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Vince McMahon Navigated Controversy for Decades. What Changed in 2022?

Months ago, the idea that legacy media would scrutinize WWE and Vince McMahon was unlikely at best. After the WSJ did so and immediately visited consequences upon McMahon, it's worth looking at two very different approaches to two very different Titangates.

What took so long? Seriously, what took so long?

There have been so many WWE scandals — whether specific to Vince McMahon or more broadly — that counting them all becomes a ghoulish exercise with a quickness. That’s doubly so because it’s way too easy just to rattle off scandals where “it’s just wrestling” is the only possible explanation as to why obvious avenues of news reporting were ignored contemporaneously.

More Professional Wrestling

The Allentown Morning Call’s 2013 scoops that blew open the investigation of Jimmy Snuka’s role in the death of Nancy Argentino were out in plain sight in the case file of the wrongful death lawsuit filed by her family for decades. (Hell, in 2020, I found additional damning details, including one about McMahon himself, in the same documents that the Morning Call reporters had reviewed seven years earlier.) Perhaps even more glaringly, the bulk of the details WWE’s negligence in the death of Owen Hart were laid bare in the police report examining the accident, which was available just over two months after his death but never examined by any media until I obtained a copy, also in 2020.

Titangate Then

That just barely scratches the surface. The various 1992 scandals that rocked the company and were collectively dubbed “Titangate” by Pro Wrestling Torch editor Wade Keller got some mainstream coverage contemporaneously, but it was, at best, scatterbrained.

Child molestation, casting couch, and rape allegations were lumped in with the steroid scandal and other drug issues, creating a confusing mess, and the coverage was worse off for it. Case in point: the most visible newspaper story during Titangate, an early feature in the Los Angeles Times, was a lot more concerned with Hulk Hogan doing cocaine on an airplane in 1983, as opposed to the more serious sexual misconduct allegations. If anything, it reads like the one line about underage “ring boys” being abused was tacked on at the last minute because those allegations were first reported in detail the day before in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Even then, there were things that were reported in major market mainstream media that just…didn’t stick. A week after the aforementioned California articles, Phil Mushnick dropped the bomb in his New York Post column that, earlier that month, McMahon had told both he and Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer that he had fired the accused child molester, Mel Phillips, in 1988. Why? In Mushnick’s words, Vince said that “Phillips’ relationship with kids seemed peculiar and unnatural,”  but rehired him weeks later “with the caveat that Phillips steer clear from kids.”

Despite getting to the heart of the scandal, what McMahon knew and when, the claim about the phone calls, which WWE has never denied — even when they sued Mushnick and the Post for defamation — it was largely forgotten for decades. If you’ve heard about this, it’s almost surely from my 2020 deep dive into the scandal for Business Insider or articles that have come out since. Hell, Meltzer’s subsequent Observer retrospectives on “Titangate” in the ensuing decades didn’t mention Vince’s admission.

It’s not as if there weren’t concerns back in 1992, but the various scandals getting thrown together in one box was detrimental to the coverage and larger understanding of what was being alleged. Throughout the six months where Titangate coverage peaked, columns regularly appeared in wrestling newsletters expressing concern about how confused the issues had become. “Phil Donahue got so entangled in the morass of issues he forgot that the show was supposed to be about the sexual victimization of ring boys,” wrote Bill Kunkel in the September 1, 1992 issue of Three Count, for example. That wasn’t purely supposition on his part: The official transcript of the Donahue episode in question reveals that it was officially titled “Pro Wrestling Empire Hit With Teen Boy’s Sex Scandal” despite the topic being almost completely ignored.

“I think that lumping the two issues into one show wasn’t fair,” Meltzer told John Arezzi in an interview that ran in the August 3, 1992 issue of Pro Wrestling Spotlight. “I think there should have been one show on one subject [sex scandals] and one on the other [steroids].” Torch columnist Eric Krol, for his part, had similar sentiments back in the March 26 issue of Keller’s newsletter. “Is it just me, or should the TitanGate affair be split into two distinct stories?” he asked. “All of the scandal which is currently unfolding is too much for the mainstream media to handle. […] If the scandals were divided evenly, the press could digest the details and have two powerful stories. However, given recent newsroom cutbacks due to the recession, the mainstream tradition of guffawing at pro wrestling, and the limited nature of the editors’ appetites for stories on wrestling, this is probably only a pipe dream.”

But it was Wade Keller, in a column back in the March 19, 1992 issue of the Torch, who really got to the heart of the issue: McMahon was blatantly lying all over the place on TV and he wasn’t really being called out on it, which was a failure of the mass media because it would have been exactly what the WWE owner would have been banking on.

“People find it hard to believe that McMahon would risk all of this bad publicity by allowing sexual harassment to take place in his company,” wrote Keller. “This issue is not as simple as Larry King painted it, that being that McMahon could not have been crazy enough to risk his company by allowing this to go on. Why would McMahon have any reason to believe the mainstream media would ever bring up the issue? The mainstream media certainly had not set a precedent. Larry King knows better than anyone the answer to his own question. McMahon would gamble with his company because he believed the odds were tremendously in his favor that Titan Sports would never be the subject of such in-depth media scrutiny as occurred in the last week. […] Larry King showed that even if the media did attempt to hold the WWF accountable, McMahon would be able to lie his way out of the situation because the mainstream media, such as Larry King, are not prepared (or don’t prepare enough) to be sure McMahon does not get away with more lies, deceptions, and empty promises.”

Titangate Now

The last line of Keller’s column really hammers the point home, though: “Now is the time to focus on the man at the top who, if he is not called on his lies and empty promises, will be making millions of dollars off of another generation.” It’s so prescient as to be mildly disturbing.

Which brings us back to 2022: Why now? There are a few clear factors.

The first is that it’s The Wall Street Journal that broke the story about McMahon’s non-disclosure agreements and hush money payments. National, legacy media outlets generally haven’t devoted resources to actual journalistic scrutiny of WWE. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter doing a front page story in The Wall Street Journal is going to land a lot harder than most avenues of making sexual misconduct allegations known.

That gets to another reason why Titangate 2022 is what actually pushed Vince out: The hush money payments in general and the questionable raise given to the paralegal with whom he had an affair in specific are corporate governance issues at a publicly traded company. That confluence of factors made it much more of a WSJ story than it would be if WWE was still privately held, and/or without the hush money aspect.

It’s not as if there had been zero attempts to scrutinize Vince McMahon this way, though.  Early in the #MeToo movement, roughly late 2017 to early 2018, the New York Times made inquiries into a McMahon investigation, one wrestler who was involved tells me. The women who were contacted, though, got bad vibes from the reporter who made contact, in large part because their grasp of the wrestling business felt too tenuous to allow them to place their trust in the reporting process.

Joe Palazzolo and Ted Mann of the Journal, though, made a much different impression, and that’s doubly a credit to both of them given their relatively limited knowledge of wrestling coming in. As they described last month on SiriusXM’s Busted Open, Mann had some knowledge from covering Linda McMahon’s U.S. Senate campaigns, while Palazzolo had none when the process started. Of course, he’s clearly learned since.

We still don’t know exactly how this saga is going to end. The law firm that the independent WWE board members hired has not finished their investigation yet. Shareholder lawsuits are inevitable, but have yet to be filed. And there are constant rumors of more stories coming soon that will be even more damaging to Vince McMahon. But we already know that the Wall Street Journal stories had a massive and fairly swift impact, something that wouldn’t even have been imaginable two months ago.

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