Friday, June 12, 2009

The folly of Geoff Baker's position on the Ibanez saga

I didn't write anything about the Raul Ibanez controversy [Jerod Morris, Midwest Sports Fans] yesterday outside of my Twitter feed, mostly because it was aptly handled everywhere else [links, in order, are Alana G, Joe Posnanski, Hugging Harold Reynolds, Rays Index and The Big Lead].

However, today saw some Canadian media types weighing in, and I thought their reactions deserved some coverage. First off, we have Geoff Baker. Baker's a Canadian guy who used to cover the Expos and Blue Jays, and now covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He's a good baseball writer, and I usually enjoy his stuff. Today, though, he produced one of the more annoying pieces on the matter, ironically enough on his blog. You know it's going to be bad as soon as you read the title, "The Difference Between Real Journalists and Basement Bloggers."

Baker does actually make some valid points. He has some good thoughts on the importance of accountability, and he's right that you have to be careful about what you're publishing. He also mentions his story about former Toronto Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson's embellished tales from the Vietnam War, which eventually led to Johnson's firing, and he's quite right that bloggers without any access couldn't break that kind of news all on their own, as they wouldn't hear the speeches that caused the controversy. However, if quotes about Johnson's speeches were reported as-is by the typical media types, it could easily have been bloggers who did some fact-checking and found that Johnson really was only a reservist; consider the crucial role of bloggers in covering a certain other reservist's experience during the Vietnam era. Fact-checking and investigative legwork is by no means limited to mainstream media types in our current era, and bloggers have more resources to conduct that kind of journalism than ever before; Baker is only fooling himself if he thinks that investigative work is limited to traditional media outlets.

Moreover, I take issue with how Baker talks about his journalistic training, discusses his previous career as an investigative reporter and implies that that experience is somehow necessary for handling stories like this one. 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. Look, I've spent plenty of time working in the mainstream media as well and probably will be doing so again. I've covered everything from business to politics to arts in addition to my regular gigs writing about sports, and those experiences certainly have helped to inform my writing. However, I will never claim that mainstream media experience is necessary or that covering areas outside sports is necessary in order to be a good sportswriter. Sure, it can help, but you can do just as well without it as well. In some ways, frequently talking about all the work you've done outside sports plays right into the hands of those who criticize the sports section as the "toy department" of the newspaper; if your validation has to come from areas outside sports, how will you ever convince anyone that your work on sports is important?

However, the worst part of Baker's article was still to come. Consider this quote:

"Now, can the blogger who wrote about Ibanez say the same thing? No, he cannot. Because he never really takes a position.
He throws some innuendo out there, under a provocative headline, then couches it with a bunch of well-researched statistics on park factors, and the like. Makes it all look like a fact-finding mission.
But come on. Baseball is a game played by men. When you cover this sport for a while, you realize that these "issue'' pieces some writers try to hide behind when they passive-aggressively go at a different topic really won't fly. Everybody knows what the "elephant in the room'' is beforehand. So, no matter how much research you couch it under, the real issue is what everybody -- especially media-seasoned ballplayers -- is going to focus on.
And in this case, the blogger really didn't have a leg to stand on. That much was clear when he was eviscerated on national television by Fox Sports columnist Ken Rosenthal, a longtime baseball writer for the Baltimore Sun. I've seen some commenters to various fan blogs the past 24 hours try to say the blogger "held his own'' but let's get real. It was ugly. I give the blogger -- I won't mention his name because I'm reluctant to give him his 15 minutes -- credit for going on with Rosenthal. If it was me on the air instead of Rosenthal, I would have torn the blogger to shreds in much the same way. Maybe even worse. I know Rosenthal and spoke to him at the ballpark yesterday after his ESPN appearance with said blogger. When you go on TV and radio a lot, you learn how to destroy people like the inexperienced blogger on-air. It was like that Korean dude pounding on Jose Canseco in Japan the other day. "

This is absolutely ridiculous in my mind. First off, refusing to mention Morris by name or link to him comes off as childish pique consistent with the holier-than-thou attitude Baker demonstrates throughout his piece. Second, Rosenthal hardly came off as the victor in that interview; he looked as crazy as Buzz Bissinger during his infamous anti-blog meltdown. In some ways it's good that Baker says he would have "torn the blogger to shreds in much the same way"; it clearly demonstrates what side he's on, that of the old-media types scrambling to tell the bloggers to get off their lawn. Notice the language as well; it's not about convincing someone through debate or persuasive arguments, it's about tearing them to shreds. Baker and company feel threatened by the bloggers invading their traditional turf, so they rise up to try and destroy them instead of working with them or debating them.

Baker also selectively ignores the faults of the mainstream media, as he demonstrates with this bit:

"And that's why you see mainstream media taking fewer potshots than bloggers. Because at the end of the day, reason and fairness has to win out. Nobody's perfect. But it's always better to err on the side of caution -- and do a little more legwork -- than to have Ken Rosenthal destroying you on national TV, when your only defense is mere cliches and half-hearted insinuations."

I'm pretty sure there have been lots of speculatory pieces around steroids in the mainstream media as well, Geoff. It's the result of the steroid era; no one can be viewed as completely above suspicion at the moment, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Mark Bradley details here. In fact, Morris gave Ibanez a lot more credit than many would; he sought to present a detailed statistical case for other factors that could be involved in his increased production. Clearly, though, because he's a blogger, if he writes it, it's irresponsible speculation. If someone writes that exact same piece for, say, the Seattle Times or Sports Illustrated, do you really think Baker and his camp would be so upset about it? What about if some of the Around The Horn talking heads yell about it without any subtlety or nuance in typically exaggerated fashionr and go further with their insinuations than Morris did? I don't think Baker and co. would be too upset in either case, as similar stuff has shown up in newspapers all over the place and Around The Horn frequently covers steroid stories. What they're concerned about isn't the content, but rather the source. It's apparently all right with them if you suggest this stuff if you're inside the mainstream media camp, but if you're outside the walls, they'll rip your throat out for daring to bring it up.

Fortunately, there are plenty of great writers in the traditional media who don't subscribe to the Baker-Bissinger school of thought. They do an excellent job of reaching out to and engaging readers and bloggers without any of the protectionism of their turf or attacks on bloggers that Baker and Bissinger have displayed; a few examples from include Jeff Blair of The Globe and Mail and Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star. Unfortunately, there are still many who share the "get off my lawn" views put forth by Baker and Bissinger. That makes these words from Will Leitch, written last year after the Bissinger incident, seem rather prophetic:

"Buzz is not alone. Sure, he might be metaphorically alone, raining spittle on the imaginary demons that clearly haunt him. But if you don't think that almost every single person — with obvious, clear exceptions — who was on all those panels last night didn't come up to him afterwards and give him a fist pound and a "yeah, we really struck back tonight!" well, you weren't there. This really is what many of them think. Though most are a little calmer about it."

It doesn't have to be like this. The traditional sports media and the blogosphere have a lot in common, and they can work well together. It doesn't have to be an adversarial relationship; if both sides can mention each other in civil fashion from time to time, that benefits both them and their readers, who are exposed to more perspectives. It doesn't have to be a turf war, either. Why confine investigative reporting to newspaper staff, or opiniated pieces and sabermetric analysis to bloggers? Given the troubling economic times we're in and the resulting downturn in advertising in mainstream media sources and on blogs, both sides would be wise to heed Benjamin Franklin's famous advice: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

One final note on Baker's piece; what bothers me even more than any of his criticisms of the blogosphere is his blasting of Morris for not going far enough. As he writes, "But when you go all-in, you've got to go all in. He didn't do that. When you write about topics like killers, or Hell's Angels, or major leaguers and steroids, you can't pussy foot around. You've got to go at it hard, directly, with no b.s. and be able to defend yourself afterwards. This blogger couldn't because he went in only halfway. He tried to raise the "steroids issue'' then claimed he really wasn't pointing a finger at Ibanez."

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I can't stand this kind of all-or-nothing approach. It's the black-and-white, with us or against us school of thought that has caused so many of the world's problems. It isn't a world of absolutes, it's one filled with shades of grey and subtleties. Ignoring those details in favour of making an overwrought, absolutist argument is a dangerous path to walk; sure, it will bring attention and create controversy, but it takes us away from what's really involved. I'd much rather see well-thought-out arguments that present both sides like the one Morris advanced than bombastic diatribes like the one written by Baker.

I'll have more later on the discussion of the matter on the Canadian radio/TV show Prime Time Sports this afternoon.

Update: 10:08 PM: Great stuff from Craig Calcaterra on how Baker's violated his own standards in the past by suggesting that the 2004 Mariners'lack of offensive production was thanks to stricter drug testing. Link via Neate Sager.

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