“A press that is free to investigate and criticize the government is absolutely essential in a nation that practices self-government and is therefore dependent on an educated and enlightened citizenry.” – Thomas Jefferson
This quote from Jefferson is still relevant in 2022, perhaps now more than ever. In the wake of the latest scandal involving Vince McMahon, I have given a great deal of thought to wrestling’s relationship with wrestling media and the mainstream media.
I have been following wrestling media since I was in high school. While most of my friends stopped caring about wrestling as they got older, I stayed a fan. Full disclosure, I probably would not be such an ardent wrestling fan for as long as I have been one if it wasn’t for guys like Dave Meltzer or Wade Keller. As far as I am concerned, sometimes the behind-the-scenes stuff is more intriguing than the stuff that goes on in front of the camera in wrestling. For example, I care way more about how the backstage drama with Naomi and Sasha Banks will play out than I care about who’s going to be the next member of Maximum Male Models.
Additionally, the recent news of Vince McMahon allegedly engaging in sexual relationships with a former paralegal and other women under his employ in his company — allegations that include sexual coercion and sexual harassment — has me thinking about the way mainstream media covers wrestling.
There was an episode of Dark Side of the Ring, airing on Vice last September, where the topic was the now infamous ”Plane Ride from Hell”. In this episode, wrestling personalities like Tommy Dreamer, Rob Van Dam, Terri Runnels, Jim Ross, and others were documented by producers Evan Husney and Jason Eisner talking about an infamous plane ride where the passengers got belligerently drunk and caused hell for the flight attendants and others on the flight. This plane ride was so infamous that it got Curt Hennig and Scott Hall fired almost immediately and, almost twenty years later, Tommy Dreamer was suspended from his duties on Impact Wrestling and Busted Open for brushing off allegations from flight attendant Heidi Doyle, that Ric Flair flashed himself in front of her and forced her to touch his penis on this now infamous plane ride.
This brings me back to the Jefferson quote. The relationships between media and politicians has always been a complicated one with a lot of layers. The same can be said about wrestling media and wrestlers. As with the media and politics, the job of wrestling media is to be a check on the wrestling industry and help unblur the lines between rumor and reality. The media is often nicknamed “the fourth branch of government” (in addition to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) because the media exists to make sure that political actors are being honest and giving the public the truth, whether we want to hear the truth or not. It is important for me to illustrate the complicated relationship between media and politicians to underscore why I believe wrestling media’s relationship with promoters and wrestlers have similar complications.
From Watergate to “fake news”
In the 1960s President John F. Kennedy had a media image of a devoted family man. While this might be true on the surface, it had been rumored as early as 1962 that Kennedy was a notorious philanderer and had multiple affairs with women of note, like Marilyn Monroe.
There is much speculation as to why the media did not run with this rumored affair of JFK and Monroe. One of the most prevailing thoughts is that because there was no hard evidence. Outside of eyewitness accounts to suggest that JFK and Monroe were romantically linked, the media did not want to report on mere speculation. Another reason why the media might have protected JFK is because many in the media felt that the president’s reputation should be protected at all costs by the media during this time.
Fast forward to Richard Nixon. In 1972 journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered what is now known as the Watergate scandal, which included audiotapes of Nixon conspiring with Bob Halderman about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. What made this scandal unique is the hard evidence it produced in the form of audio tapes. Woodward and Bernstein had to make an ethical decision: Should they report the evidence they have or should they protect Nixon?
Fast forward to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and his multitude of extramarital encounters that included famous WrestleMania 14 alumnus Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, etc. The mainstream media not only reported on all of Clinton’s philandering, it was sensationalized.
Since the advent of social media, the relationships between media and politicians have been turned upside down. So much so, that two former presidents have used Twitter to generate media buzz. When Barack Obama announced who his running mate in 2008 would be, he did so via Twitter. Donald Trump has also openly admitted how he used Twitter to generate media buzz to help him win the presidency in 2016. Like with these former presidents, Twitter has given wrestlers a chance to take control over their own narratives.
Outside of being a former president and media star, Trump is also famous for how he was able to bypass the checks and balances of the media, and proclaim on a huge platform that any negative story he was involved in was “fake news”. People laughed at this until he was able to rally up a group of his faithful supporters in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021. What followed was a disgusting display of rebellion and a complete disregard for the law. At the cornerstone of all this is Trump discrediting the media to garner public distrust and disdain for the media.
Antinomy of the liar
So how is this similar to wrestling? Well, Trump was able to use the public’s natural distrust for media outlets to build up his supporter base. This has been referred to by psychologists as antinomy of the liar or simply a false dichotomy. The general premise behind this fallacy is the notion: “If I tell you that I am lying, am I really lying?” For someone like Donald Trump, who will outright say anything he wants, no matter if it is a lie or not, to a lot of his followers, he will come across as honest since he has no filter and others in the same political space that he is in do have filters. Essentially it is a fallacy that can be used to garner distrust of media outlets and trust for himself.
Following the earlier report of alleged misconduct by Vince McMahon, in June, he made a grandiose appearance on the June 17 edition of Smackdown on Fox where he reminded fans of WWE’s signature tagline: ”then, now, together, forever”. He also appeared on the next Monday’s Raw in a similar grandstanding gesture. The unassuming WWE fan might come to the conclusion that, well, since he is this bold in the middle of this huge scandal, he’s at least more honest than the media. Those fans who truly believe in the aforementioned tagline might fully embrace that not-so-subliminal message that an attack on Vince McMahon is an attack on them as fans, similar to the way Trump was able to convince his supporters that the election wasn’t just stolen from him but from everyone who voted for him.
To mainstream media, the thought might be, “Well, this is just fake wrestling and who cares what Vince McMahon does?” This was evident when CNN’s Jake Tapper scoffed at the announcement that McMahon was going to appear on Smackdown a mere two days after news of the scandal broke, when Tapper dismissively said, “Of course he is,” as if the anchor had better things to do then report on this stupid wrestling story.
If all this wasn’t enough, to add gasoline to an already wild fire, the Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that McMahon, over the course of the last 16 years has paid more than $12 million dollars in hush money payments to various women. While the totality of this seems more egregious than the initial allegations, it has seemingly gotten less coverage by mainstream media than the initial allegation involving the paralegal.
Hiding in plain sight
For someone like McMahon who runs WWE and is also from time-to-time an on air character, mainstream media might just assume that since wrestling is a circus anyway, this story might not be worth spending much time on since currently we are dealing with more pressing matters in the world such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In this regard, McMahon is able to hide in plain sight right in front of the mainstream media. Often when a wrestling scandal breaks, mainstream media defers to people who actually work in wrestling and not those of us who cover it. But this is where wrestling media should come in, because wrestling media is capable of investigating and vetting stories.
For some fans and people in the wrestling industry who do not understand power dynamics in business, they might think this story is much ado about nothing. Chris Jericho recently stated in an interview, apparently recorded before the Wall Street Journal revealed additional allegations:
“When you look at it, it’s really not illegal. He had an affair, paid the lady off to not say anything, and moved on. It’s almost like, okay, and? It was a mutual acknowledgment of the affair, he paid the lady to say nothing, and she took the money. I really know Vince well and it sucks that it happened. It sucks that he did it, but is anything really going to happen from it? I don’t think so. Is it morally right? Absolutely not. Is it illegal? No. Is it something that is going to get him into real trouble? I don’t think so.”
It would be very easy for me to pass judgment on Jericho. He is someone who often has takes I do not agree with but I have often found this to be the prevailing thought, not just in wrestling, but in business generally. While Jericho is almost certain that Vince did nothing illegal, the legality of what McMahon did or did not do is really tough to say with the limited information the public has on this.
In the 1986 case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, Sidney Taylor was a Vice President at Meritor Bank. He hired 19-year-old Michelle Vinson as a bank teller trainee. Over the course of four years Vinson advanced to the position of head bank teller. Vinson was then fired for excessive absences but she claimed that she was actually fired for ending a sexual relationship with Taylor. Vinson said she felt if she didn’t comply with Taylor’s advances, she would be fired. She believed that once she grew tired of the sexual relationship Taylor decided to fire her. Taylor, of course, denied everything Vinson accused him of. Initially, Vinson lost and Taylor was able to keep his job. However, on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court took into account the explicit conditioning of sexual receptivity and stated that such an act is sexual harassment and a violation of Title VII. Additionally, if the employer sees an instance of sexual harassment the employer must take action.
So, contrary to what Jericho might believe, the story about McMahon’s relationship with the former WWE paralegal might go beyond a simple breach of ethics. McMahon could have possibly broken the law.
I am not sure if Vince McMahon is guilty of a crime. We do know that his lawyer admitted that he was in a “consensual” relationship with a former paralegal and that further reporting from the Wall Street Journal is suggesting it goes deeper than that. While McMahon may or may not have committed a crime, in most corporate settings it is not ethical for a superior to start sexual relationships with employees. One might ask can a sexual relationship with an employee really be “consensual” if the employee is desperate for money? In any case, it says a lot about the culture in WWE.
Kristoffer Ealy is a political science professor and business psychologist with a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He co-hosts the Nubian Wrestling Advocates podcast on POST Wrestling.