Dan Le Betard wrote a fascinating column last week about the role of the media in the internet age, and I wanted to highlight some of his thoughts:
“Evolution” and “progress” are not always synonyms. The electric toothbrush is an example of that. So, too, our ability to now get dinner at the gas station. But because survival is the strongest instinct, in humans and in business, sports journalism is being forced to evolve into selling its principles and fairness (its soul, in other words) in exchange for clicks and cash, a trafficking not that far removed from porn.
(Porn is more honorable, actually. At least there, the participants agree to the transaction and get paid.)
It is either that or lose money and ratings and eyeballs to people who don’t make any kind of moral stand. The mainstream media might have wanted to stay out of the TMZ-ization of the Tiger Woods story on principle, but it literally couldn’t afford to do so because viewers were going to go find it somewhere. Show me the restaurant that tells you what you should be eating, instead of giving you what you want to consume, and I’ll show you an empty restaurant……
There’s also an interesting generation gap growing between old media, which is either aging or dying, and new media, which gets stronger by the day. Today’s kids — and kids are what make everything popular — don’t seem to be as judgmental as their parents. They want to see Portland center Greg Oden naked and the drunk photos of Texas center fielder Josh Hamilton just for the voyeuristic pleasure in it, not necessarily to judge it. And old media can’t keep ignoring those kind of desires, not if it wants to survive. It is hard not to notice that newspapers keep going out of business while TMZ Sports is scheduled to open this year.
While I do agree with the general sentiment of Dan’s column, that sports media is losing integrity as it embraces the voyeuristic tendencies of the Hollywood media, I do want to quibble with the bolded portion. Sports media is not being forced to sell its soul for clicks, it is choosing to do so. Analogizing to newspapers, the New York Post, the New York Times, and the National Enquirer have been sold at the same newsstands for many years. There is always a niche available for responsible, reasoned journalism, as there will always be an audience of fans that are not interested in voyeuristic stories that have little to do with the events on the field. Now, that niche may be less lucrative than the less principled route, but that does not change the fact that there is a choice being made every time a media outlet digs into Tiger Woods’ past.
I understand that as businesses, these outlets need to make decisions that will maximize revenues, and therefore do not begrudge them for moving away from the moralistic ideals that Le Betard pines for. However, for the writers, I think their choice remains obvious. If you got into journalism in order to report and comment on the news in a principled and moral fashion, and you feel that your outlet is forcing you to compromise those ideals, you can take the money or find a new employer. It is a simple decision, and I believe that both choices are equally valid. I have no problem with a reporter sacrificing his own ideals in order to support his family, and I have great respect for those who refuse to budge on what they believe in. But it is important to note, once you cross the line that Le Betard notes and sell your principles for clicks, you have lost some of your integrity.
Ultimately, journalistic integrity is the underpinning of a great sports writer or media outlet. In a climate where every story is picked apart within minutes, those who refrain from crossing those voyeuristic lines and do not seem to be trolling for clicks garner the most respect. Sites like Fire Joe Morgan sprung up because of the shift that Le Betard discusses, as writers began to make intentionally ridiculous statements in order to drive pageviews (of course, there are also those that are simply idiots). And yet, despite the constant fisking of journalism that lacks integrity, the media psyche continues to shift in the wrong direction.
A writer such as Ian O’Connor, who had an embarrassing column simply removed from the internet and continues to take shots at athletes for personal reasons (see recent A-Rod columns), was rewarded with a plum job at ESPN NY likely due to his ability to incite anger and drive page views. In the battle between dollars and integrity, the money is winning comfortably. And unless media outlets suddenly become uncomfortable with the sacrifices that they are making or the zeitgeist among fans shifts away from the more abhorrent voyeuristic elements of reporting, this is unlikely to change any time soon. Slowly, bit by bit, journalistic integrity in sports media is suffering an agonizing death, and we are largely powerless to stop it.
Edit: Just as an illustration of my point, see Bill Conlin’s response to the fact that he discussed the greatest infields of all time and left out the Reds of the 70’s:
“I covered Rose, Morgan and Perez when they were with the Phillies, know them well, and don’t really care what you post on your blog. I write a commentary column and it attracted an enormous response. That’s the coin of my realm and why I’m still drawing a paycheck 11 years past age 65. Thanks for helping to keep me in the game.”
Mr. Conlin, the job of a journalist is not to create controversy, it is to report and discuss the news. What you are doing makes you no better, and likely worse, than the bloggers that you so loathe.