Monday, June 22, 2009

Cuban missive crisis; why it took so long to address Ibáñez and Sosa

Here you thought you were crazy for thinking the blogs vs. MSM debate was as talked-out as, well, steroid use among major league baseball players.

(Since it was on this blog that Stephen Brunt anticipated the desire to make a hero of former sportswriter Steve Wilstein, a post was appropriate, even at this late date.)

That is a best stab at feeding two birds with one scone. It hangs off Mark Cuban's wingnuttery about ESPN needing to put up "a page of blacklisted blogs and websites whose posts they won't comment on or report on in any way" and the whole "PED blame game" (Buster Olney, which has dominated baseball news over the past fortnight.

The latter is embodied by the Jerod Morris-Raúl Ibáñez controversy and the leak about about Sammy Sosa being one of the 104 major-league baseball players who tested positive in 2003. What all of this can be boiled down is that some, present company included, have more trouble than others accepting that everyone has a way to express an opinion. (Present company included, sometimes.)

To be completely honest, the first thought after seeing Cuban's post on Friday night was to laugh it off. If Cuban wants to think, "ESPN and local newspapers, radio and TV media have become the patsies of bloggers," with respect to how trade rumours are reported in sports, well, that's his journey. A rich man saying whatever is on his mind with no consideration of logic, gee, that has never happened before.

Point being, whipping up a post with a headline such as "Mark Cuban has stupid ideas about blogs" accomplishes sweet eff-all. The blogs vs. MSM debate is also a go-nowhere play, since it does not get at why Jerod Morris became a flashpoint. Try to get past the snark.

Maybe mentioning Cuban is just a way to make this seem fresh. There are similarities with how Morris v. Ibáñez played out over the past fortnight. As the creator of the Clavin Rule, I'm inclined to agree with Cuban's point about trade rumours (it's best left to the people who specialize in it), but don't miss the point. Cuban dislikes that any doofus can whip up a trade rumour.

It was a similar story with how Morris vs. Ibáñez played out. It was not really about whether "a blogger" (see Bucholtz's explanation) said Ibáñez is a 'roidoid because sports nuts are cynical about why the 37-year-old Philadelphia Phillies outfielder's production far surpasses his career statistics.

Buster Olney blew that canard all to hell:
"Some of the mainstream media outrage to the (Jerod Morris) column was fascinating, because some of the same writers who have said they will never vote for a player they suspect of using steroids are saying it's wrong for others to blog about their own suspicions of players' steroid use. Think about the laughable inconsistency there."
Exactly. At the heart of it was a desire to control the narrative with baseball's steroids saga. This involves protecting the privilege of who gets to call someone a cheater. The latter is basically expressed as, "Hey, you must have been in journalism this long before you can say that!"

Those in paying media gigs would like to keep that for themselves. Like Colin Quinn on mid-1990s Saturday Night Live, they have their story and they're stickin' to it.

That lent itself into turning Jerod Morris into a straw man. When traditional media such as The FAN 590's Prime Time Sports did not bother using Morris' name, it made it easier to do this. If "a blogger" wrote Ibáñez's "great start was probably due to steroids," hence all bloggers wrote Ibáñez's great start was probably due to steroids.

(For the last time, Morris did not say it, see for yourself.)

'Closing the book'

Then you have baseball writers' general desire to close the book on the Steroid Era and have people believe it was mostly confined to the '90s and early 2000s. It's completely understandable why that would be the case. Jeff Pearlman savaged that mindset in a piece for Slate ("Pee No Evil," June 2, 2006):
"After having been duped by the men they cover, America's sportswriters are playing dumb again. One year after being dismissed as a has-been, steroid-using fibber, Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi is the toast of New York. Recent articles in metropolitan newspapers have praised the steadfastness and resiliency that have led him to hit a team-high 14 home runs. But where, oh where, are the doubters? At the start of spring training in 2005, Giambi looked smaller than in seasons past. Now, he has muscles atop muscles atop muscles. Yet unlike the San Francisco Chronicle, which dedicated itself (journalistically and financially) to learning the truth about Bonds, none of the New York dailies have assigned an investigative team to the case.

"... I, for one, don't believe him. During my six years at Sports Illustrated, I fell for the trick and covered Giambi as the hulking, lovable lug who cracked jokes and hit monstrous homers. All the while, he was cheating to gain an edge. So, why — when MLB doesn't administer a test for human growth hormone — should I believe Giambi is clean?"
Three years later, a lot of traditional media outlets are slashing budgets and staff and expecting fewer staff to produce more and produce it quickly. That makes it tougher, not to mention less high-reward, to assign an investigative team to anything, let alone a sports story.

A lot of journalists are angry and defensive, even though many papers are still profitable. It also means that the fortunate ones with paying gigs, in many ways, have been reduced to the same footing as some of the well-informed amateurs. If idle, ill-informed speculation was outlawed, sports talk radio would cease to exist by tomorrow.

Meantime, it is only human nature to wish to pretend away something unpleasant like the reality of the Steroids Era (that athletes might use steroids if a professional sport sticks its head in the sand over steroids, especially if there's a feeling it's a common thing among her/his peers). It was icky. It was sleazy. It was just embarrassing how so many people got sucked in during the days of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sosa.

The rules of the day and the media's complicity were enablers, as Jonah Keri wrote last week:
"Just can't get worked up at over Sosa or anyone taking PEDs. MLB policies enabled it. I'd take Substance X if it made me umm ... write gooder.
Of course, it's easy enough to tell people what they should hear instead of telling them that all the evil-doers PED-taking ballplayers are going to pay (since bin Laden and all the AIG guys are harder to bring to justice).

That is too logical by half for some people. That is why you get the rear-guard action brought down tenfold on the unfortunate Jerod Morris. It is easy to see why the sportswriting profession, to quote Deadspin's Tommy Craggs, "simultaneously flays itself for not bulldogging the steroids story hard enough and congratulates itself for starting the conversation."

Craggs' words are in a similar vein to what The Globe & Mail's Stephen Brunt, who is ultimately smarter than us, cited in 2008 when he explained why declined his ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame:
"I also retain a very strong memory of the great home run derby, and especially of the baseball-writing community's reaction — or non-reaction — to the andro story. I was at the first McGwire press conference the following spring training (in 1999), and one guy in the room had the balls to ask a question about andro. The rest of the writers looked at him as though he'd farted.

"Anybody who has a HOF vote now was writing then. Also I recall that when I wrote about McGwire and andro, wondering why we celebrated him while crucifying Ben Johnson, the fan/public response I received was almost one hundred per cent negative. Leave McGwire alone, they said. Totally different thing. Don't wreck a great story.

"So the same writers who were celebrating Big Mac back then, and pissing on the reporter who wrote the andro story, suddenly got religion last year. I got sick reading all of those 'what will I tell my children if I vote for him' columns."
If only everyone was as transparent as Brunt and Pearlman.

Meantime, desperation is a stinky cologne

Hopefully, this is providing some background on the buzzsaw Morris walked into two weeks ago. It also reflected something that Vancouver Sun managing editor Kirk Lapointe touched on last week when he blogged, "The tradition in news organizations is to believe their work is definitive. The corollary of that belief is that others' work is inferior. The product of that belief is to dismiss, disregard and even discredit anyone else's work."

Of course, that is on the way out. The journo's job is best summarized, "We don't know everything, but know where to find what we don't know."

A lot of those well-informed amateurs know as much or more about a sport or a particular sub-section. Case in point: When the Ottawa stadium debate was going on, I didn't bother to read a lot of the news coverage. I just e-mailed Pete Toms to get his take.

Many journalists realize you have to engage with your audience. The next generation, people such as Kinger, are already doing this very well.

What Morris v. Ibáñez showed is how entrenched the old way of thinking is, but hopefully for not too long. Craig Calcaterra, the ShysterBaller, realized as much by late last week.
"I can only conclude one thing, and that's that the Morris-Ibanez thing wasn't about steroids and it wasn't about ethics ... It was an effort to breathe life into a tired blog vs. MSM turf war and old-fashioned media sensationalism. A couple of years ago that observation might have made me angry and might have inspired me to unleash a screed or two. As I sit here this evening, however, I can only shake my head and smile.

" ... no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. It seems to me that the sporting press in the mainstream media is giving it the old college try. For my part, I'd be lying if I said that I thought idiocy and sensationalism would one day be gone from journalism entirely. But I am optimistic, based on what I've seen here and what I've seen on many other blogs in the wake of the Ibanez stuff, that the idiocy will constitute a less prominent place in journalism as time goes on."
Thankfully, Calcaterra made sure to get some mileage out of the furor instead of sitting and stewing, like a certain resident of Sageritaville we could name (Neate S.? No, too obvious, N. Sager). The topper was creating the Geoff Baker Rigidity Award to honour sports columnists who have tossed around baseless PED allegations.

There will always be value in having the time and ability to do some digging and being able to write, no matter whether you do it for pay. The point is that there was a method to keeping quiet about all this until now. There is little to no point in going into blogs and MSM, especially when one no longer believes in either term (both are kind of limiting, and traditional media works better for the latter). Meantime, it's always better to think for yourself rather than collecting some celebrity's thoughts. Maybe one in 15 of Cuban's ideas are good.

It's up to people to try to learn something out of all this instead of running over the same ol' ground and not learning anything. The point with Cuban and Morris-Ibáñez is sooner or later, the snark and sideshow aspects, while necessary, get old. People can work past that and come out the better. Goddamn it, we are still capable of understanding nuance, no matter how often the news cycle suggests otherwise.

1 comment:

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Interesting take, Neate. A lot of good points in there, especially about the desire to control the narrative. Fortunately, many mainstream types are not that way, but some of them certainly are, and that's unfortunate.