenter brethren. In addition, the NASCAR On ESPN broadcast team of Allen Bestwick, Dale Jarrett, Andy Petree offered their usual solid points of view, without the TMZ-style exploitation.
The men and women who comprise ESPN’s NASCAR coverage team acquitted themselves admirably Sunday. Unfortunately, their superiors in Bristol, Conn., fell shockingly short.