Liam Day argues that, in his on-air rant about Bill Belichick, Shannon Sharpe unwittingly summed up journalism’s rather sorry state.
It’s been a rather remarkable week in sports. During it, we’ve seen the first puck dropped on the NHL’s abbreviated season, two brothers lead their teams to the Super Bowl, Lance Armstrong finally admit what everyone has suspected all along, and Manti Te’o outed as the victim of a hoax he may or may not have been a part of.
Central to so many of these stories were the people telling them, that is the media who cover the sports we watch. They did not exactly cover themselves in glory.
First, and most notably, Lance Armstrong used Oprah Winfrey as the medium through which to make his confession. One could hardly imagine a safer forum for the disgraced cyclist. This is not to criticize Oprah. To her credit she asked pointed questions and her handling of the interview has been widely praised.
But it is easy to divine Armstrong’s intent in choosing Oprah for his confessional interview and, let’s face it, the interview was good business all around. Once the reigning monarch of daytime television, Oprah’s grasp has slipped somewhat since her original, and enormously popular, talkshow went off the air almost two years ago. Her new show has not managed to recapture the same share of the audience she once had and, though it seems to be turning a corner, the cable television station she launched has struggled. A high profile interview was just the thing to help boost ratings.
The media’s complicity in the Manti Te’o story is even more telling. They eagerly jumped on the story of the squeaky clean college football star and his alleged girlfriend, who supposedly died of leukemia in October. It was featured in Sports Illustrated and the South Bend Tribune as well as on ESPN, NBC, and FOX Sports. As feel good stories go, this one was perfectly packaged for the type of human interest feature networks like to run during pre-game and halftime shows.
But that’s just the thing. It was almost too perfectly packaged. And no one in the media stopped to question it. Why would they? The story was fine as it is. Why spoil it by asking too many questions?
Jason Whitlock has a column at Fox Sports that outlines why the media were more than eager to play into the hoax. At least the mainstream media. In the end it was Deadspin, a site that promotes itself as “Sports News without Access, Favor, or Discretion”, that broke the story. One suspects that, if it weren’t for Deadspin’s diligence, we still wouldn’t know anything about the hoax. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t Deadspin, or another online venue, that finally answers the story’s remaining questions, such as why Manti Te’o continued to refer to his girlfriend in interviews after he had allegedly learned the truth about her and why Notre Dame chose to keep knowledge of the hoax secret.
An amusing corollary to the story was an article about the hoax in The Boston Globe. The Globe, little brother to its owner, the Grey Lady of newspapers, The New York Times, in grudgingly admitting that Deadspin had, indeed, broke the story, couldn’t help taking a backhanded swipe at the online site: “According to a report on Deadspin.com, a website that has broken some high-profile stories but not an outlet regarded for journalistic standards, Kekua never existed.”
In addition to the rather extraordinarily complex deceptions involved in maintaining both stories, that of Armstrong’s innocence and Manti Te’o’s fabricated girlfriend, what the two stories have in common is a media too willing to exchange due dilligence for access.
This almost pathological need for access was perfectly summed up on Sunday by Shannon Sharpe at the end of the AFC Championship Game, in which the Baltimore Ravens defeated Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. Belichick, the famously reticent, one might even say irascible head coach of the Patriots, declined to come out of the locker room to conduct a postgame interview with CBS’s Steve Trasker. Shannon Sharpe, one of the network’s studio commentators, took offense at this and went on a short, rather petulant rant about how Belichick is a sore loser.
Now, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Belichick is a sore loser, but that’s entirely beside the point. What obligation has he to speak with Steve Trasker? Besides, one’s sportsmanship is owed not to the media but to the opposing team and obviously Shannon Sharpe missed the long embrace and exchange of kind words between Belichick and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh at midfield after the game.
I believe the anger Sharpe expressed was not directed at Belichick’s poor sportsmanship. It was directed at the coach’s unconcealed disdain for the media. Belichick feels about the media roughly how First Lady Michelle Obama seems to feel about John Boehner. What I suspect angers Sharpe and his colleagues even more is the knowledge that not only doesn’t Belichick like to play their game, he knows he doesn’t have to.
But our media have become access whores. Access is their lifeblood. Journalism’s typical mo today is to use access to acquire scoops, usually anonymously, which can then be reported with little corraboration and thus without having to devote too many resources to actual reporting. Bob Woodward, once a real journalist, has become the king of access whoredom. (See here, here, here and here.) His books are notorious for painting in the best light any sources who grant him access and trashing any figures who deny it to him.
There are a number of reasons for the current state of poor journalism in the mainstream media. The loss of subscription and print advertising revenue means newspapers have fewer resources to devote to stories, the major networks have lost the monopoly they once had, and the 24-hour news cycle places a greater emphasis on the speed of a story than its depth.
But, though I want to smile when I see Shannon Sharpe whining like a little kid because the boy down the block won’t play with him or read in the Globe a desperate attempt to smear a competitor in the vain hope of legitimizing itself, I can’t. We need the media. A free press is essential to a flourishing democracy. But that press needs to be free both from government interference and from entangling relationships with those it means to report on. That is: News (Sports or any other kind) without Access, Favor, or Discretion.