Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dissecting Prime Time Sports on Morris/Ibanez

To follow up to my initial piece on the Jerod Morris/Raul Ibanez controversy from this past week, I figured I'd discuss the reaction of the guys on Prime Time Sports on Friday. For those not familiar with it, Prime Time Sports is a radio/television program broadcast across Canada daily on the FAN 590 and its affiliates as well as Rogers Sportsnet. It's probably comparable in reach to ESPN's Around The Horn (a show I've complained about previously), but is generally much more insightful. The regular broadcasts tend to feature host Bob McCown and Globe and Mail writer par excellence Stephen Brunt interviewing top-tier guests from the media and sports worlds, and often have some great stuff. The Friday shows are more of an Around the Horn feel than an interview show, with a couple of other Toronto media personalities joining Brunt and McCown to discuss sports, but the emphasis still tends to be on thoughtful discussion over yelling and extreme opinions, which is nice to see. Unfortunately, that emphasis went out the window Friday.

First off, don't blame McCown and Brunt for this one; both were off this week. Instead, the Friday lineup was Sportsnet personality Rob Faulds, Sports Illustrated hockey writer and Fan 590 host Jim Kelley, National Post columnist Bruce Arthur and former Winnipeg sportscaster John Wells. Not a bad group of guys, though, and they have plenty of experience in the media, so you'd expect rationality from them. By and large, that failed to materialize, though. You can download the show here from the Fan 590 website. The Ibanez segment starts at 15:01 of the file and runs to about 26:30 (with a few minor tangents). Below, I look at some of the more outrageous quotes from the program.

Rob Faulds, introducing the story: "Raul Ibanez was not too happy with some accusations of a blogger saying that his great start was probably due to steroids. Now, this happens all the time with blogs. Where are they now fitting in, or do they even fit in?"

Analysis: First off, referring to Morris as just "a blogger" (I don't think they mentioned his name or his site anywhere, but I could be wrong on that) is one of the typical mainstream media failures of attribution I discussed here and isn't a good start. Guys like Morris who blog under their real name give up the benefits of anonymity and exchange them for the benefits of increased responsibility and accountability; the mainstream media should be willing to at least give them some credit for that.

Moreover, such a generic reference is a low-class move by Faulds and it doesn't bode well for the show. Without mentioning his name or the site, they force interested listeners to go to Google. They'd probably find Morris' material anyway, as one of his posts is the second result for "Ibanez steroids", but it might be tough to pick the original out from the massive amount of reaction pieces out there. That takes time, effort and persistence, and many people won't be willing to do that. Instead, they'll take the Prime Time Sports' guys' representation of Morris' words at face value, and that's a big mistake. In many ways, that's what started this whole thing off; what Morris wrote wasn't highly controversial or highly unusual on its own, but the way the Philadelphia Inquirer represented his story made it appear much worse than it was [Alana G,]. Unfortunately, Prime Time Sports follows in those less-than-stellar footsteps with mischaracterizations of their own.

Bruce Arthur: "With journalism, we have gatekeepers. We have editors, we have safeguards, we have standards."
Jim Kelley: "What scares me is we’ve lost that gatekeeper wall if you will."

Analysis: This is one of the common refrains in the old-media hymnal, and it has some truth to it. Editors do add value at times and can make sure that what's reported is fair and accurate. The problem is that they don't always do that, though; check out Craig Silverman's Regret The Error site for a cornucopia of examples of where those editors, safeguards and standards have failed (see Blair, Jayson for one of the worst). That's not to say that the editorial standards and safeguards don't have value; of course they do. The point is that they aren't infallible. Furthermore, those editors, safeguards and standards are not universal; look at the difference between the New York Times and the New York Post for an excellent example.

The other key point here is that Arthur and Kelley, like so many mainstream media personalities, unfairly portray the blogosphere as full of people without editors, safeguards or standards. Many of the bigger blogs do have rigid editing processes, and everyone has safeguards and standards of some sort. Yes, many bloggers have their safeguards and standards below what the mainstream media considers acceptable, but you have to consider the audience as well; people read sites like Kissing Suzy Kolber for entertainment and opinion, not hard news, so it isn't as important to have rigid standards there. Those of us who run more serious sites do have safeguards and standards, and sometimes we are more conservative than the mainstream media thanks to the absence of a massive conglomerate backing our reporting. It's unfair to portray the mainstream media/blogosphere divide as a black and white picture where one group has rigid standards and the other doesn't; the real, grey truth is that each site or organization has its own standards and should be evaluated on its own merits.

Rob Faulds: "I have no problem with blogs. I have a problem with the facts, when the facts aren’t right."

Analysis: I hate to break it to you, Mr. Faulds, but mainstream media outlets get the facts wrong just as frequently as the blogosphere, sometimes more frequently. Part of that is because much of what they're reporting is new and original, so of course errors tend to be made, while it's harder to make definitive errors if you're writing an analysis piece (unless you misrepresent what's already been reported). In fact, your own lofty radio station isn't exactly pure and unblemished; consider the Sean Avery/Jason Blake flap, where the FAN reported that Avery had made derogatory remarks about Blake's leukemia. They weren't able to prove that, and FAN reporter Howard Berger had to apologize on-air [Regret The Error]. So, if your problem isn't with blogs but with bad facts, perhaps complain about the stick in your own eye before targeting the mote in someone else's.

Jim Kelley: "The guys you pointed out, the good bloggers, they have that grounded background in journalism for the most part."

Analysis: I can't say that a journalism background isn't helpful for blogging, as that's the area I come from as well. However, it certainly isn't a prerequisite. Many great bloggers have no background in journalism at all. As I wrote in my piece on Geoff Baker's similar criticisms, "It's part of a disturbing trend in the sports media where some sportswriters feel the need to claim that the experience they have covering other subjects makes them superior." Journalism backgrounds can be useful, but they certainly
aren't mandated for bloggers, and many can do great things without them.

Bruce Arthur, on the differences between how mainstream media and bloggers approach covering teams: "We don’t have an interest in making [the teams] look good necessarily."

Analysis: I think it's pretty hard to claim that all bloggers are out there to make the teams look good and the mainstream media are out there to keep them accountable. In fact, the converse is generally true. The limitations of mainstream pieces mean that you have to carefully differentiate news and opinion, and the preponderance of mainstream game stories or trade stories (news pieces) just tell you what happened (which I don't have a problem with, but it does mean that there isn't a lot of room for criticism or analysis in those stories). Sometimes, you'll see opinion columns on games or trades as well, which can be more critical and analytical, but aren't always. Meanwhile, most pieces on team blogs include plenty of opinion and analysis, and much of it is not favourable to the team's players, coaches or management. For example, consider the coverage of the Leafs in the Toronto Star and at the excellent Pension Plan Puppets. After reading pieces from the two sites, would you really say that PPP and his crew of writers have "an interest in making the team look good?" I don't think you would. I think you'd find that they're more critical than the mainstream media (even their site name is a shot at the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan's ownership stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment), and often for good reasons. They're certainly not sucking up to ownership or management, and I don't think most bloggers or mainstream outlets are.

Jim Kelley: "We’re in trouble, all of us, differentiating between truth and simply what’s out there. ... That’s where you need those gatekeepers."

Analysis: No, Mr. Kelley, we're not headed for some pending blogpocalypse where no one knows what truth is any more. Like mainstream newspapers and radio stations, blogs have to work to earn their credibility. The good outlets in either category will get the facts right more often then not, be accountable for what they write and report and admit it when they screw up. The bad ones won't. Sports fans aren't stupid; they're not going to take blogger Eklund's latest trade rumours as gospel (in fact, funnily enough, the most prominent mainstream outlet to give Eklund any attention at all was Kelley's own Rogers Sportsnet, which featured him on one of their trade deadline shows) or believe everything mainstream media writer Bruce "Malkin to the Kings" Garrioch writes [full credit to Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy for that name]. Both sides have their share of reputable and disreputable sources, and smart fans take each source's record into consideration. They're perfectly capable of separating truth from fiction on their own without your vaunted gatekeepers.

Bruce Arthur: "It's not just in sports either. This happens in politics an awful lot. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the stuff about Obama being a Muslim, was nothing. It was never anything and yet it got slipped into the undernews. ... It’s harder and harder to figure out what’s real and what isn’t."

Analysis: Yes, Mr. Arthur, misinformation comes out in politics too. However, plenty of Internet sites such as the Huffington Post played key roles in debunking that particular rumour, and mainstream sources like Fox News did more to spread it than anyone (which Arthur acknowledged, to his credit). Moreover, as I mentioned in the Baker post, in the lead-up to the 2004 election, it was CBS that was fabricating stories and bloggers that were proving them false [ZDNet]. You can't just say the blogosphere is responsible for propagating lies and the mainstream media always tells the truth; it doesn't quite work like that. Each source and story needs to be evaluated on its own merits.

Anyway, it sounds like some sense is beginning to prevail on this particular issue. Much of the reaction in both the mainstream media and the blogosphere has taken a more reasonable tone as of late, and the discussion of it at the Blogs With Balls panel yesterday sounded very positive from the Twitter updates I saw. It's just unfortunate that the Prime Time Sports guys, with one of the largest media platforms in Canada, couldn't use it more responsibly to thoroughly discuss the issue. Instead, they did offer some insight, but mixed it in with the kind of uninformed and vitriolic comments presented above. In my mind, that's a shame, and it reflects poorly on the state of sports media discussion in Canada.

Thoughts? Opinions? Questions? Leave them in the comments below, or e-mail me at andrew_bucholtz AT

1 comment:

  1. Bruce Arthur, on the differences between how mainstream media and bloggers approach covering teams: "We don’t have an interest in making [the teams] look good necessarily."

    That is so freaking classic. I can't believe he said that with (I assume) a straight face. First they complain that bloggers take cheapshots without any facts (a BS argument to begin with for any blog worth reading) and then it's that bloggers have a vested interest in making the team look good? Do they listen to themselves as they twist into pretzels trying to demonize people that are doing their job with more passion, knowledge, and enthusiasm for free?

    To begin with, blogs begin mostly as a means of hammering the home team not deifying it. For every Our Luke and Saviour who is adored there is a Bryan McCabe, Andy Wozniewski, and Andrew Raycroft getting nailed. The traditional media is the one that can't be bothered to ask tough questions because they're afraid of losing access.

    The incredible thing, as you noted, is that during the last election it was the traditional media that was running with ridiculous rumours that anyone with half a brain cell could tell came from spurious sources. Now, they've just completed their role as Dick Cheney's messaging machine by not questioning any of the dozens of lies that he told.