Thursday, July 26, 2007

The difference between sportswriters and porn stars

... is that sportswriters only suck some of the time.

Seriously though, in a comment to the last post, Big C raises an interesting point. Here’s the relevant part:

I really enjoy reading this blog, and have no interest in ripping the scab off of the whole sportswriting dust-up, but kvetching about overwrought, hyperbolic sportswriting is like complaining that porn is repetitive, superficial, and flashy.

Both porn and sportswriting are diversions; entertainment, if you will, and to be successful in the field of entertainment is to be as outrageous and attention-getting as possible. Calm, metered and pensive sportswriting would not, on the whole, sell papers. When the least-common-denominator sports fan sits on his toilet to peruse the daily rag, he is not looking to read a exquisitely written 10,000 word piece by William Safire or George F. Will. He wants the over-the-top rant from Joe C. Schmo (the C is for Cuuunt), so that he and the world of sports radio have something to yell about the next day. I believe that this is the reason that some of the most loud and obnoxious figures in sports media (Rome, Cowherd, and, to an extent, Screamin' A) are also the most popular. Popular commentary and column makes for increased sales, period. If it were in the sports media's best interest to devote an entire 10-hour program to John Clayton, they would have. (Aside: Does Clayton have his own show? I love that guy.) Homers buy papers and watch TV, and that is just a gruesome fact of life.

I love the sports and sportswriting related stuff, really, as it is probably the most entertaining and fun part of my typical workday. But wailing about the horrible, sloppy and preachy sportwriting that you voluntarily endure is an odd thing to put next to telling people to shut the fuck up about high ticket prices.

As usual, I agree with you, to a point. And the point is well taken that our complaints about overwrought sportswriting are, themselves, often overwrought. Also as usual, I’m going to use this discussion as an excuse to get way too philosophical.

To put myself in the unusual position of defending the field, the difference between sports journalism and the other forms of entertainment you mentioned – porn and entertainment television, and really any form of entertainment -- is that sports journalism is still journalism. And journalism has much higher aims than simply entertaining. It's fundamentally an informative medium: that's why I generally like guys like Hansen (the AZ Star's columnist), as well as great non-fluff feature writers or investigative guys or beat reporters. They tell you something you didn't know before, whether that something is that Ryan Howard has hit more home runs off of lefties than anybody else this year, or how blind people play sports (Beep Baseball!).

That's precisely why I hate post-Disney ESPN so much, as well as sports talk radio, most of the Page 2 writers, etc. They view their field as purely entertainment. And while it would probably cripple the field to neglect the fact that you have to entertain your reader/viewer, it completely invalidates it, in my eyes, to treat it as purely entertainment. I don't think a sports page should read like Star magazine.

If you’ll allow me a (hypocritically) hyperbolic analogy, imagine the results if the entire field of journalism took the approach you describe, and figured all that mattered was getting readers. Would we know what our city councils decided in their last meeting? Would we hear about yet another bombing in Iraq? Probably not, and definitely not as much: we’d get Paris Hilton, 24/7. Look at the difference between the New York Times front page and the New York Post’s. In a purely ratings-driven profession, we’d have much more of the latter: look at TV news with its fearmongering, “it bleeds it leads” approach.

Another example would be art. Say every movie producer just wanted to maximize viewers and, thereby, revenues. You’d have no more indie films, no more film for art’s sake at all. You would have never had a Hitchcock or Fellini. You’d get Transformers or Spiderman 7 twenty times a year.

What I’m saying is that an art, especially one as important as journalism, cannot succumb completely to the marketplace and retain its function. You’ve mentioned in passing, I think in jest, your socialist leanings. If you're an anti-capitalist or familiar with capitalism in any respect, you probably realize that journalism is placed in a precarious position within a capitalist system. (Not as precarious as under fascism, and precarious in a different way from socialism, but precarious nonetheless.) News outlets need to sell ads to survive, and they need readers to do that. But if they abandon any pretext of a guiding purpose and morality to their profession – if they say they’re going to be purely entertainment – then they’ve betrayed the purpose of the press.

And it has a purpose. For all my bitching about journalists, I do believe that journalism – including sports journalism – is a noble profession. Ideally, it’s an art – maybe the only art -- that serves a critical purpose beyond aesthetics or entertainment: it is the Fourth Estate ideal, an entity that ensures Democracy. I actually think journalism is the most perfect form of writing, because of who it can reach, and because of what it can do. (Elitist rant alert!) The American proletariat has proven itself, in recent years, as dangerously, overwhelmingly uninformed. Promoting that ignorance by pandering to it is not going to help our society. And journalism is supposed to help a free society.

Of course, it’s a hell of a big step down from the Fourth Estate to Bill Conlin’s latest dumbass diatribe. Sports journalism has a vaguer sense of purpose, which complicates this whole nobility discussion: because it comments on a form of entertainment rather than the workings of the government or the world, it probably should rely a bit more on entertaining its viewer. But I don’t think that means it should abandon information and analysis altogether. I still think that pursuing such an important profession demands a commitment and responsibility beyond pandering to whatever people want to read or watch. I still think sports journalists should be journalists.

Is that pandering the fault of the journalists themselves, or of the institutions? Both, I would think. But it's disingenuous to suggest that a sports journalist has to do that pandering; it’s still possible to succeed without it. Look at Gammons or Neyer or Wilbon (or thousands of others, including the vast majority of non-ESPN journalists and a few of our readers). In fact, I don’t think many sports journalists actually do forsake the informative purpose. But the people you and I have mentioned – sports talk radio hosts, Sportscenter anchors, the worst of the print columnists – do exactly that. And so I think it’s necessary to call them out for doing it. Even if their bosses tell them to do it – even if it is their job – they still choose to do it. And it’s still shitty.

That's one of the reasons I feel the need to rip sensationalist sportswriting.


I am david beckham's tears. said...

Do you think Bill Conlin is that much of an schrutebag in real life, or is this just schtick?

I agree that journalism does definitely have an important and potentially noble role in a free-market capitalist society, but so long as the Pabst-swilling cretins of the world dominate the sports market, it will be the burden of the intelligent sportsfan to slog through the horseshit in order to find anything worthwhile.

This distinction between sports entertainment and sports journalism is one that, for the sake of the medium, needs to be made very clear. I posit that one of the things that piss people like yourself and Diesel off (justifiably) is the wolf in sheep's clothing: the 'sports-related ranter' passing him or herself off as a legitimate journalist. I feel the same way about McDonald's passing themselves off as purveyors of actual food: The phrases, 'food-flavored entertainment', or 'imitation food' are not in prominent use now, but, by cod, should be.

I propose the following solution to sports journalism's sales/integrity conundrum. Why don't the papers develop some sort of color-coded system, a bullshit factor, perhaps? Works for Homeland Security. Or how about an asterisk next to the name of pseudo-journalists who just use their column for spiteful and latently racist blathering?

Bill Conlin*,

* = Not really a journalist.

- Big C (the C is for Communism!)

P.S. I would say that journalistic outlets have an equally tough time in quasi-socialist (I consider the U.S to be quasi-capitalist) societies as well. There was no truth in 'Pravda', and no news in 'Izvestia'.

Jeff said...

All well thought out points and all are correct in their own way.

My problem with sportswriters is less the sensationalism and more the lack of logic or ability to support their statements. I don't care if you think player A is better than player B, but don't give me stupid reasons and cherry picked stats to support it. The qualities that I dislike about sportswriters is probably true of most journalists (probably worse in political matters), but I don't know their subject matter well enough to call them on it.