I’ve got a new Think Again column, “Triangle at 100: Back to the Future?” The 100th anniversary of the fire is today and the column is here.
My new Nation column called “Happy Birthday, Rupert Murdoch!” and it’s here.
My Daily Beast column is called something like “Stop Taking Michelle Bachmann Seriously” and that’s here.
And my Moment column is called “A Cautionary Tale” but it could be called “One more whack at the Marty Peretz mole” and it’s here.
I have to say I’m a little embarrassed to admit how unfamiliar I was with the oeuvre of Dave Frishberg, now that I’ve had the opportunity to educate myself a bit. I went to the Oak Room the other night because I have a thing for Jessica Molaskey. And she did not disappoint. But she stepped aside for much of the show and allowed Mr. Frishberg’s lyrics to shine under his own quiet, unadorned delivery and elegant piano playing. The show was called, “Do You Miss New York?,”—as clearly the 77 (or so) year old Portland native had many highlights. There’s the title song: "Were those halcyon days/ Just a phase you outgrew? Do you miss the thrills, the subways, the shlepping/ Is it still second nature to watch where you are stepping?" And my favorite, aside from the clever opener was “My Attorney Bernie,” which Jessica sang and a wonderfully clever, updated version of “I’m Hip,” whose music was by written music by Bob Dorough and was originally recorded by the late Blossom Dearie. And I’m sure she felt lucky to have it. This odd, but immensely enjoyable couple will be at the Algonguin’s Oak Room through April 2. There are a lot worse ways to spend a great deal of money.
Now here’s Reed:
No Cheering in the Press Box
There’s a longstanding journalistic trope—most often associated with sportswriting—that speaks to objective role the media is supposed to play in covering any event: there is no cheering in the press box. It’s a message that is simple, clear-cut—don’t become beholden to the subjects you’re covering. But when it comes to actually executing this perfect poise of neutrality, well…I can’t speak intelligently about the personal proclivities of every member of the media in the country, but I do know this for sure, they’re all human.
I was reminded of the uncomfortable intersection of human frailty and media ethics on Tuesday when I came across this excellent piece from Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnaski. One of the best journalists and writers working today—and that’s on any beat, anywhere—Posnanski expertly weaves his own personal struggles into an essay about those of Rulon Gardner, whom he covered during one of the greatest Olympic upsets in history—Gardner’s incredible victory over the Russian Greco-roman wrestler Alexander Karelin at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
Posnanski’s piece struck home, on one level, because, well, I’m human and I happened to have been there to watch Gardner’s victory as well. I too can vividly recall the palpably electric atmosphere that permeated the Exhibition Hall as the match’s final minutes ticked away, with Gardner clinging to a frighteningly fragile, one-point lead. According to the sport’s rules, Gardner had to spend many of those final minutes in a defensive posture, with Karelin desperately attacking, trying to throw or upend him to score a point. Miraculously, stay put he did. For one night at least, the age-old question was answered—the immovable object defeats the unstoppable force.
(And because I didn’t have to file a story like Posnanski, I was also able to watch, later that same night, the U.S. defeat Cuba in the gold-medal baseball game, where Ben Sheets pitched a masterful, three-hit, complete-game shutout that should go down in history as one of the best, big-game performances, bar none. All in all, not a bad way to spend my 28th birthday.)
But the story hit home to me for other, larger reasons. In it, Posnanski pull back the curtain a bit about the adage of never cheering in the press box, eloquently pointing to a more subtle and pernicious habit that can often befall the press while he’s at it.
“Sportswriters, all of us, will be asked at least a thousand times in our lives if we still root during games. The stock answer is: ‘Yes, but I don’t root for teams. I root for the story.’ Sometimes, the more world-weary among us — maybe the more honest — will say: ‘I root for me.’ These two answers really mean the same things — rooting for the story, and rooting for ourselves is all tied together. Sportswriters root for short baseball games. Sportswriters root for story lines to emerge early enough to lengthen the writing time. Sportswriters root for good people — or at least accommodating ones — and interesting angles and clear narratives and dissolved traffic and bowl games in San Diego. Sportswriters root hard against U.S. Open playoffs. The loudest cheer I ever heard in a press section happened the day Payne Stewart sunk a long putt on the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2 to win the U.S. Open. I’m sure some were happy for the veteran Stewart winning his second Open. Most were happy that they could go home.”
Or, to put it another, simpler way, sportswriters, like all journalists, are human. They don’t file stories in a vacuum. Nor should they. Even great ones are susceptible to moments of objective fallibility. And those that aren’t so great? Well, they may be able to keep their rooting interests and partisan preferences mostly hidden, but then bias can still show up in much more banal and insidious ways, like when it’s spurred by a desire to quickly meet a deadline, easily fill the news hole, and guarantee lots of cheap web clicks. It’s a sad reality that also plagues the Beltway media, as Ryan Lizza got one Capitol Hill press flack to admit openly in the New Yorker a few months ago:
“Bardella was surprisingly open in his disparagement of the media. He said, ‘Some people in the press, I think, are just lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That’s just embarrassing. They’re adjusting to a time that demands less quality and more quantity. And it works to my advantage most of the time, because I think most reporters have liked me packaging things for them. Most people will opt for what’s easier, so they can move on to the next thing. Reporters are measured by how often their stuff gets on Drudge. It’s a bad way to be, but it’s reality.’”
Rules against cheering in the press box—and its equivalent on the politics beat, no overt partisan support or campaign donations—may pass the test of press impartiality on a rudimentary level, but it clearly doesn’t guarantee fair or unbiased, let alone insightful coverage. But all too often today, mastheads consider the former to be the de facto equivalent of the latter, regardless of the actual quality of journalism being produced. In fact, you can bet that a lazy reporter who is more than willing to gobble up any juicy bit of worthless gossip or pre-arranged spin job passed their way will rarely, if ever, encounter the kind of professional opprobrium commonly leveled at those members of the media who dare to express their personal beliefs publicly. In other words, phoning it in is fine, as long as you don’t slap an Obama or McCain bumper sticker on your car.
For the latest exhibit of the fallout from this kind of mindset, see former Sports Illustrated NASCAR reporter Tom Bowles. I say former because up until last month, Bowles had a promising career at SI, but then he went and cheered in the press box when another one-for-the-ages upset occurred at this year’s Daytona 500. Adding insult to injury, he tried to defend his actions on Twitter by pointing to the lack of bias in his actual reporting on the race. That, apparently, was a left-hand turn too far for his bosses and he was subsequently fired. But what’s interesting is that rather than adopt the traditional pose of chastened journalistic sinner, Bowles is far from contrite:
“[M]y position hasn’t changed. I took those ethics courses in journalism just like everyone else; I understand the importance of impartiality in reporting. But last time I checked, where you’re supposed to be judged is whether that actually shows up on paper […] I was far from the only reporter who clapped that day; the sad part is I’m the only one bold enough to admit it in the face of peers overly focused on the values of reporting rather than the act itself.”
The whole piece is worth a read, however, because Bowles also gets at the all-too-cozy and often incestuous journalistic relationships that many media members—on all beats, whether it’s sports, business, or politics—enjoy with the subjects they cover on a daily basis. (Full disclosure: I work as a contractor with Time Inc. to edit the annual SI Almanac but have never met or worked with Bowles, or Posnanski for that matter.)
“It’s a place where the ‘official’ media claim to follow the rules, then give us their opinion seconds afterwards on verified Twitter accounts while hanging ‘off the record’ with the athletes they cover during the week. […] So the first step to a solution is recognizing the clapping problem, which is that we’re all inherently biased: wired to judge, love, hate, and experience every emotion in between, parts of the brain we can’t shut off like a water fountain.”
Replace the word athletes with “politicians” or “CEOs” or “generals” and you’ll have a fair assessment of a significant problem confronting modern journalism. It’s why self-censoring beat reporters can be counted on to condemn legitimate scoops by uncompromised outside journalists not as as “unethical behavior” rather than courageous truth-telling. Our press has become more obsessed with the symbols of fairness and unblinking press coverage than with the actual process itself. In the end, it’s not the cheering behind the scenes that bothers me so much—that can be fixed with greater transparency. Instead, it’s the cheering that goes on unabashed on the front page that makes me worry what the future of journalism will look like.
Funny you should bring up Concert For George today; I did not see Elton John at MSG Wednesday night, but a review at The Daily News reminded those who needed reminding and informed those who needed to be informed how Leon "stole the show" at Concert For Bangladesh - - without the details some of us remember, that stunning Jumpin' Jack Flash / Youngblood medley. I didn't live in NY 40 years ago, but saw the film in its theatrical release, and nothing was so memorable as Leon. The Bob Surprise was nice, but it wasn't anything like Leon did.
Leon's contributions to rock and roll are immense - - not just on his own songs, but Badfinger's "Day After Day," and other session work as well as the songs he's written which have been covered over and over ("This Masquerade," "A Song For You").
Oh, I forgot, we were talking about Concert for George. Can I just say that every time I've watched it, that final song with the ukulele's and the paper petals floating down, I always cry? Always?
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