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Costas…Then: Sports Media as Class Struggle
2008-05-06 18:27
by Mike Carminati
The most serious threat to our institutions comes from those who refuse to face the need for change.

I finally watched Bob Costas's recorded live HBO special on the state of sports today as part of his semi-regular "Costas Now" sports talk series. The ninety-minute special consisted of five segments on different topics each with a Costas-intoned intro and a three-person panel interviewed by the host. Of the five topics, I found the one on the Internet mist intriguing.

Coincidentally, I finished Cormac McCarthy's latest master opus, The Road, this weekend as well. One was about two individuals trying to subsist in a world that had long since died, and the other was a novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Costas impaneled DeadSpin founder Will Leitch, Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, and Browns receiver Braylon Edwards for the discussion on the Internet. The topic was poorly framed from the get-go and quickly devolved into Costas and Bissinger tag-teaming Leitch while Costas from time to time extended a hand to the reticent Edwards to get his licks in.

The printing press was at first mistaken for an engine of immortality by everybody except Shakespeare.
—Marshall McLuhan

Costas introduced the special with the words, "It used to be that this was how we followed sports," accompanied with a shot of Dandy Don Meredith on an outmoded TV and a few old covers of SI from its glory days. "Today, for many sports fans, this is how you do it," Costas continued as a disembodied laboriously typed "". As if the often openly inebriated Meredith and the monopolistic pre-Sport SI are the ideal exemplars of sports journalism, and as if anyone who typically uses the web would waste their time typing in a URL they frequent instead of just selecting a favorite. It is a minor point but it gets to the level of experience the people framing the piece actually have with the Internet.

Next, they cut to Michael Wilbon who asks, "Bloggers? What are their credentials? Where do their opinions come from, just sitting on the couch?" This is from one of the blowhards that host the execrable Pardon the Interruption, a near self parody of sports talk with two hosts attempting to shout the other down while spewing highly inaccurate, knee-jerk reactions to topics: sports talk reduced to entertaining pap for the masses.

They leave it to two usually controversial athletes to be the voice of reason: Curt Schilling ("There's a huge disconnect between the reporter and the player they are covering.") and Sir Charles Barkley ("It's become like gotcha—they want confrontation."). Disembodied Costas ends the intro with, "It is for better or for worse an entirely different sports media landscape," by which, the viewer soon finds out, he means worse.

After a segment on sports talk in which the person with the pro position, Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, states without any real challenge, "Do I go crazy on the negative? I'm not stupid. I go crazy on the negative sometimes," Disembodied Costas turns to what he calls, "The wild west of the internet, the Blogosphere."

Leitch accurately states, "If you are really waiting to read the game story in the newspaper to find out what happened in the Cardinals game last night, you're probably over fifty," even though this delineation is used continually against him in the panel segment. Mike Scherr of Fire Joe Morgan finishes the segment intro ideally with, "The more transparent the world is, the better off we are. It's the basis of like democracy." Costas then smarms, "And who's gonna take a position against democracy, right?" We learn quickly that he will.

Costas goes quickly to the offensive, "Sure, it's 100% right when you say you don't need credentials in journalism to say the Indians should pull Carmona in the eighth [actually, Scherr said it but to Costas they and everything they represent is part and parcel the same]. But these are not the reasonable criticisms of the worst of the sports Blogosphere. The reasonable criticism is of the tone of the gratuitous potshots and mean spirited abuse. That's the reasonable criticism." Costas gets ready to rumble.

While Leitch is responding with a reasonable comment on how people differ online as opposed to face-to-face, but before he can continue, Bissinger figuratively tags Costas and begins his pummeling, "I have to interject because I feel very strongly about this. I think you are full of [beep]…Because I think blogs are dedicated to cruelty. They are dedicated to journalistic dishonesty. They are dedicated to speed. I am over fifty." After some disjointed challenge/allusion to legendary sports writer W.C. Heinz, Bissinger pulls out a file and reads some comments from one of the DeadSpin writers, "I can't tell if this guy's name is Balls Deep or Big Daddy Drew Balls." After he is told it is Big Daddy, Bissinger continues seemingly forgetting he is a man well over fifty who refers to himself as Buzz, "Big Daddy. OK, so Balls Deep. I will read a bit. Here's, here's, here's, here's insight in blogging because it really p*sses the S out of me…Seriously, because it is the complete dumbing down of our society, the complete dumbing down."

After reading some inane comment about notoriously overweight pitcher Rich Garces and his breasts, which Bissinger peppers with exclamatory and often blue commentary, he demands, "How can you be proud of that stuff?" This is followed up Costas (virtual tag again) reading reader comments on Leitch's blog and demanding an explanation as to their base content. This is not that dissimilar to asking an author to defend comments written on his work in an annotated edition or, even more to the point, on notes scribbled in the margin in a library edition.

Costas then riles Bissinger up again by quoting the dire fate of newspapers. Bissinger bites: "Yeah, of course, and maybe that's why I am so heated and angry because this guy [gesticulating toward Leitch], whether we like it or not, is the future. I'm not the future. [And the future] is going yo be glib. It is going, generally, to be profane [this from the man with the four-letter intro]. It is going to be quick. It's often going to be inaccurate."

Tag back to Costas: "That is a generalization. It has a lot of truth to it [which is?], but it is not all."

Bissinger, tag again, "It is a generalization and there are some good blogs out there [a statement repeated often throughout but never backed up with actual names], but I think they are very few and far between [also, not backed up]. I think the quality of the writing generally in blogs is despicable and, I say this as a writer who has spent forty years of my life trying to perfect my craft."

Finally, during the summation, Bissinger takes one last potshot, which is quick (by which I assume he means facile), glib, and profane, all the things he accuses blogging, and I quote it with all its excesses here: "You are sort of a Jimmy Olsen on Percocet. I mean, you are sort of. It's sort of strikes me that you say you don't want to be in the press box because the press box will get in the way. Actually, the reason there is a press box is because you have a certain vantage point of the game. And what it seems to me you are saying is, 'I don't want facts to. I don't want facts to inhibit me, facts to get in my way. So I am going to sit in my little room, and I'm, I, I, I, I'm gonna give this nebulous fan's voice', and I just don't know where you are coming from [so true]. I think you are perpetuating the future, and I think the future is in the hands of guys like you is really going to dumb us down to a degree that I don't know if we can recover from."

Aside from improper uses of "perpetuating" and "really", ending on a dangling participle, and generally speaking like he claims a blogger writes—I guess they give Pulitzers to anybody nowadays—, Bissinger gets to the core of the issue. The established media do not understand how a point of view that is not gleaned from the same privileged point of view as theirs could have merit. How can it not be better to be in the press box? How can it not be better to be in close contact with the players? He needs a validation of his worldview, a worldview that is rapidly disappearing from the landscape of sports reporting.

They are disappearing so rapidly that most of the major sports publications have long since recognized this and feature blogs via their online doppelgangers, even the New York Times, the bastion of journalistic integrity that the interviewees were repeatedly championing. The doom-and-gloom future to which Bissinger incessantly refers is not just here, it has been here for some time, and the world seems to be surviving.

The seasons change their manners, as the year Had found some months asleep and leapt them over.
—William "Author" Shakespeare, Henry IV

It all reminds my of my old Sociology professor and the man who coined the term WASP (and champion of the excellent though now-defunct Pennsylvania Book Center), E. Digby Baltzell, who foresaw how an aristocratic caste can hold down the elite in his seminal analysis, "The Protestant Establishment". Baltzell was speaking of politics but it still holds true in culture of sports media.

Baltzell's central thesis is that no state (or here, industry) "can long endure without both the liberal democratic and the authoritative aristocratic processes." By democracy, Batltzell means the "process which assures that men of ability and ambition, regardless of background, are allowed to rise into the elite." By aristocracy, he refers to an upper-class community who "are born to positions of high prestige and assured dignity because their ancestors [or antecedents] have been leaders" and that they "are carriers of a set of traditional values which command authority because they represent the aspirations of the elite and the rest of the population."

The aristocracy in sports journalism is clearly the print media, mainly the newspapers. They seem themselves as the representing the traditional journalistic ideals. If sports media purport to be democratic in Baltzell's sense, then the best writers from each discipline—print, broadcasting, internet, etc.—would be allowed to rise into the sports media elite.

Baltzell goes on to say that the leaders will form an establishment, which is ideally "traditional and authoritative and not (italics his) coercive and authoritarian," that the establishment "must be constantly rejuvenated by new members of the elite" or it will instead become an impermeable caste. A caste for Baltzell "protects is privileges and prestige but does not continue (1) to contribute leadership or (2) to assimilate new elite members, primarily because of their…origins." That is, they now longer "stoop to conquer". Once the establishment becomes a caste, "the traditional authority of an establishment is in grave danger of disintegrating."

If this does not describe the current state of sports media, I will eat John Wetteland's salt-encrusted hat. The print media have now become the upper class caste that look down on other media types and refuse to allow them entrance into their inner circles, to the Hall of Fame and award voting, and to their executive washrooms (though did you notice Bill Conlin's personal hygiene? Eek!).

Today's journalism is obsessed with the kinds of things that tend to preoccupy thirteen-year-old boys: sports, sex, crime, and narcissism.... Moreover, if today's journalism has a driving principle, that principle centers on an obsession with hypocrisy…[R]eporters frame their stories by saying implicitly, "These people aren't what they say they are. Look, they lied to you." Although there is a cultural role for balloon deflators, journalism has brought this characteristic attitude of the early adolescent to the adult world and elevated it to the status of cultural religion.
—Steven Stark. "Where the Boys Are," Atlantic Monthly, September 1994.

Baltzell sees the Great Depression as the result of the aristocratic caste being out of touch with the needs of the country. "It is no wonder that a majority of American intellectuals felt that perhaps some kind of eternal justice had been done when the unquestioned rule of the country club-business establishment came to an end as of the stock market crash of 1929…wrote Edmund Wilson, 'One couldn't help being exhilarated at the sudden unexpected collapse of that stupid gigantic fraud. It gave us a new sense of freedom; and it gave us a new sense of power.'"

Repeatedly, Costas and the rest turned to the golden age of sports reporting, an era in which reporters created the visions of many a fan, who was not lucky enough to be at the ballpark. Those were halcyon days, but they ended with the advent of sports on TV. By the early Nineties, sports reporting was an intractable morass of traditional game reporting and rudimental analysis conducted largely as it had been for decades. Meanwhile more substantive analysis was being done by a new sabermetrically-minded generation of analysts led by Bill James. At the same time, the mania that is fantasy—baseball, football, etc.—was just taking root.

Fans were looking for new ways to analyze the game, and the traditional outlets were not supplying them. Their greatest concession was perhaps the full page of baseball coverage in the Sunday paper, something that Peter Gammons helped to popularize, that and maybe displaying a fuller list of league leaders in Sunday editions. Until fairly recently newspapers failed to include more than basic game stats in box scores, no season averages or cumulatives.

So while the print sports media were still the standard-bearers from a great tradition, they failed to incorporate new ideas and new ways of reporting to meet fans' needs. They were ready to be toppled just as the internet took hold.

Journalism is popular, but it is popular mainly as fiction. Life is one world, and life seen in the newspapers another.
—Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1908.

In journalism it is simpler to sound off than it is to find out. It is more elegant to pontificate than it is to sweat.
—Harold, Jan. 25, 1990

This isn't the Ohio State School of Journalism, this is the big time. — Reporter nonpareil Les Nessman on "WKRP in Cincinnati"

Baltzell concludes, "What is honored in a land is usually cultivated there. The traditional standards…are in danger of losing authority largely because the American upper class, whose…members may still be deferred to and envied because of their privileged status, is no longer honored in the land. For its standards of admission have gradually come to demand the dishonorable treatment of far too many distinguished Americans for it to continue, as a class, to fill its traditional function as moral leadership."

The more that the old-school newspaper journalists try to point to their past and their traditions, the less impact they will have. And while their inner circle may still sneer at the internet, their publishers have embraced it.

Though I cannot locate the quote, Baltzell would often advise that one can see that the establishment is losing its power when it had to exert it. A class in power has the luxury of not typically having to use its power. What can be said of Costas and Bissinger's bullying of Leitch other than it was the last dying spasms of the traditional sports media exerting its power over an upstart. The last bit of power they can muster is as a moral high road based on its past to bring the youngsters to heel.

As their numbers dwindle so shall their power. They remind me of those stories of Japanese soldiers who disconnected from their units supposedly continued to fight World War II.

Baltzell ends by saying that this struggle cannot end unless "a minority of established leaders, with the authority to fill the moral vacuum that now engulfs us all, steps forward above the conforming crowd and, like Moses in ancient Egypt, shows us the way." This could be done by letting experienced bloggers into the inner sanctum of the journalistic elite, i.e., the Hall of Fame and award voting. Whatever happens, I take it that Costas and Bissinger will not be leading that charge.

2008-05-07 02:50:08
1.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Thank you, Mike, for a well-considered and researched piece. The most elegant thing about it is the way it makes its own argument -- clearly there is worthwhile writing to be found on blogs. We're lucky to have such erudite examples on the Toaster.

Statheads vs. scouts. Aristocrats vs. peasantry. Sunni vs. Shia. Catholics vs. Protestants. Yankees vs. Red Sox. History is filled with epic conflicts. I'm reminded of Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions." The establishment benefits from maintaining status quo, so they ignore any evidence that would threaten their position.

Change will come, belatedly, as the older generation passes on. But it is disheartening that baseball (and the media's coverage of it) once was on the leading edge of society and now drags behind gathering moss and dirt as it goes.

2008-05-07 14:36:20
2.   joejoejoe
Great writing Mike! I never read any Baltzell but now I'm excited to learn more about him.
2008-05-09 20:35:25
3.   spudrph
Absolutely terrific piece of writing. I have seen parts of it, and it just gets me angrier and sadder every time I see it.

And, like all the conflicts Mark listed, it doesn't HAVE TO BE THIS WAY! Loving Roger Angell doesn't mean I can't read Will Leitch! And vice versa! To think that way is to think I read "3 Nights In August" to see how the games came out!

Bissinger and Angell take you places blogs can't, and they write about those places better than most people , on or off the Interwebs, can.

What I think is the core of this issue is that people like Bissinger can't stand the fact that they can't hide behind their authority anymore.

If Mark were to write that the Rockies won the World Series in 1955, he'd get called on it. And he'd stand up, admit he goofed, and either edit the post or retract it or something.

But the Bissingers and Joe Morgans of the world are starting to get called on things, and they cant stand that their every utterance isn't cast in stone merely because they said it.

The truth of a statement exists independent of the reputation of the speaker, and a few of these stuffed shirts have to do their homework now.

Boo hoo.

2008-05-10 07:57:57
4.   Chyll Will
Excellent work, Mike. I've often taken the same stance against the traditional media in Banter, but you have researched and articulated the point and gist in a way that, honestly, what more can be said? Insightful and thorough.

I agree that the current "traditional" writer can, by practice or choice, stimulate the mind in ways that the average blogger cannot or has not. But therein lies the point that the writers protesting bloggers have completely missed or ignored: there are exceptional bloggers who can write (a cursory click-and-scroll through Toaster says much about the high quality of writing you'll likely encounter), and moreover there is a connection with the blogger and the public, a relationship established over real time that is not there with the "traditional" writer, in regard to reiterating information or an opinion about what was written, implied or referred to. Also, as what normally happens here, one reference can inspire a thought that may not be related to the original point, and it can still be discussed without impunity by the blogger or by loyal readers. You can't do that with a newspaper (and if you try and get through to someone, more often than not you can expect to be cut off or shouted down worse than what you may hear on the radio...)

Privileged or not, today's sports writers have abused their position to the point that they have become the subjects of their own implied ire and consternation. They more often speak for themselves alone, chastising those who beg for representation or validation of their own non-professional opinions.

That they cannot accept or understand this is almost as sad a spectacle as the government some of these writers have increasingly impugned as the downfall of us all; naturally they take two sides on the issue to secure their privileges. I'm not going to even call for a boycott, because it is so clear that the masses are evolving beyond their position in the information cycle (articulate or not), that the bullying and disdain they reflect in writing and on TV can be "written off" as simply nothing more than hubris.

No one likes to have implied that their job is easy, but when you incite people to seek solutions and relief for themselves, it becomes just that. Well done Mike, and I'll be sure to refer others to this point, thank you very much. >;)

2008-05-11 15:48:24
5.   rbj
ESPN airs Around the Horn, PTI, Jim Rome & Colin Cowherd. I don't want traditional "journalist" media complaining about bloggers.

And commentors on a blog are like a couple of guys at the bar watching the game.

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