Sports Journalism’s Pissing Match

In a Vanity Fair article, Buzz Bissinger explains his tirade (tirade here) last week on HBO’s Costas Now against Deadspin blogger Will Leitch. Bissinger later apologized, not for his feelings but for the manner in which he expressed them. It was a classy move.

But the Costas segment was a stunning illustration of the real angst between mainstream sports writers and the sports blogosphere, which is increasingly setting the agenda for all sports reporting these days. As a guy who’s been following this for a long time, I found it painful to watch Bissinger make a fool of himself, and I felt equally uncomfortable watching Costas try and defend the status quo. Both are incredibly smart guys, but they’re blinded by their own perspective.

Costas referred to sports writers with “real credentials and real access.” The comment was obviously meant to separate “real” sports writers from (unreal) bloggers, and this doesn’t get anybody anywhere.

He also referred to the “legitimate complaint” about the sports blogosphere, namely the tone of gratuitous potshots and criticisms. Both Bissinger and Costas used quotes from commenters to make their case, which caused Leitch to note that, “surely we can differentiate between the blogger and the commenters.”

As I’ve written in the past, sports journalism has changed dramatically since Watergate brought to the surface the form of journalism known as “gotcha.” It has gone from entirely cheerleading to some excellent and insightful work by serious writers, be they mainstream or other. There’s still the sense, though, that access to athletes is a gift granted by their owners (yes, they are “owned”), and that this can be a significant conflict of interest, especially when such access crosses from professional to personal. Professional sports leagues are going out of their way to restrict access, because they want to control their message, and the extent to which the mainstream press is forced to go along with this is sad.

One of the very definitions of “news” goes like this: dog bites man, not news; man bites dog, news. So the norm is not news, and therefore when athletes perform according to their gifts and expectations, it doesn’t fit the definition of news. The exceptional athlete — Tiger Woods, for example — is certainly newsworthy, but the PGA’s slogan is “These Guys Are Good.” In that light, a “good” performance isn’t news, but a bad performance is. Yet we rarely see stories when “these guys are bad.”

Hell, show me, shot-by-shot, the 15 that John Daly scored on number 9, because that’s news.

So there is a symbiotic relationship between sports and sports writers, and that’s okay. But that isn’t the only form of sports journalism, for the output of this symbiotic relationship is fair game for observers (and fans), because both (the sport and the pro writer) are on the same pedestal. News about the news is one of the hallmarks of the blogosphere, and it may make the mainstream press uncomfortable, but it is every bit as much “journalism” as that which is published by the pros.

Moreover, I most disagree with the assertion by blogosphere critics (such as Bissinger and Costas) that bloggers are a part of any real or perceived “dumbing down” of the information stream. Any time I hear that, I’m immediately drawn to the Lippmannesque reasonings of colonial thinking, that culture must have an élite class to lead the ignorant and emotionally-driven masses. That is insulting and just plain wrong. The voices from the mass may seem crude to the pedestal dwellers of the culture, but those voices count as much as anyone’s.

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