Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's the Score?

I'm not qualified to talk about sports journalism, and therefore I merely read this column by my colleague John Gonzalez with interest. I've heard of Deadspin, of course, but had no idea it was now in the hands of a Philadelphia native. But then comes its latest coup, of presenting a lawsuit that appears to be a teenager's half-thought-out, back-and-forth revenge against/boast about New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez for a brief tryst, and this cri de coeur of Dan LeBatard of the Miami Herald. For all I know, Gonzo, or LeBatard, or Sanchez, or the girl have Tweeted, Facebooked, and Deadspun this thing to death by this time this morning. I don't know, and I don't care enough to know.

Both Gonzo and LeBatard, however, present this as some sort of unique fallout of the new media, as if without the Internet, these sort of offenses against society/telling of truths would not happen. But is this not the reaction to the New York Daily News' photo of the execution of Ruth Snyder? Is this not the reaction to Pulitzer and Hearst at the time of "Remember the Maine"? Or the penny press taking on the commercial and political newspapers of the 1830s? Or, for that matter, the underground newspapers of my younger years? The issue always seems to be: We wouldn't say that; therefore no one should say that; because it's irresponsible. And yet the irresponsible always seems to bubble up, and gets tons of readers. (Heck, you could say the attacks on USA Today for its first-issue lead of the death of Princess Grace over the death of a now-forgotten Lebanese president come from the same place.)

But the contrast between Deadspin's motto -- "without access, favor, or discretion" -- and LeBatard's column, in which he salutes himself for keeping a gay player's sexuality confidential until his career was over -- is apparent. LeBatard admits without rebuttal, "I can be accused of protecting him" -- and says he did so as a human being not wanting to expose him to the canards that would be hurled by Joe Q. Fan, possibly leading to a premature end to his playing days. Fair enough. Sports journalists also know, just as those in mainstream coverage of entertainment or politics do, that you can criticize or truth-tell only so far. Any good reporter knows so much more than can be written, and not just because it can't be backed up by two sources. The boundaries pertaining to athletes and sex are shifting the way politicians and sex shifted in the last generation, and for the same reasons: Not just, as LeBatard has it, that people will read it because it's salacious and not be embarrassed or skeptical about it anymore, although that's a big part of it; but on the other side, the respectful establishment side, at least part of society has decided it doesn't want females treated as bedwarmers by the powerful because of the message it sends to women about their own empowerment. So you get the push and the pull, and the line markers move.

At the same time, many are the fans who still want to think of sports as a moment of purity, as fine young men (and women) giving their all merely for the success and fame most of us dreamed of when we were 12 but realized we would never achieve. And there also those who want to think that athletes should still be our children's role models, whether they can be or not. Yet many are the other fans who want every day to get their own revenge for the athletes' getting that adulation, and millions of dollars in many cases, while they are stuck in pedestrian lives, to show the red card and say: See, you are Joe Cool, but I made you.

When journalism -- which used to be a record of what happened in public view -- tries to lift the curtain, it keeps finding multiple curtains. We can say what occurred and be accurate, but we cannot say the truth because the truth only lives in each person's heart and brain. Absent feeling, absent motive and dreams and delusions and lusts, all we describe are events, not truths. Yet events have their own consequences -- it does not matter to the dead of World War I if the last thought the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had was, "Damn, I shouldn't be doing this" -- and we can never know every motive and lust when the heart sometimes deceive even those it resides within. So the recording of public events should be honorable and sufficient. But it's often boring, and a salacious link is fun.

I'm not qualified to talk about sports journalism. I can talk about Indy-car racing a little. Do I really want to know the whole, real story of why Tony Kanaan came to a split with Michael Andretti's team? Sure. There's brain candy behind that curtain. Do I really really want to know, if I knew (which I don't) that it could affect people's livelihood, other drivers' contracts and sponsorships? I don't, but a lot of fans would. So should sports journalism should be in the hands of those, like Deadspin, who don't want to be able to ask a player how his team did and get in return, "Well, our team came to win. If John makes that play, we go home on top. But he didn't, so we didn't. But you've got to give Lower Upper Slobovia credit. They came to play" -- while "everyone knows" that had John not had a crushing hangover because his idol is Charlie Sheen, that play would have been made?

In journalism for about 25 years -- from the time of the Pentagon Papers until the rise of Google -- we made everyone (again, except for alternative weeklies) play by pretty much the same rules. The fact that newspaper circulations were dropping during that entire time perhaps should have told us something. But even today I'm not entirely sure what we could have done about it, although we certainly could have gotten the papers delivered on time and made them easier to read and not headlined day-old airplane crashes as if they had just happened.

What people want to read is a story that they think tells them that really happened, that lifts the curtains. But only in rare cases can journalism lift a curtain the reader doesn't want to see or believes isn't there. And readers often want to see exposed only what they believe is behind the curtain, even if it isn't there or if it's only a small part of the real story. "Children aren't learning? Blame the teachers. I hated my teachers, and teachers make more than I do."

For their part, journalists want to lift the curtains they believe hide the important truths, but let other curtains keep hiding other truths that they see as less important, distracting, or not socially beneficial. Every now and then they get a bit of financial power and can be both journalists and respectable; then technological or social changes make them Grub Street crawlers again.  Journalism usually is respectable only when respectable journalists have a near-monopoly on its supply. This is sad for those of us who have spent most of our careers being respectable journalists with normal middle-class lives, playing by the rules we thought made us pretty much the same sort of professionals as accountants or lawyers, but there's nothing Dan LeBatard can do about it except to say, as the headline on Gonzalez's column states: He's playing a different game, and as a sports journalist knows, games have winners and losers.

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