More so than ever before, fans are privy to how the sausage is made in sports journalism, thanks to social media, endless hours of TV and radio punditry and general oversharing among 21st century humans.
For example: Guess what? Many pro coaches and team/league executives have texting relationships with journalists, in addition to the agents who spoon feed news to “insiders” day and night.
It is part of the process, now more than ever, thanks to how easy it is to send a text compared to, say, leaving a phone message with an administrative assistant on a pink “While You Were Out” pad, like we did it back in the day.
They spin stuff; we report stuff. Works for everyone, even if much of it is agenda-driven.
But Jets coach Robert Saleh veered off course this season by establishing a texting (and golfing) friendship with Joe Benigno, now a part-time personality at WFAN long known for his avid Jets fandom.
Why? Saleh probably thought it was harmless fun, and perhaps a way to tap into fans’ mindset and/or get a vocal local media member on his side.
Had the Jets’ season not gone awry, perhaps that is all it would have been. But Aaron Rodgers is hurt, the Jets are awful and fans are upset, understandably.
Enter Benigno. In fairness, he never has claimed to be a journalist.
After the Jets lost a playoff game in Pittsburgh in January of 2005, he went on the air and ripped beat writers for not being sufficiently upset about the defeat when he encountered them at a hotel bar.
Fast forward to December of 2023. Benigno is retired as a full-time WFAN host, but he does still appear regularly on the station, including with Tiki Barber and Evan Roberts on Mondays after Jets games.
This week, Benigno spoke about the six-part plan he sent to Saleh for how to deal with the Jets’ final stretch. (Yes, that sentence was as absurd as it read.)
No. 3: Go back to Zach Wilson at quarterback.
“I can tell you right now, [Saleh] don’t like Zach,” Benigno said on the air.
Hmm. Tell us more!
“He might get mad at me for this, but I don’t care,” Benigno said, then reported that Saleh reacted to the Wilson idea by saying either, “Are you kidding me?” or “Are you serious?” (Benigno said he was paraphrasing.)
Two problems here. First, Benigno violated a tenet of texting culture that you do not have to be a journalist to understand: Do not share private texts publicly.
Second, he apparently misconstrued Saleh’s response. Rather than suggest he did not believe in Wilson, Saleh meant he could not believe that after bashing Wilson for weeks, Benigno wanted him back.
“Total misinterpretation by me of what he said,” Benigno said on WFAN Tuesday morning. “I was wrong about that.”
Co-hosts Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti were having none of it.
“You 100% blowtorched him,” Esiason said.
Earlier, Esiason and Giannotti had taken turns criticizing Benigno.
“It’s unbelievable,” Esiason said. “That is about as unprofessional as it gets. Now, saying all that, what is Rob Saleh thinking about? You’re dancing with the devil, man."
Giannotti, a former producer for Benigno, compared Benigno’s lack of discernment to “like a dog chews a pillow on the couch and thinks it’s a toy but it’s not.
“And then you have to chastise the dog and the dog’s like, ‘I don’t understand why I’m allowed to chew that thing but not chew this thing.’”
Benigno later in the day joined Roberts and Barber and said that he and Saleh spoke for 25 minutes on Monday night and left the call on good terms. He declined to fire back at Esiason and Giannotti. “I was ripe for the taking, and I got taken,” Beningo said.
Roberts, Benigno’s former partner, began Tuesday’s show seeking to defend Benigno, saying, “[Saleh] tried to manipulate the un-manipulate-able. It doesn’t work with a guy who only cares about the team he roots for.”
There ya go. Criticize Benigno all you want for violating texting etiquette. But criticize Saleh more for lack of judgment by a guy who is supposed to be smart enough to know better.