Thursday, July 17, 2008

Oh my blog

It’s been a few weeks now since this episode of the HBO series Costas Now, where Buzz Bissinger verbally assaulted internet blogger Will Leitch, former editor of the popular blog Deadspin. Bissinger released all of his pent-up anger about the new internet media, the death of newspapers and the rise of blogs and spat it at Leitch in an incredibly crass and profane way.
This issue has been kicking around my head ever since then, and I was finally able to watch the entire (uncensored) segment just yesterday. This segment had a polarizing effect on the different segments of the sports media. The online bloggers generally excoriated Bissinger for his outburst. They claimed that it was just more evidence of the stodginess of the old guard, who couldn’t handle change or see their own power threatened. Many outspoken members of the “old guard” defended Bissinger, if not his outburst, agreeing with many of the points raised on the show about the generally hateful tone of blogs and their harmful effect on the already slumping newspaper industry.
So after watching the video, I feel like I need to make some response.

First, I’d like to put my own position on blogs out there. Since I write in my own online blog (obscure though it may be), I do have some stake in the matter. I’ve never really considered my blog to be journalism, since it mainly consists of commentary rather than the reporting of news. I’m not a journalist and have no pretensions of being such. My journalistic experience consists of one year of writing for my high school newspaper. This does not qualify me to be a journalist, and I neither desire nor expect my writing to replace that of a qualified journalist.
I do, however, consider myself to be a qualified writer. Granted, there aren’t many qualifications for writing¸ per se, but all I can say is that I’ve written a lot before, with some success, and although my professional writing consists mainly of a few published Letters to the Editor, I think I am able to communicate effectively through my work.

Now, to answer the charges of Bissinger (and others) against online sports media. Bob Costas expressed concern (while Bissinger was being sedated) about the often hateful and personal tone of online media. He was well-armed with quotes from Leitch’s own Deadspin site, although to be fair, none of it was written by Leitch himself, and so they were asking him to defend the words of others. Not only that, but most of the vitriolic comments cited by Costas and Bissinger were made by the comments of random web members, not the actual words of the blog author. Leitch argued, with some success, that it is essentially dishonest to exercise great censorship over even vulgar comments, since this reflects exactly what the average sports fan is thinking, feeling and saying. He felt that Bissinger and Costas were taking the site far too seriously by taking such personal affront at what amounts to the profane ramblings of a random dunderhead.
On this point, I am somewhat in agreement with Leitch; there is a role to be played by an online site that allows fans to say what they think, even if it’s an emotional, vitriolic outburst. That reflects the honest reaction of sports fans and is one of the things the internet was created for.
But that speaks in generalities. That argument would be valid if Deadspin existed in a vacuum, rather than as one of many similar blogs with a growing influence over the substance of sports commentary, both inside and outside the media. I think that Costas’ concern about the hateful tone of blogs is valid; in the real world, the vitriolic comments, -- often containing obscene and personal attacks on sports figures – are becoming more dominant than whatever journalism or story inspired them. There’s an old saying -- I forget what it says exactly -- but it’s something to the effect that the rumor goes around the world twice while the truth is still getting out of bed. And while Leitch and Deadspin won’t give overt support to the statements on their site, the fact that they are there at all and exist on a popular and influential site does have an effect. Leitch (and his colleagues) can cite freedom of speech and claim that they’re just comments that they have no control over, but the truth is that because the comments exist (and are even the norm) at such a website as Deadspin gives them a tacit stamp of approval. Leitch may claim that it’s not his fault that people take his work more seriously than real journalism, but that’s a cop-out. Human beings have an enormous capacity for stupidity and illogical decision-making, and if Leitch ignores this reality, it is a willful ignorance that perpetuates the stupidity.
Nobody really likes the fact that gossip and rumor are replacing hard news in this world. It’s happening faster than ever, and not just in sports – in politics, world affairs, and of course the entertainment industry. The defense often taken by the gossip- and rumor-mongers is that they’re just giving the people what they want. That’s perfectly true, but I don’t consider it a valid defense. Drug dealers can make the same argument, but it doesn’t excuse them from taking responsibility for their actions, popular though they may be in certain circles.
But that doesn’t mean that we as a people don’t share equal responsibility for these developments, if not perhaps more. My personal feeling is that the distributors and consumers of pseudo-news share an equal amount of responsibility for the degeneration of public discourse in this country. Everyone can argue that it’s not a big deal, and if we all lived in a vacuum, then it wouldn’t be. But this is the real world, and it is a big deal, as anyone following the A-Rod/Madonna controversy or the Jesse Jackson hoopla can attest. And no one ends up actually taking responsibility, because the distributors and consumers keep throwing the hot potato back to the other party, and it never actually lands. It’s a vicious cycle of blame that never settles on the people who have earned it, except in a select few cases.
So while I hated and despised Bissinger’s vicious rant and disagree with some of the claims made by Costas, I believe that their argument is valid, and is too easily dismissed by those of us who aren’t directly affected by these developments.

Having said that . . .

I also firmly believe that people like Buzz Bissinger and (especially) Murray Chass are disgruntled old men who are – in many cases – just as ignorant and vitriolic as their enemies. If you’ve ever been subjected to a Murray Chass rant against statistics and sabermetrics, you could be forgiven if you confused him with a 17th-century Catholic bishop railing against Galileo, Copernicus, and their goddamn heliocentric ideas. In the continuing fight over Moneyball (which exists only in the minds of Chass and a few others), the supposedly “journalistic” old media have been just as angry, profane, and personal as anyone else in their attacks against modernism in baseball and other sports.
Leitch was not incredibly glib and effective in his arguments (understandably so, under the circumstances), but he did make the point that the comments made by Bissinger have been made against every development in new media and will be made again when the next new media development comes along. He’s exactly right, and putting this argument in a historical context really undermines the arguments of the “old guard.”
Go back and read the comments made against television by those inside baseball. Television was considered to be the killer of “real” baseball, not only in a business of baseball sense, but as a killer of newspapers. And television did kill newspapers. Television and radio combined wiped out a huge number of local and regional newspapers across the country. Go back and look at all the daily newspapers that existed in New York in the days before radio. It’s amazing! And now, there are basically three daily newspapers serving the five boroughs, despite the fact that the population has grown considerably since the advent of radio. Those old newspapers weren’t killed by the internet; they were killed by radio and TV. I don’t hear Bissinger or Chass complaining about them.
It’s also because people simply can’t see the forest for the trees. People like Bissinger (I hate to pick on him, because he’s not alone) have such a huge personal stake in this matter that they can’t put it in context. We shouldn’t expect them to be able to put things in a broader perspective or to approach this problem from a historical standpoint. Blogs can be harmful, as I’ve said before, but singling them out (and making personal attacks on Will Leitch) is not only revolting, but ignorant.
Blogs didn’t invent hateful commentary; Bissinger and Costas are deluding themselves if they don’t see hateful, ad hominem attacks in newspapers across the country. Talk radio is just as hateful as the internet and arguably more influential. In defending the old sports media, people like Costas will mention great sports journalists, or columnists like Rick Reilly, who are well-respected and rarely make personal attacks.
But I’d argue that Costas is arguing the exception rather than the rule in newspaper journalism. He makes the point that hateful vitriol is not the exception, but rather the rule on the internet. He is correct. But I would argue that a similar remark could be made about established sports journalists. For every Peter Gammons, there are 100 morons who publicly string up the local coach on the sports page every week. Look at the coverage of college football or college basketball in local and regional newspapers across this country, and then tell me that it’s civil, high-minded, and impersonal. And yes, those guys are just the scuzzy majority, but if you admit that, then it undermines your main argument against the scuzzy online majority.

Another issue raised by Costas and Bissinger is the internet’s total disregard (and open contempt) for the established media and their figureheads. Again, once you put this in a historical context, it’s a lot harder to get worked up about. What do young people do? What have young people, and young movements, done throughout history? What have they done in art, literature, politics, and media? They rebel! Of course they rebel! Can anyone possibly be surprised that the younger generation is contemptuous of their elders? True authors and literary figures once scorned those who wrote for newspapers and periodicals, and often for very good reason. Their critics responded that they were stodgy, old-fashioned, and stuck in the old ways. They were often correct in that assessment. And so the process has gone on, with every evolution in literature and media.
I’m not well-educated in art history, but it seems to me that every art movement for the past 500 years has been a direct reaction against the art movement that came before it. I am well-educated in theatre history, and the same thing is true there. Those that supported the modernism of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg were once considered to be crazy supporters of inappropriate subject matter. Those same modernists objected to the methods of existential, surrealistic, and absurdist theatre. And the same people who were taking off their clothes and chanting in the 60’s are today’s heads of theatre departments across the nation, operating with budgets in the tens of thousands of dollars and putting on productions of Shakespeare and Oklahoma! while worrying about “these kids today.” The rebels of yesterday become the comfortable bourgeoisie of today.
That doesn’t mean that I defend someone who goes online and tells Rick Reilly, Bob Costas, and Buster Olney to go f*** themselves. But we shouldn’t be overly concerned about young people disrespecting their elders. Students for centuries have told William Shakespeare to go f*** himself, but he hasn’t gone away. Modern art students may be terribly bored by Giotto’s paintings from the life of Jesus, but they haven’t been taken down from the museum walls yet. It may be a vast generalization, but I believe that what is good will last and what is faulty will not. We have to strive to preserve the good; that is certainly true. But we shouldn’t panic and we certainly shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.

The show’s argument then went from disrespect of established media to a debate over the importance of “access.” Bissinger and Costas argued strongly in favor of an involved participant to be a reliable reporter of those facts. On the other hand, a widely-quoted commentator on Deadspin said that “I don’t need to see Rich Garces’ tits” to discuss his qualities as a pitcher. Costas made the point that people with access are indispensable as commentators, whereas Deadspin readers regularly decry the prejudice and complacency that access breeds. Costas cited Woodward and Bernstein as people who had access to Watergate and provided a powerful service to the country.
Here I take strong exception with Costas, because he’s misinterpreting history. One of the main points of Watergate was that Woodward and Bernstein were outsiders. They were not national reporters covering the Nixon administration at the Washington Post. They were assigned to the city desk, which was basically the Post’s B-team. Costas’ misconception is fundamental, because Woodward and Bernstein were outsiders who forced their way into the story. The very essence of the Watergate story was that all of the political reporters and insiders who did have access were not pursuing the story. It took a couple of no-name jerks horning their way in on a story that was outside their experience to thoroughly embarass an entire media establishment that had failed in its fundamental duty to inform the American people.
Costas inadvertently referenced an era whose chief historical lesson directly contradicts the point he was making. It took outsiders, subversives, and hoodlums like Woodward & Bernstein, Daniel Ellsberg, and Sy Hersh to report the truth of the Vietnam War and the illegal and immoral government operations of the 60’s and 70’s. When Sy Hersh broke the My Lai story, he was bitterly chastised for doing so, not because it was inaccurate, but because the media wasn’t supposed to report things like that. It was considered unpatriotic to report on American atrocities during wartime, and even those “insiders” who didn’t think it was unpatrotic at least thought it was unseemly. It also embarassed the “insider” media establishment that stories like this were happening, they knew about it, and did nothing. There were bound to be repercussions when the American people learned they weren’t getting the full story from the people they trusted; those who had access to the facts and the perpetrators of such acts. When Walter Cronkite called Vietnam a “stalemate,” and when Edward R. Murrow took on McCarthyism, they were the exceptions, and that’s why they’re remembered.
Although events as important as war and death rarely occur in baseball, there is a direct parallel here. Those with “access” can provide us invaluable and otherwise inaccessible information, but they are also very often complacent in their power when it comes to challenging the norms and pursuing the truth. Even worse, they are quite often complicit in hiding the truth from their readers and supporting the establishment. I’m sure Bob Costas and other journalists are familiar with the concept of “conflict of interest,” but I doubt they would see how much it applies to their own sphere of influence. Sports journalists are wedded to the sports themselves, and therefore have a powerful vested interest in not threatening the powers that be.
On the micro level, sports journalists are beholden to sports teams and players. They can ask tough questions and pursue stories, but they have to stay within fair boundaries. Otherwise, they can be denied perks such as the press box that “insiders” enjoy as well as the basic access to the players themselves, by revoking a press pass or simply ignoring them. Subconsciously, every journalist knows that the teams and players have the power to deprive them of their livelihood. Few sports journalists are bigger than the teams they cover, and thus able to report the truth as is without being concerned about the consequences. It’s a generalization, but your average beat reporter must know on some level where his bread is buttered. So they’ll keep quiet -- just like the political insiders were willing to keep quiet about My Lai and the Pentagon Papers -- to retain their access.
On the macro level, sports journalism simply wouldn’t exist without sports themselves. The journalists and their employers are often business partners of the organizations they are expected to cover without bias. Buzz Bissinger attacked Will Leitch for being open about his biases and rooting interests, specifically, that he was a Cardinals fan. Leitch argued that pretending you have no biases is intelectually dishonest. It was by far the most cogent and important argument he was able to make. Bissinger took this as a sign that Leitch wasn’t a real “journalist,” because real journalists have to be unbiased.
But they’re not unbiased. And surely Buzz Bissinger doesn’t expect me to believe that they are. This self-important image of the “unbiased observer” does a direct disservice to readers. Historian Howard Zinn made a similar comment about history; everyone is biased, and the sooner we admit that and get on with it, the more honest our discourse will be. Everyone has values, and it will inevitably affect the way they report history, or sports. The most basic bias, according to Zinn, is simply deciding what is and is not worth writing about. Every historian and every journalist makes this decision, and it is a decision born out of bias. It subconsciously tells the reader what is news and what is not news. It’s a fallacy to expect any human to be unbiased, and for Bissinger to aspire to such pretension speaks strongly against him.
Even worse than simple complacency, though, is when media insiders are complicit in hiding or refusing to reveal important truths to the public. Any study of baseball journalism throughout history would reveal that, for the most part, “inside” journalists were complicit in protecting the interests of organized sports, especially where it affected their self-interest in covering a particular sport or team. Outright lies and violations of the ethics of journalism were the norm throughout baseball history, perpetrated even by some of the most respected and venerated of sportswriters. The truth of the reserve clause, the ruthless economic self-interest of owners, the unethical or illegal practices of specific teams, all went unreported for the most part when they occurred. Insiders either consciously protected the interests of “their” sport, or reluctantly decided to prize their baseball “patriotism” over truths that may harm the game’s owners and executives.
Do I have any evidence of complicity? Read about any conflict between the Lords of Baseball (so named by John Helyar in his excellent book, Lords of the Realm) and their enemies, mostly players, sometimes local or government officials, or even the fans themselves. Close examination will usually reveal a bias in favor of the Lords, even if it meant violating journalistic integrity by spreading gossip and making ad hominem attacks aginst the “enemy” or directly conspiring with the Lords themselves. Look at the vast majority of mainstream coverage during the early years of the player’s union and the first strikes. Not only did most insiders (especially the older ones) support organized baseball, but they did so with arguments that were riddled with bias, scare-mongering, rumor-mongering, ad hominem attacks, and vitriol directed towards the key perpetrators. Only in recent years has opinion split more towards support for the union. In the 1994 strike, for example, the union and the Lords seemed to take equal blame for bringing about the work stoppage.
And what about the greatest crime of all in baseball, the color line that supposedly didn’t exist before 1946? Insiders of the time were criminally silent, if not complicit, on the subject. It was almost always African-American journalists, or subversive white journalists (such as Communists) who reported on segregation and applied the pressure for integration. They found few supporters among media insiders. Now some may argue that those insiders were simply a product of their time. That’s certainly true, but doesn’t that mean that they possessed the biases and prejudices of their time? And if that’s true, isn’t it likely that this generation’s sportswriters are a product of their time, with biases and prejudices that we may not see for another generation?

The Bissinger-Leitch argument ignited some heated arguments within the sports media, precisely because it dug into all of the meaty and controversial issues I’ve discussed here. The argument isn’t likely to die down anytime soon. And the main reason for that may be that both sides are a little bit right and a little bit wrong. But everyone recognizes the importance of this issue. Even if some of us get a little overexcited about it.


I put a lot into that entry, so much so that I need to respond to my “response” to the debate. The first point I want to mention is about my writing. I don’t want to come off as self-congratulatory when I call myself a good writer. I meant that I feel like I’m a good writer compared to the average person, or perhaps even compared to the average blogger. Not compared to the average famous literary figure. I’m a HUGE stickler for spelling, and while my grammar isn’t perfect, I try to avoid elementary mistakes. My biggest problem, I think, is that I construct sentences or paragraphs that are too complex or difficult to understand. I don’t always achieve the clarity I would like in communicating my thoughts to others in the form of words. I try to say too much at once and sometimes fail to communicate as a result.

I do not edit my blogs as vigorously as I would like and certainly not as vigorously as I’ve edited other things that I write. Part of this I don’t mind; this is a blog, and is meant more to be a running commentary than a proper essay or treatise. I always re-read my entries before I post them, but that’s a poor time to thoroughly edit. Everything’s so fresh in your mind that you’re just re-thinking the entry rather than actually seeing the words. In the scheme of things, it’s probably not a big deal. But I do feel vulnerable if I criticize someone for poor writing or poor communication, when I know that I’ve got some problems and typos in my own entries that I just never noticed. I can look at the word “though” a million times and see “thought,” because I know what I meant when I wrote it.
The other thing I wanted to mention is that I am sometimes guilty of slight personal attacks. Granted, it’s nothing like what’s on Deadspin. After I watched the HBO segment, I went to the website (which I’d heard of, but never seen) and looked at some of the articles. Wow. It’s hard to defend the site as something to be taken seriously. But then the same could be said of People magazine.
I try to approach my subjects honestly, and so when I feel strongly about something, I don’t want to censor myself if I have a strong emotion. If I am tempted to drop an f-bomb, I usually don’t, but sometimes I just think it’s necessary to communicate the gravity of my emotion. And I do use asterisks – sometimes.
No, what I worry about is my characterization of some people in the game. I try not to brand people as “stupid,” or use other adjectives to describe them personally, rather than to describe their decisions or their attitudes. But I don’t always hold to that. Bob Costas made the point on the show that with the anonymity of the internet, it’s easier to say things online that we would never say to someone in person. That’s true, and it’s tempting to take advantage of the distance (and in my case, obscurity) of the internet to say reckless things about someone.
If I met Jim Bowden in person, I wouldn’t call him a bonehead. But I think that I may have used that term in the past. I know I’ve called some of his trades bone-headed, which is still pretty strong, but isn’t a personal attack on him. I try to make that distinction, even though it’s tempting to vent if you feel strongly about something.
No one in baseball has ever hurt me personally, although I will at times speak out against their personal actions, if they are baseball-related and egregious enough to merit it. The example that comes to mind is Bill Bavasi’s recent request that his players stand by their locker and withstand public humiliation from the press. I felt strongly that this was a terrible and irresponsible thing to do and further disdained it since it seemed an obvious ploy by Bavasi to save his own job, which he has since lost. I said it in the article, and I’ll say it again; I don’t know Bill Bavasi, and he’s never hurt me. But I strongly condemn what he did, and I did so in some strong language there in the article. I expressed nothing but relief when he lost his job, but it’s not like I was out there starting the “” website.
Walking the line of both civility and honesty is difficult, but I try. And even if I fail, I do try to learn from my shortcomings and improve upon them. And without sounding too snide, that’s a lot more than most anonymous bloggers will do.

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