Friday, May 02, 2008

A word on blogs

I think the blog vs. mainstream media issue deserves comment. In true shitbird fashion, I'm a day late and a dollar short. Fortunately, no one reads this, so I don't think it's going to cause a stir.

I was fairly astonished at the CostasNow segment between Will Leitch (of deadspin.com) and Buzz Bissinger (who wrote Friday Night Lights). Bissinger's outrage was, obviously, the first thing that got my attention, but what surprised me more was the thesis of his argument, which seemed to be:

-You're biased;
-You don't check facts;
-You sensationalize your stories;
-Newspaper and the sports media in general do not do these things; and
-You are killing newspapers, etc. by taking advantage of lazy young jerks that don't want to pay the fifty cents and take the ten minutes to read a "real" article.

(-also, you don't know anything about anything and are not qualified)

All of this is completely true. Blogs are not good sources for factual information (nor are many sites on the internet), they are not subject to any review for moral, grammatical, or creative standards, and they are hopelessly biased, even on the largest stage. (I'm thinking of The Sports Guy, if that's not clear.)

The problem with this fundamentally sound argument is that there's no logical conclusion. Should blogs be held to a higher standard by some sort of journalistic authority? Should they be restricted in some fashion? Should famous sports figures be able to sue bloggers for posting damaging pictures that the athletes had no idea could end up on the internet?

Maybe some people think the answer is yes, but any such restriction or oversight would be unconstitutional. Stating your opinion, smearing people, and misreporting the facts is not new in sports (or society) and is not unique to blogs. Newspapers do it all the time - the internet is just more conducive to problems. However, it's all perfectly legal according to the standard set forth in the Supreme Court's opinion in People v. Larry Flint. The essential conclusion of the case is that famous people can be lampooned, insulted, parodied, or suggestively commented upon legally because it's in the interest of free speech to hear opinions on the people that matter in the public sphere. And the Court is correct - one of America's greatest strengths is its tolerance for unpopular opinions, idiocy, and vulgarity. That tolerance helped us achieve social change, and also resulted in Richard Pryor.

Despite its many shortcomings, the internet does provide something in the way of journalistic integrity that newspapers do not: interactivity that leads to accountability. If you write something that is not fair or not true (or even something that is fair or true), your readers (even my two) have a universe of information at their fingertips and can double-check it, analyze it, review it, and critique it. They are, in effect, more powerful in numbers and capability than any editor could hope to be. (Blogs were a big reason the erroneous nature of Vescey's Post story, linked to above, became widely known in less than a day. A retraction along with a full article discussing the situation was printed two days ago.)

For example: A few days ago I wrote about Geoff Huston's 27 assist game. In my article, I stated that Geoff Huston had played at Texas Tech with Bill Cartwright. I got my information from this article, on NBA.com, which, by the way, failed to note that Huston had accomplished one of the more productive games in the history of his position. The article stated that "The 6-2 guard, who played his college ball for Texas Tech University, was one of five rookies to make the roster that season, along with Bill Cartwright..."

If I had read the above-quoted sentence in context, I would have realized it was describing Huston's rookie year on the Knicks. But I went too fast and didn't think too hard (this was in the course of a lot of research because Geoff Huston, uh, doesn't exactly have a lot of history out there). I made a dumb mistake and should have known better for a variety of reasons.

I literally have two readers and one of them caught the error, told me that Bill Cartwright had gone to USF, and I fixed it within about an hour. And I have two readers! Can you imagine the input that comes in to some of the larger blogs?

Even if this accountability doesn't shore up the writing as a whole, that does not detract from the greater fact that has been revealed by the proliferation of sports blogs: newspapers and the media in general have overestimated the value of journalistic integrity and underestimated that value of opinion and information to the average sports fan.

Journalistic integrity is very important, especially in the world of news and politics, where accurate representation is one of the most important elements of The American Democracy. If people don't know the truth, they can't be expected to participate in a meaningful way. If people aren't confident of the soundness of their news reporting (not just political news, but the condition of the country and its people in general), this creates a significant impediment to the whole democratic process.

That's why the New York Times and its peers have felt no pressure from the blogging phenomenon. Political blogs have no value compared to a respected paper that gets its information from direct sources all over the globe, has strict editorial standards, and presents opinions from some of the foremost scholars and writers in the world.

Sports are different. In sports, there is a place for truth, but its value is secondary to the entertainment. People do not watch sports to learn. They watch sports for their own enjoyment, because watching two people or two teams competing is thrilling. The desire for pleasure extends to the world of sports journalism, which at its core is developed to bring the sports fan closer to the game and give them a better understanding of the athletes or teams they follow.

In this respect, newspapers have been the best resource for many years because of the unprecedented access that sportswriters enjoy. They are the conduits between the adoring (or abhorring) public and the athletes that trail only movie stars in fame.

But newspaper and the extended media have limitations, some of which are intrinsic and some of which many media outlets bring upon themselves. The intrinsic limitations are volume and timing - there are probably thirty bloggers for every sportswriter, and they can update and react to issues almost immediately (except for me, apparently).

The more significant limitation, though, is the one the media has wrought upon itself: editorial censorship. Newspapers and networks have broad audiences who will be offended by wild accusations, coarse subject-matter, and trivial but interesting linguistic mechanisms ("Fuck"). Bloggers, on the other hand, are free to write with absolute candor and in politically incorrect and often offensive terms.

It is perfectly understandable that mainstream sports media adheres to a high, politically correct standard - they make money by appealing to a broad segment of society (people who read the whole paper). But quite often, sports fans are not a such a broad audience, and a good part of the group is comprised of mostly adult white males who enjoy R-rated movies (at least), sex, drinking, dirty jokes, violence, and the like. Mainstream media is not the medium most conducive to reaching these fans - their coverage can be painfully vanilla and is often cliched and repetitive. The optimal medium for reaching this less-appropriate fan base is the blogs. And that's why many are experiencing such a gain in popularity.

At the core of the issue is what Leitch noted on HBO. The world of blogging is a meritocracy and the most entertaining content is what draws readers. People don't pay a fee and won't stay if you don't keep 'em. Although the writing may be bad, the facts wrong, the speculation virulent, and the sensationalism trashy, apparently, there are some people out there who like that.

People getting what they want is not a threat to journalism - it's a wake up call from all of the reading public who have been stuck with inadequate coverage, poor announcing, inane human interest stories, and an emphasis on political correctness the leaves many fans unfulfilled. There's a reason it's better to have two newspapers in town than one - competition improves the product.

The following is a parody of the cliched sportswriting.

Let the games begin.

As always, e-mail me at dontgiveupthebasketballblog@gmail.com

7 comments:

MattG21 said...

This is really good.
You should send it to Bissinger.


p.s.
That was insane

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