One of the more interesting pieces in quite some time hit the airwaves yesterday, with Boston Magazine’s Alan Siegel taking the Boston Media Establishment to the woodshed in his highly critical “The Fellowship of the Miserable” piece that will run in this month’s edition. In it, he described the deteriorating nature of the Boston Sports Press and it’s gradual decline to a burgeoning cesspool of negativity and self-importance.
The piece, while far from perfect, was a welcome breath of fresh air.
The thing about talking about complex issues is that much of their complexity lies in how we present them and how we talk about them in general. While Siegel’s article was at times cliché and guilty of much of the laziness of the writers he chastised, the overriding point he’s trying to make – that the Boston Sports Media has become insipidly negative – is one not only worthy of discussion but sorely overdue.
While folks are correct to point out that negativity and laziness in journalism isn’t just exclusive to the Boston market, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed. Tip O’Neil used to say that all politics are local, and as such, we should be having a serious discussion about it here. Whether this is more of a critique of the Boston media in particular or more worrisome trends we’ve seen emerge from the national media as a whole, I don’t know. What I do know is that he hit on several important points, of which should be discussed.
1.) The establishment is stale. Really, really, really stale.
We document the shenanigans of Nick Cafardo regularly on this blog. Others find Dan Shaughnessy to be their favorite punching bag. Some folks find Glenn Ordway to be a more convenient target. But seriously – when was the last time these guys contributed anything insightful about the teams they cover? They hate metrics, get annoyed with fans, loathe bloggers, information, and anything other than their usual paint-by-the-numbers, boilerplate columns.
When they’re not busy being angry at everything around them, they sit by silently, taking up airtime, print space and the like doing and contributing absolutely nothing to the greater dialogue. Long story, short – would your Red Sox experience be worse off if these guys were no longer a part of it? Would you even notice?
What’s more frustrating is another important point Siegel brings up in his piece: that talented young writers come and go relatively quickly. While it’s true that the temptation of bigger paychecks have lured some talented young writers away from Boston over the years, it also doesn’t help things that the seats at the head of the classroom are taken. Forever, at that.
What’s even worse is that the argument for keeping them is that they’re who older readers are used to seeing– as if for some reason if they were to be removed, that they’d lose readers. This is, ironically, the same argument that gets turned on its head when you complain about them – that we could just go find someone else. Yes, this is the logic.
Either way, a shakeup at the top is long overdue. Thankfully someone in a mainstream setting was willing to let the cat out of the bag.
2.) While it’s true National Sports writers scoop beat writers frequently, the Red Sox beat got caught with their pants down on beer and chicken and it speaks to a bigger issue.
I get when writers get scooped on trades and transactions. I get when star players give major interviews to more nationally respected writers. Not only is it happening more and more today, it’s actually something that’s not all that new of a phenomenon. One could argue that it’s been happening since the early 80’s.
But with regards to the beer and chicken story that the Globe broke last year, the beat writers got their lunch eaten. These guys regularly pull the ‘I travel with the team 24-hours a day’ card in back and forth arguments. Yet, they didn’t see the brewing discord in the clubhouse, didn’t sense the poor behavior from players, didn’t see their expanding waistlines or any of it. These are men who get paid to stand around in rooms where other men stand around naked. You guys really mean to tell me you didn’t notice ANY of this stuff happening?
Now mind you, I’m not much into the beer and chicken narrative. In fact, I found the story kind of ridiculous. Poor pitching killed the Red Sox, not a lack of team spirit. Still, some reporters took exception to the idea that they’d get scooped on stories and pawned it off to a national trend – and in a general sense, they’re right. But not this one. In fact, it was what happened in the aftermath of the breaking of the story that was the most telling.
Not only did several beat writers contribute nothing to the breaking of the story itself, they excitedly jumped on the bandwagon after the fact, happily crushing players at will while liberally leaning on ‘unnamed sources’ to create pieces taking shots at everything from players’ character to their commitment to the game. We’re not talking about ‘man, he needs to figure out his swing because he sucks hard right now’ stories. We’re talking full-blown personal assaults on these players as people. Some might even call them hit-pieces.
As a result, it’s not hard to wonder why players don’t want to talk to the local media anymore. It’s too close and there’s too much risk. With newspaper numbers dwindling and an ever shrinking audience, there’s more pressure on journalists to perform now than ever before. When the steak doesn’t sizzle, reporters are making it sizzle. This, too has been happening for a long time, and players have caught on. So while it’s true that the move to national platforms has been happening forever due to shifts in technology, their disposition and relationships with players have deteriorated, too. That shouldn’t be ignored.
3.) Is it really too much to ask people not to act like total a-holes?
I remember back to last season to right before the trade deadline where Josh Beckett took the mound against the Detroit Tigers on July 31st. Beckett seemed to be dealing early on, striking out something like five of the first six Tigers he faced. In the top of the third, Beckett gave up a hit and then two walks before pointing to his back and being removed from the game with back spasms.
The fans responded in kind, booing him off the field and launching a torrid of completely over-the-top media criticism. The best might have come from 98.5’s Michael Felger, who launched into this completely insipid tirade:
“I’ve heard people say ‘well, you can’t boo him, he’s hurt,’ that’s not right to boo an injury, is that what we’re about, booing an injury? Let me tell you something Mazz and people of Boston. That wasn’t an injury. An injury is when you’re digging after a ball and you crash into the center field fence and separate your shoulder. An injury is when you’re digging hard around second base and something pops. That’s an injury. You know what that was last night Mazz? That was being out of shape. That’s not putting in the work. That’s conditioning. That is Mazz… they don’t trade him, a chance to make it a four game winning streak when you desperately need it, against their ace. Fresh start big guy, we’re sticking with you. We’re in the race, here’s the night, here’s the ball, here we go. And he taps out. He taps out in the third inning because he pulled his back fat? I give you Josh Beckett. I give you Josh Beckett. And you know what? You fans who were there at Fenway Park, bravo. You don’t listen to the Rob Bradfords of the world, and the beat writers on this team who obviously now, I think it’s pretty clear, don’t for whatever reason, give you the full story on these guys, and you don’t even really listen to people like me, you use your eyes. You use your eyes. Injuries are injuries. That’s not being ready to go. That’s being out of shape. This is another injury in a line of 10,000 nonsensical, preventable injuries by this particular pitcher. He quit. He tapped out of the game last night because he pulled his back fat. And are you going to sit there and cheer him? No no, you’re going to do the right thing. I commend you. I think that was excellent…”
“If you can’t boo that, then you just can’t boo anything. That is the poster child of what has gone on over there… Beckett: Overpaid, underachieving, entitled, out of shape. And beyond reach. That’s your 2011-12 Red Sox. That guy. That overweight, out of shape slug, that quit last night and tapped out of the game when they needed him the most, represents your team. Boo his ass back to Abilene Texas or wherever the hell he’s from. Boo him. Good job.”
The Beckett situation last year was so bad that it had deteriorated to the point where no matter what he did; he’d get hammered for it. Had he stayed in the game and been shelled (the likely scenario), it’d have been hours of Tony Massarotti’s grating Texas Tough Guy impersonations, accosting him and his ego for staying in the game and costing the Red Sox the win. Had he taken himself out… well, this. Back. Fat.
Thus the current state of the Boston media, where commentary has turned into a game of who can submerge themselves into the toilet bowl the deepest. Felger’s diatribe on Beckett wasn’t commentary; it was the continuation of a narrative with a pre-determined ending – one that would result with Felger presenting himself as morality’s savior and Josh Beckett as being a d-bag. It was over before it got started. Beckett never had a chance.
In fact Siegel’s piece might have summed this mentality up even better:
The prospect of shouting down a professional rival can be particularly enticing—how better to attract even more attention for yourself? “I don’t think people necessarily enter into it with that mindset, but nonetheless, if it starts down the hill, they’re like, ‘Fuck, this is a profitable undertaking,’” one Boston sportswriter told me. “Especially if you actually don’t like the person at the other end of it. And you’re like, ‘this is great. I get a megaphone to dump on this person I don’t like, and I get paid for it.’”
“You can quote that if you like,” the writer said, “but don’t attribute it to me, because I want my fucking appearance fees.”
Thus, the emerging parasitic nature of the sports media that seems to think their industry is more about them than the people they cover. The players on the field are no longer the stars of the show, commentators are.
I just hope they remember that acting like an a-hole might make people listen more, but at the end of the day, you’re still an a-hole.
4.) The aversion to advanced metrics should stop.
Let’s make this abundantly clear. The ‘debate’ over advanced metrics is over. The nerds won – by a lot. So much so that 30 MLB organizations use these tools as standard operating procedure to make decisions on a daily basis – both on the Baseball Operations side and the Business wing of their organizations. If you’re not employing them in your writing them or trying to at least gain a rudimentary understanding of them, then you’re doing your readers a disservice, especially when the whole point of your job is to analyze a professional sports team and the decisions they make. Simply put, it’s impossible to critique decision-making when you lack an understanding of the tools that were used to make that decision.
The biggest lie surrounding these new methods of measurement is that they’re complicated. Truth is – they’re not. In fact, they’re ridiculously simple to understand. To imply that newspaper readers or radio listeners can’t comprehend them is nonsense, especially when both mediums present their audiences with complex issues to grapple with every single day. Apparently we live in a world where murky morality tails are safe, but those with definitive, hard answers are too difficult for us to comprehend.
The simple fact is that metrics are such an important part of the sports landscape today that not talking about them is beginning to border on flat out irresponsibility. We have some that embrace them here in Boston. But a large part of the face of the Boston Sports Media – “The Lodge” as Spiegel used to explain Toucher & Rich’s view of them – don’t. It’s time for the papers to get with the times, but from the looks of subscription numbers, it’s fair to say the times are getting them. If they want to stay relevant much longer, they’ll have to evolve.
At the end of the day, Spiegel’s piece was far from perfect. There were some unfair generalizations. There was certainly a lack of introspection on some of the trends within the industry itself. But the overarching theme should be taken to heart, especially by the up and comers in the Boston Sports Media.
Our writers were once considered some of the most innovative, forward thinking in the country. I feel – strongly at that – that we can be that once again. But it’s going to take more than bloggers like me – and writers like Siegel to make it such. It’s going to take an effort on the part of writers within the system to help change it and make it awesome again.
Siegel’s piece wasn’t perfect, but it’s a strong first step in the right direction, faults and all.