The Media Is Changing, For Better and For Worse

I was at work today trying to find a way to amuse myself, as usual, when I found that daily thought-provoking link. This was incredibly timely, given that I just applied for some sports writing positions.

Now, I know that I have some readers who are either not from the US or who seem to be a little bit more Europeanized than Americanized. I also know that such people tend not to “get” Americans’ deal with sports, particularly American football. If they like anything, it’s often garbage sports like soccer. So, I’ll try my best to make this something you can recognize.

You don’t have to read the whole link above. The short of it is someone wrote to a very successful sports journalist for advice on how to get into sports media as a career, and the sports journalist allegedly responded. For the purposes of my post, really, the most essential thing the alleged author of the email says is this:

Most of my good friends who are columnists for major newspapers and 
websites or work as anchors or commentators on ESPN also are not fans and 
also don’t take sports very seriously. 

You CANNOT be a fan of a team, or even a sport, and do this job 
effectively. I care little what my alma mater, Tennessee, does in sports. 
If you are a fan, it tempers everything you write and say. Again, my 
friends who are award-winning sports columnists in Los Angeles, Dallas, New 
York, Chicago and other cities are much more interested in writing, reading, 
the theater, history, and they have a passion for doing the job, not a 
passion for the subject. 

If you do read the whole thing, I would say that most of what the author wrote is gold. And, certainly, it is beyond me why anyone would want to be a sports writer if he/she doesn’t love to write. Writing was probably my first love. Sports writing or not, I will always write. It doesn’t matter what it’s about or if it’s just a personal blog or what I officially do for a living.

But I think the excerpt above reflects yet another basic generational misunderstanding. In other words, this guy is “old” and increasingly out of touch, at least on a couple of points.

See, I think most of us recognize that “media” is rapidly becoming less professional, less airtight, more technology-based…and more biased. Almost every time I watch ESPN, I see a member of the sports media who clearly seems biased. And some of them have, more or less, confirmed they have some bias. I don’t think anyone who follows college football on ESPN doubts that Kirk Herbstreit loves the Ohio State Buckeyes, and he really doesn’t try to hide it. He played football for the school, so I don’t have a problem with this–especially since he is one of the college football analysts whose opinion I look forward to hearing most. I think he’s a very good analyst. But he’s biased. He’s a fan.

Not just to pick on rival Ohio State–let me whip out examples from my Michigan Wolverines.

About USA Today sports writer and fellow Wolverine Nicole Auerbach, taken right from her little bio on the site:

Nicole Auerbach joined USA TODAY in the fall of 2011 to oversee online college basketball coverage. She’s a New Jersey native and a big fan of Big Ten football and basketball. She firmly believes Madness need not be limited to just March.

For those of you who don’t know, our Michigan is in the Big Ten conference. That’s probably why she’s a Big Ten fan, and I know that’s why I’m a Big Ten fan.

And this is from Chantel Jennings, another Michigan Wolverine, from her days at The Michigan Daily. She is now a sports writer over at espn.com for WolverineNation:

…[I]n four years, I’ve gone from being a premed student to an English major, I’ve been an activist, a GDI, a sorority girl, back to a GDI, an almost-IM sports champion, a volunteer in prisons, a basketball coach, a Spaniard, a Daily writer, a Daily photographer, a student and a Michigan fanI’ve done my best to separate myself from being a fan at the events I covered. But as I sat on the baseline at the Duke/Michigan basketball game this year, I wanted to tell Coach Beilein that I think he’s a great coach. More importantly, I wanted to tell him I think he’s a good man.

Bleck. Beilein. A discussion for another day. Anyways. Moving on…one more example.

Dana Jacobson, a former ESPN anchor, took being a Michigan fan/alum a bit too far by taking a huge dig at another one of our rivals, Notre Dame:

Sources have confirmed that Jacobson, a co-host of “First Take” on ESPN2, currently is serving a one-week suspension because of her behavior at a Jan. 11 roast for ESPN Radio personalities Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic at Atlantic City, N.J…Jacobson reportedly said “F*** Notre Dame,” “F*** Touchdown Jesus,” and “F*** Jesus” in an attempt to talk trash to Mike and Mike co-host Mike Golic, a former Notre Dame football player.

Yes, we take these rivalries seriously, people. I, myself, have trashed rival Michigan State in writing before just because they’re our rival (well…and because they beat us, which is unacceptable).

Here’s the thing:

Biases and a lack of professionalism in journalism are not just in sports journalism. And bad writing in journalism is growing in part because more and more people have access to some type of journalistic platform. And sorry, but blogs have somewhat become journalistic platforms. Why, several major sports companies in the US have bloggers. That’s because these companies are smart enough to see the way technology is changing the media and journalism, and they are rolling with it instead of fighting it and applying old standards, a la “you can’t be a fan” and “you can’t make it writing for some online blog.”

I have to lament this on one hand and thank it on another, because I guarantee you I would have no hope of being a professional sports writer otherwise. Another one of those writers over at WolverineNation came from a blog, and the blog from which he came is run by a guy who has gotten opportunities outside of that blog–a guy who is a respected, widely-accepted source by pretty much everyone in sports when it comes to Michigan sports, particularly Michigan football. Oh, yeah…also pretty sure he’s a Michigan fan. Giving fans journalistic access is all the rage right now, and I don’t think that’s going to stop. And obviously, some of these fans are going to write well enough and report well enough to get bigger and better opportunities.

But there are times when I watch journalists–any kind–interviewing someone, and I’m just sitting there thinking, “This person is an ass.” And I’m thinking that because the journalist is showing too much of a bias. I am not too young to remember when journalists used to calmly ask questions and just sit there and listen to the responses. The response was for the public to render a verdict on–it wasn’t for the journalist to do that. The journalists are there to find the truth and bring the public access to knowledge. But nowadays, the journalists are sitting there judging, and they come into the interview with their minds made up about the people they interview. They don’t hide it well, either. And so the interviews sometimes come off more as attacks, not interviews.

Being a sports fan, I read a lot of sports sources. I used to read AOL FanHouse, which is now rolled into Sporting News. Apparently, Sporting News ditched a lot of the FanHouse writers. Since I like to write sports pieces and since I like to think of myself as mature, I rarely respond to sports pieces with any sort of personal attack on the writer–typical behavior for sports fans. But I probably complained at least half the time in FanHouse comments about the writers. Why? They sucked. One thing fans love to comment is “I can do your job.” FanHouse was the one place I ever wrote anything like that. Pieces always had grammar, spelling and/or factual errors. I’d bet you the writers Sporting News axed were the ones I complained about. Most sports fans whine about the content of sports pieces, but my gripe is almost always the quality of the writing if I’m complaining. Unfortunately, there are now plenty of writers out there–not just in sports–who can’t write and also aren’t being edited well. So, I will give that to the writer of the email all the way at the beginning of this post.

I will also give him that it’s challenging to be a fan, have biases and–if you want to be good at what you do and be fair–be a good sports writer. Hopefully, it’s not impossible. But his email is not the first time I’ve thought about that issue. I thought about it while writing on my college football blog, and I thought about it while watching guys like Kirk Herbstreit on TV who clearly had their team and conference allegiances.

So, I did something that I found myself wishing others in sports media would just come out and do:

I admitted my biases to my readers. In plain English.

I’m a Michigan fan and a Michigan alum, so it goes without saying that I have issues with Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame.

I also just do not like USC and Florida. I just don’t.

I’m a Big Ten fan, so I don’t like the SEC. The Big Ten/SEC thing is a sports version of the North vs the South. I’m from the South and everything, but my loyalty is to my school and the schools with which it is aligned. I also just happen to not like anything that is shoved down my throat, and the sports media does an excellent job of shoving the SEC down everyone’s throat. By the same token, I can’t stand LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Tebow, Peyton Manning and if Tom Brady weren’t a Wolverine I probably wouldn’t be able to stand him.

So, there you have it. I would repeat this little list on any sports job I get if allowed, just for the purpose of full disclosure. Has this admission freed me in my writing? Not entirely. I have had all kinds of issues with admitting that the SEC is the best conference in college football. I am just now developing the ability to admit this, and the SEC has probably been the best conference over the past 5 or 6 years.

But I have written that college football needs Ohio State, Notre Dame, USC and Florida to be elite teams, and that I respect Ohio State and Notre Dame. My second favorite team behind Michigan is Wisconsin, and Wisconsin lost a game at the last second to the hated Michigan State last year. At the end of the season, I wrote that this game was the second best game of the season (after TCU-Baylor, two teams I couldn’t care less about, personally). And once, I received a message from someone who said they liked my writing because I am more down-to-earth than other Michigan fans…in other words, I don’t have all this blind loyalty when it comes to Michigan. Michigan’s a popular pick when it comes to winning the Big Ten and going to the Rose Bowl this coming football season. But I don’t hesitate to tell any and everybody that Michigan will probably lose more games this season than they did last season, won’t play in any BCS bowl and Michigan State will likely win the Big Ten (which probably will include yet another win over Michigan, at which point I will vomit…er, in private).

In other words, it’s like Jennings wrote in the Daily–some of us are fans, i.e. biased, but anyone in the media–or trying to be–needs to separate from bias and exercise the utmost professionalism.

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