Last Saturday, Oklahoma State Head Football Coach Mike Gundy tore into columnist Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman. He ranted, he raved, he declared her article on quarterback Bobby Reid's benching inaccurate — eviscerating her credibility as a journalist — and then declared he didn't read newspapers because of articles like hers. In the following days, the nation seems to have sided with him.
On Sunday, Comcast Sportsnet aired an interview with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. In it, Snyder provided his reason as to why he has such a contentious relationship with the media.
“They need controversy to sell,” Snyder said. “It becomes a feeding frenzy.”
Combined with a series of e-mails calling me (and other journalists) various approximations of heartless, dumb and mean for criticizing New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick in the wake of his sideline camera snafu, these other stories have me wondering if Gundy and Snyder et al are actually onto something. Are we sportswriters just big, heartless bullies bent on stirring up trouble to sell papers?
Let's break this down from the beginning. Our role, as the media, is first and foremost to gather facts and retell events without bias or agenda. In the case of opinion columns like this one and Carlson's, the purpose is also to question events and promote discussion of important issues. Well, at least issues that are important to people who carve out just enough time from their sports watching to squeeze in the little things — like sleeping and eating. Personally, I've found breathing to be overrated, particularly in the final minute of a close game.
In confronting these issues, we often criticize and critique, a practice that can make the press seem like bullies unless people understand that the purpose of such criticisms are to defend a greater good. For instance, I think it's necessary to preserve the integrity of athletics, which is why I rail against athletes on steroids and why I more recently chastised Belichick. The media can also provide a form of accountability when prices on tickets and parking passes are raised skyward, even while a team continually fails on the field, such as with Snyder and his Redskins.
In Carlson's case, she sought to provide a reason as to why Oklahoma State pulled Reid, who had been a highly-touted recruit coming to the Cowboys. Her mistake, I feel, was in using questionable examples, like a scene of Reid's mother feeding him chicken, in order to reach the conclusion that he was soft and lacked heart. Questioning a college quarterback's drive is not completely out of bounds — a 21-year-old is hardly a kid, and while he might not be “paid,” that tuition money is coming from somewhere — but to do so by listing “rumblings and rumors” and “insiders” is shaky ground. In the wake of the column, readers have piled on, declaring this another example of the mean-spirited media stirring up controversy where there is none.
In part, they're right. There are definitely days when I wonder why meaningless stories become headline news. I mean, O.J. Simpson? Really? Are we stuck in 1994? Likewise, it seems sometimes the only kind words in a newspaper are found in the obituaries. However, I don't believe that the media is simply sensationalizing to turn a profit. Of course, we could do more to help eschew that image.
The goal of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World newspaper was to be, as he put it, “truly democratic, dedicated to the cause of the people rather than to that of the purse potentates.” The statement rings with nobility, casting journalists in the role of Robin Hood, fighting for the masses while confronting the powers that be. With modern media buddying up to sponsors and subjects and drumming up minor stories into headline news in order to attract audiences, I feel that noble image has been replaced with one of skepticism and distrust.
In stories where the media's character is challenged in the slightest, the media has repeatedly been cast as a self-interested entity, concerned more with finances than facts. That such a characterization of any of the journalists I have worked with is patently false is irrelevant. The image is there and as such, it damages the media's ability to do its job effectively. When the public is convinced that the media is solely concerned with stirring up controversy to sell ads, it allows guys like Dan Snyder to hide behind phony statements to avoid criticism. Similarly, it allows guys like Mike Gundy to publicly trash a member of the press for printing alleged falsehoods and then dodge questions about what those specific errors were.
There is a price for everything, and a souring reputation seems to be the cost of the media's current actions, noble intentions or not. Is it new? Hardly. Even Pulitzer, he of the prestigious prizes, was known for sensationalism and yellow journalism.
However, something else hasn't changed since Pulitzer's days. News organizations are businesses, businesses need revenue, and revenue requires an audience. So will there be any reform from the media in the days and years ahead? The answer is the same with any consumer industry — “You tell us.”