Jets reporter, Manish Mehta, accused of bullying, loses his place on the beat

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Last summer, Charles McDonald, an NFL writer for the New York Daily News, got a call from the paper’s sports editor. The paper needed him to fill in on the Jets beat while the Daily News sorted out a credentialing issue for its longtime Jets beat writer, Manish Mehta.

The request, McDonald said, came with one explicit instruction: Do whatever Mehta asked.

Mehta had spent a decade breaking stories and writing firebrand columns for the Daily News. That he wouldn’t have access to the team was strange, McDonald thought, but he did as instructed.

He relayed observations from practice, he said, only to see them published under Mehta’s byline. Mehta demanded that McDonald hold his phone up to Zoom news conferences and tweeted quotes in real time. And he wanted McDonald, 26, to ask ridiculous questions over Zoom, such as whether the Jets had not signed a player because Mehta reported they were considering it.

After a team public relations staffer complained, McDonald said, he stopped holding his phone up to Zooms. When McDonald didn’t attend a news conference with the Jets’ owner and Mehta began calling and texting about his whereabouts, McDonald blocked Mehta’s number, he said.

McDonald finally got fed up and quit the Daily News last month. On his way out, he tweeted that Mehta’s credential had been revoked, sending their saga spilling into public. It looked, for a moment, like a window into an only-in-New York tug of war over access between a cutting tabloid and struggling team.

But McDonald, who has since taken a new job covering the NFL for USA Today, also spoke to human resources, he said. And his viral tweets pushed former Daily News employees and former Jets beat writers to reach out to higher-ups at the paper, touching off a wider inquiry into Mehta’s treatment of colleagues and competitors on the beat, according to a person familiar with the probe.

On Thursday, the Daily News announced that Mehta had been removed from the beat. Tribune Publishing Company, which owns the Daily News, told The Washington Post that Mehta is no longer an employee of the Daily News. Daily News sports editor Kyle Wagner and editor-in-chief Robert York declined to comment. The Jets did, too.

Mehta said in a statement that he’s “behaved professionally and ethically throughout my career. I’ve respected my peers and colleagues, though I’ve had disagreements with some of them in the past, as is common in a competitive environment. I’m looking forward to the opportunities ahead.”

Presented with specific complaints about his behavior and coverage, he denied or dismissed all of them, including McDonald’s claim that he used his reporting or mistreated him.

Mehta’s departure, and the circumstances surrounding it, raise questions about where the line is between sharp-elbowed reporter and locker-room bully, and about who should police the behavior of a reporter who breaks big stories but pushes boundaries and the people he interacts with to their limits.

“It wasn’t a normal work situation,” McDonald said. “I mean, it was insane.”

– – –

Mehta arrived at the Daily News in 2010 from the Newark Star-Ledger. In New York’s competitive media market, tabloids such as the New York Post and Daily News go toe to toe for the juiciest scoops, and Mehta made an impact.

He wrote a splashy back-page cover story in January 2012 about anonymous Jets teammates criticizing quarterback Mark Sanchez’s work ethic. That fall, Mehta delivered a bombshell with anonymous Jets players ripping quarterback Tim Tebow.

“There was a fear in the organization that he would get stuff they didn’t want out,” said a national NFL writer. “If you look at a lot of the big Jets stories over the last decade, he broke a lot of them.”

According to colleagues from that time, Mehta was a perfect fit for new editor Colin Myler, a Brit who previously worked for News Corp. and had distinctly tabloid sensibilities.

“Manish became the fair-haired boy,” said a person who worked there. “He could do no wrong.”

Even some Jets employees viewed Mehta with begrudging admiration. “He was aggressive,” Rex Ryan, who coached the Jets from 2009 to 2014, said in an interview. “I thought this dude wanted to win. By God, he wanted to get the story.”

But there were rumblings about his reporting methods. Jets offensive lineman Matt Slauson was quoted by name in the Tebow story, but Slauson told The Washington Post this week that his interview with Mehta happened months before the story came out, and that he was complimenting Tebow’s athleticism when he spoke to Mehta. Slauson believed Mehta used his quotes selectively to portray Tebow as a quarterback who was nothing but an athlete.

“It was sloppy reporting and I had to pay for it and get up in front of the team to explain it,” Slauson said. Mehta said he talked to Slauson a few weeks before the story ran and quoted Slauson accurately.

Other players complained to the Jets, too, convinced Mehta would be critical of them if they didn’t cooperate with him. In 2016, kicker Nick Folk told the Jets that Mehta threatened Folk’s wife with bad coverage of him if she didn’t apologize for criticizing Mehta on Twitter, according to people familiar with the incident. Julianne Folk declined to comment; Mehta said he never threatened bad coverage.

The Jets complained to the Daily News after the Folk incident. In an interview, Eric Barrow, then the Daily News sports editor, said he spoke to Mehta but did not discipline him. Before training camp last year, the Jets expressed interest in limiting Mehta’s access by restricting him from conducting one-on-one interviews. But after conversations involving the Daily News, the Jets, the Pro Football Writers of America and the NFL, the team backed off, said Bob Glauber, a Newsday columnist and the president of the PFWA.

Mehta’s relationship with the team deteriorated. He accused Coach Adam Gase of operating a burner account to defend himself on Twitter, only to have internet sleuths argue that Mehta himself could be behind it.

After the season, the Jets turned to a law firm, Foley & Lardner LLP, for help. The firm compiled a dossier, according to two people who have seen it, that called out reporting the Jets said crossed the line from aggressive to inappropriate, including allegations that Mehta approached the 11-year-old son of Jets General Manager Joe Douglas at a baseball game and, later, threatened Douglas with bad coverage if he didn’t grant an interview.

The Jets delivered the dossier to the paper over the summer. NFL policy says teams can’t bar accredited media’s access “for what is perceived as ‘unfair coverage’ or any similar reason.” But the Jets said it was about his behavior, not his negative stories. After talking to Mehta and Jets officials, the PFWA, which advocates for reporters’ access, did not fight the Jets’ decision.

The paper did. In a written response, it defended Mehta’s reporting, according to a person who read it. His encounter with Douglas’s son was innocuous, the paper said, and in pushing for an interview he had simply put forth a recognizable journalism proposition: talk to me or I’ll have to write what I have.

Mehta defended his reporting tactics, too. His stories did what many big-city columnists’ stories have done over the decades, grinding axes and nursing grudges. And the Jets, some at the paper believed, were trying to muzzle to critical coverage.

“If he were not writing negative things,” one Jets reporter said, “I find it hard to believe the Jets would have gone after his credential.”

– – –

The paper and team were still battling over Mehta’s access when McDonald started tweeting, transforming a fight about coverage into a referendum on Mehta’s treatment of his fellow reporters.

Daily News editors would not discuss their investigation. But in interviews, current and former writers Jets reporters described incidents involving Manish that were reported to higher-ups.

In 2011, Jenny Vrentas, then the Jets reporter for the Star-Ledger, was conducting a one-on-one interview. In a locker room on a crowded beat, one-on-one’s are sacred for journalists, arranged with the team ahead of time or directly with players. As she saw Mehta lurking nearby, she asked Mehta not to encroach.

Afterward, in a hallway outside the media room, Mehta screamed at her, according to multiple people who were there, cursing repeatedly: “F— you! F— you! F— you!” The tirade lasted several minutes, these people said, and two other writers had to calm Mehta down.

“While this incident happened nearly 10 years ago, it’s still a clear, and unpleasant, memory,” Vrentas wrote in an email. Her editor raised the issue with the Daily News that offseason, she confirmed, but it’s unclear whether the paper took action. The Daily News sports editor from that time, Teri Thompson, declined to comment. Mehta denied interfering with or cursing at Vrentas.

Kimberley Martin, who was Newsday’s Jets beat writer from 2012 to 2017, said Mehta constantly sent her abrasive messages, often questioning her reporting or demanding credit for obviously available information. She also reported Mehta’s conduct to her Newsday editor.

Mehta defended asking for credit on stories. But the messages stuck with Martin.

“Early on, I was uncomfortable around him,” she told The Post in a text message. “And I brought it to the attention of my sports editor, who in turn brought it to the attention of The Daily News. Where it went from there, who knows? Clearly nowhere.”

She added, “A lot of people enabled this guy. And a lot of people shrugged off questionable behavior.”

Even inside the Daily News, some staffers thought Mehta should have been disciplined in 2014, after he berated a young colleague at the Jets’ facility for writing a story Mehta had planned to write, according to people familiar with the incident. The reporter, Seth Walder, declined to comment; Mehta called the encounter an isolated incident.

The paper could not afford to risk losing Mehta, the former staffers said. The Daily News was sold in 2017 for just $1 and endured massive layoffs the next year. Mehta’s big columns could generate nearly 100,000 page views, far more interest than most anything else the sports staff did.

“It was crucial for us,” one former sports staffer said.

But McDonald’s tweets triggered an outpouring of concern from current and former staffers that the Daily News couldn’t ignore.

Mehta’s last byline in the Daily News was Nov. 29. On Sunday, the Jets fell to 0-13, after allowing a long touchdown pass in the game’s waning seconds. On Monday, they fired their defensive coordinator. On Tuesday, the Daily News ran a big Jets spread under the byline “Daily News Sports Desk.” On Thursday, Mehta was gone.

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